Burning Questions on What's Next for the Cubs and Kris Bryant Amid Trade Rumors
Remember the grievance Bryant filed in 2015, in which he and agent Scott Boras alleged that the Cubs had improperly manipulated his service time? According to Jeff Passan of ESPN, that matter has finally been resolved with a ruling in favor of the Cubs.
Had Bryant been the beneficiary of the ruling, he would have been eligible for free agency after this season. But as has been expected all along, the 28-year-old third baseman will now have to wait until after 2021 to hit the open market.
So, what happens next? Are the 2016 National League MVP and the Cubs now on bad terms? Will the rumors circling around Bryant actually lead to a trade? And if yes, to whom and for what?
Let's address these questions (and more) one at a time.
Where Does Bryant's Relationship with the Cubs Stand Now?
From the outside looking in, one can't help but wonder how Bryant really feels about his situation.
He was the Cubs' No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft, and he'd made himself into a consensus top-five prospect by 2015. By going off for a 1.652 OPS and nine home runs that spring, he only made it more obvious that he belonged in Chicago as soon as possible.
The Cubs nonetheless sent him down to Triple-A for the start of the '15 campaign, and they ultimately waited to promote him until one day after he had a shot at accruing a full season of service time in the majors. The delay ostensibly had to do with his defense, but the Cubs' real intention was clearly to stretch their control over Bryant from six years to seven.
By the time Bryant reaches free agency after 2021, he'll be coming off his age-29 season and due to turn 30 before the 2022 campaign. It would be understandable if he already has concerns about how such things could hinder his long-term earning power.
For now, though, Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer told ESPN's Jesse Rogers there's "no animosity whatsoever" between Bryant and the team. Likewise, Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times heard from a source close to Bryant that he harbors "no ill will whatsoever."
That would indicate that Bryant isn't so annoyed with the Cubs that he's about to demand a trade. However, that doesn't necessarily mean they won't trade him anyway.
Did a Bryant Trade Just Become Inevitable?
Even before a ruling on his grievance materialized, Bryant was already a popular figure on the rumor mill.
To wit, Passan reported ahead of Major League Baseball's winter meetings in December that the Cubs were "aggressive," "manic," "motivated" and "obvious" with their efforts to trade one of their core stars. Despite the Rookie of the Year, MVP and three All-Star honors in his collection, Bryant wasn't excluded from consideration.
His grievance did, however, add a layer of uncertainty to his trade value. Though he was officially under club control for two more seasons, the possibility of his free agency being bumped up threatened to turn him into a mere rental target.
Now that it's been confirmed he won't reach free agency until after 2021, the Cubs might conclude that there's no hurry to move Bryant. Indeed, there's nothing stopping them from keeping him in hopes that he can be a central part of contending teams during each of the next two seasons.
There is, however, also the reality that the Cubs stand to get under the $208 million luxury-tax threshold for 2020 by cutting Bryant's $18.6 million salary. The clarification of his free-agency timeline could also broaden his field of suitors, which could, in turn, make the Cubs more willing to cash him in now.
This doesn't mean a trade is imminent, but the pieces are certainly in place for talks to pick up steam.
Is the Bryant-for-Nolan Arenado Rumor Plausible?
There's a trade possibility in the air right now that's arguably one for the "That's Just Outlandish Enough to Work!" file.
During a recent radio appearance on ESPN 1000, Rogers said (via Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors) that the Cubs had "discussed a one-for-one deal" with the Colorado Rockies in which Bryant would go to Denver in exchange for fellow third baseman Nolan Arenado.
Such a deal would outfit the Cubs with a nice upgrade at third base. Arenado has accumulated 5.8 more wins above replacement than Bryant since 2015, according to Baseball Reference. As a bonus, he would also come with a long-term contract that could keep him in Chicago through 2025.
For their part, the Rockies would spare themselves from the $234 million remaining on Arenado's deal. In the meantime, having Bryant at third base would keep their hopes of contending in the near future alive.
Yet there are myriad hurdles in the way of this deal actually happening. A couple of them have to do with how Arenado's contract includes a full no-trade clause and an opt-out after 2021. There's also the matter of how taking on the remainder of his money does or doesn't mesh with the Cubs' apparent payroll constraints.
So rather than ridiculous enough to work, this idea is probably just plain ridiculous.
What Might a Bryant Trade Actually Look Like?
If not a fellow superstar who could step right into his shoes at third base, what else might the Cubs seek in a trade of Bryant?
They would presumably prioritize controllable talent—and as much of it as they could get. For instance, David O'Brien of The Athletic tweeted in December that "2 pitching prospects and a bat would get it done."
That's not an unreasonable ask for two years' worth of a player who has a star-caliber floor and MVP-caliber upside. It would also fit the Cubs' needs as the bat would account for the loss of Bryant and the two arms would shore up their weak collection of young pitching.
If they fail to trade for 2018 American League MVP Mookie Betts, the Los Angeles Dodgers could potentially pivot to Bryant. They almost certainly wouldn't part with uber-prospect Gavin Lux, but the Cubs might pry loose young outfielder Alex Verdugo and at least one of Los Angeles' well-regarded pitching prospects: Dustin May, Josiah Gray and Tony Gonsolin.
In light of their Josh Donaldson-sized hole at third base, the Atlanta Braves are another talent-rich club that could make a run at Bryant. Ditto for the San Diego Padres, so long as they were to go at him with the idea of playing him in right field. Though their prospect stash isn't as deep, the Texas Rangers might also get in on him.
What Are the Long-Term Consequences of the Grievance Ruling?
The ruling on Bryant's grievance has more than just trade implications. It also has labor implications.
Though the Padres (Fernando Tatis Jr. and Chris Paddack) and New York Mets (Pete Alonso) went against the grain last spring, service-time manipulation has nonetheless taken hold as a signature issue for players. It's not anything new, per se, but it's easier to notice and more nefarious amid the league's current environment.
Said environment is defined by an increasingly youthful base of stars and, in turn, a widespread wariness on the part of teams to spend on veteran free agents. Because it delays players' debuts and extends their club control, service-time manipulation is, therefore, a means for teams to save money in the short and long term.
Of course, Bryant's case shows how difficult it is for a player to actually prove his service time was unduly manipulated. So rather than on the grievance process, Evan Drellich of The Athletic reported that the MLB Players Association's response might be to focus on changes to the collective bargaining agreement.
The union might simply push to decrease how many days in the majors qualify as a "season." An even more radical approach would be to advocate for free agency to be determined not by time served in the majors, but by age.
In any case, this fight isn't over.