Kris Bryant was the hero Chicago needed.
The ascent of the Chicago Cubs' third baseman and outfielder was quick but expected for a player of his caliber. Bryant won the Golden Spikes Award as the nation's top college player in 2013 coming out of the University of San Diego. He was the Cubs' minor league player of the year in 2014, the NL Rookie of the Year in 2015 and the NL MVP in 2016, the same year he helped the team break their 108-year World Series drought.
He was billed a hero from the minute he was drafted by the Cubs and he made good on that potential.
But now he has the potential to play the same role for another team this season.
Chicago is looking like a seller as the July 30 trade deadline approaches. As of Thursday, the Cubs are 44-46 and 8.0 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central. The club traded outfielder Joc Pederson to the Atlanta Braves on Thursday night, further fueling rumors of the impending fire sale that have dogged the team since the winter because of the club's failures to lock up key members of its core long-term.
First baseman Anthony Rizzo made it known that he was done negotiating a contract in April. Shortstop Javier Baez turned down a nine-figure deal ahead of the 2020 season and there has been no progress made with the team regarding his future past 2021.
Bryant came to terms with the team on a one-year deal prior to the 2021 season, following the advice of agent Scott Boras to opt for yearly pay increases instead of a long-term contract while still under team control.
President of Baseball Operations Jed Hoyer all but said the Cubs are looking ahead at a future that probably doesn't include the homegrown trio.
"When you're in this moment and your playoff odds get into single digits at this time of year, you have to keep one eye on the future and think about what moves you can potentially make that can help build the next great Cubs team," Hoyer told reporters before the All-Star break. "I think you have to think through those things. I think it'd be irresponsible not to take those phone calls and think through it."
Should the Cubs trade Bryant? From a pure player standpoint, the answer is no. The 29-year-old Bryant effectively rebounded from the worst season of his career to put up All-Star numbers this year. He went into the break slashing .273/.353/.502 with a 0.854 OPS and 16 home runs. A player like that could be influential in helping the Cubs put together a few winning streaks that would allow them to climb back into the NL Wild Card race. Chicago is 7.5 games behind the San Diego Padres for the second Wild Card spot, which isn't an unrealistic amount of games to make up.
Hoyer said the club isn't looking to undergo an entire rebuild as it did in 2012. He wants the team to be able to contend again within a few years. Locking up Bryant to a multi-year contract would allow Chicago to retool quickly instead of undergoing an entire rebuild. The club could bring in some pieces to build around Bryant instead of alienating the fanbase by trading away the best player and creating discord between the team and the public.
Sounds nice, right? It's a romantic notion to think Bryant might want to keep playing for the only team he's ever known. But it's too romantic and probably unrealistic.
The Cubs have been inconsistent and streaky. A 19-8 record in May had the Cubs in good position to become buyers. Even midway through June when the team had won six of seven, including five straight, the team looked like it had saved the front office from having to trade away any of its stars.
But then they lost 11 straight. They went 2-8 over the final 10 games before the All-Star break. Fangraphs gave the Cubbies a 4.0 percent chance to reach the playoffs at the All-Star mark.
The rumors were swirling in Denver at the midsummer classic.
Bryant, one of two Cubs selected to the NL All-Star Team (closer Craig Kimbrel was also named an All-Star), couldn't even dodge them while he was playing in the actual game, with Joe Buck asking him about them while he was wearing a microphone for the FOX broadcast. Bryant's father, Mike, was not happy about this.
Even Kimbrel couldn't escape the trade rumors. The closer has returned to old form and his contract has an option for 2022, as does pitcher Jake Arrieta and outfielders Jake Marisnick and Joc Pederson. The Cubs have a lot of tradable assets that could return some players who are big league-ready, if not close to it, that would fit his timeline of contention within the next few years.
So, if Hoyer thinks a reset is in order, then yes, he should absolutely trade Bryant, Rizzo, Baez and Kimbrel. Pricey rentals? Absolutely, so it might be more difficult to trade Rizzo and Baez. But Bryant brings tremendous value and versatility between his bat and his defense at multiple positions. If the club can't figure out a way to keep him past this season, then trade him and start the retool.
The New York Yankees need corner outfield help. The New York Mets need a third baseman more defensively sound than J.D. Davis. The Washington Nationals haven't received much production out of the third base position since Anthony Rendon left after the 2019 season and the Cubs' divisional rivals in Milwaukee could use an upgrade at the position as well.
What would a trade for Bryant look like? Manny Machado's move to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2018 netted the Baltimore Orioles a package of five prospects centered around minor league outfielder Yusniel Diaz. None of those players have become productive major leaguers yet.
That risk is always there when trading a player, but Hoyer would be wise not to follow in the footsteps of former Orioles general manager Dan Duquette or former Colorado Rockies GM Jeff Bridich, who traded third baseman Nolan Arenado to the St. Louis Cardinals for what is largely viewed to be a subprime package of prospects.
Get major league-caliber players and a third baseman back in return.
If Bryant was going to sign an extension, he probably already would have by now. The fact that no deals were reached with Bryant, Rizzo or Baez is telling, but it's not completely surprising. This is the same club that manipulated Bryant's service time in 2015 to be able to get another year out of him. Now they've squandered that season.
It's the end of an era in Chicago. Bryant gets to go try to play the role of hero for someone else now.