On Friday, ESPN’s Buster Olney reported the Cubs are open to trading star third baseman Kris Bryant as part of cost-control measures this offseason, so naturally people went into a frenzy dismissing the rumor or figuring out ways it could actually happen. When your nickname is “Sparkle Jesus”, beloved by fans, there’s going to be some attention paid to a rumor of this magnitude.
While a Bryant trade remains unlikely, it is an interesting case study for the state of the Cubs right now and why it’s believable at all. Bryant won’t be a free agent until 2021 and was a big part of their 2016 World Series, winning the NL MVP that year as well, so why are they (allegedly) quick to gauge interest in swapping him for cheaper parts? Let’s see what makes sense and what’s heavy speculation.
Background on Kris Bryant and the Cubs
Calling the relationship between Bryant and Cubs “fractured” might be putting it lightly, yet we can’t actually be sure how the current relationship stands between Bryant’s camp and the Cubs in 2018. Chicago held him in the minors until mid-April in 2015, manipulating his service time and pushing his free agency back a year. A common, and constantly frustrating, practice for fans and players alike.
Bryant and his agent Scott Boras filed a grievance with the league but nothing came of it. Then-GM Jed Hoyer said of it “Obviously, we feel like we were in the right, but I’m not going to comment on the case or open this back up.” Then, this year, when hitting coach Chili Davis left the organization he said:
“ ... certain players there are going to have to make some adjustments, because the game’s changed, and pitchers are pitching them differently. They’re not pitching to launch angles and fly balls and all that anymore. They’re pitching away from that ... They’re going to have to make that adjustment whether I’m there or not.”
There’s no way to know whether this is specifically about Bryant or not or if it was, how much of an impact any friction there had on his relationship with the rest of the organization. It also shouldn’t really matter now, since Davis is gone. Even with various points when Bryant might not have been the most happy camper, it’s not like he’s publicly tried to force a trade in the time since nor have they tested the waters specifically on him. So the status quo is obviously good enough for both sides.
How serious are the Cubs about this trade strategy?
The rumor stemmed from nebulous “sources” naturally, but the Cubs brass has made public comments about their willingness to trade stars before this particular instance. At GM Meetings this week, Theo Epstein explained,
“We’ve never operated with untouchables. It sends the wrong message. Given what we’re trying to accomplish, it would be virtually impossible to envision the deal that would make sense to move them. I just don’t believe in untouchables. Why limit yourself?”
With that logic yes, Bryant is available for trade. But then so is Anthony Rizzo, and Javy Baez, and Yu Darvish, and Jon Lester. So the Cubs trying to trade Bryant isn’t any more accurate a rumor than if it were related to any of these other players. Serious about everyone being available? Yes. Serious about Bryant specifically heading out of town? Probably not.
Why the Cubs would think about trading Bryant
Just because it’s incredibly unlikely to happen doesn’t mean there’s no chance. Or that there’s no reasoning (however slim) why it could.
One big reason is that he’s most likely never going to sign an extension in Chicago. Past overtures from the Cubs to strike a new deal have failed. His open market value, combined with their relationship and the fact Bryant already has a World Series ring so has nothing left to prove in Chicago, means he would be smart to look elsewhere and cash in two seasons from now.
He’s estimated to make $12.4 million in arbitration in 2019, according to MLB Trade Rumors, which is a pittance compared to what he’ll get in free agency and what his production is worth to the team. Through his first three seasons with the team, he hit .288/.388/.527 with 94 home runs, 274 RBI, and a 141 OPS+. In his injury-shortened 2018 he hit .272/.374/.460 with 13 home runs and a 119 OPS+ in 102 games.
If the Cubs were to think about trading that type of asset away, other teams would be happy to take it on in an instant.
Logical trade partners
Which other teams though? Just because this report is probably a big ol’ pile of nothing spun out of more nothing and one GM quote doesn’t mean we can’t think about it a bit. It would take a haul to get Bryant away from the Cubs even if they were serious about the prospect of parting with him.
The Cardinals have Jedd Gyorko at third and the pieces to make it happen with a bench of prospects to use as trade chips and roster players they could part with as well. A St. Louis — Chicago trade has the whole “intense rivalry” thing to get past so it’s not a perfect fit but that’s about as likely as Bryant being available anyway.
In Tampa, the Rays have the young talent to make a deal like this happen and have had interest in Josh Donaldson to bolster the left side of their infield. If they thought they had a shot at upgrading Matt Duffy to Kris Bryant they’d be a team who shouldn’t hesitate to make an offer. With Mike Zunino already added, they’re making moves for 2019 and have the assets to work something out if they thought they could make a splash in the tough AL East with a huge move.
Other teams around the league eyeing the third basemen available — like the Phillies, Braves, Mets and Angels checking out Josh Donaldson’s price — could easily be slotted into a Kris Bryant situation as well. Of those the Braves and Angels are less likely as they are focusing more on free agency acquisitions and keeping their valued prospects, opting for trades only for mid-tier additions or in-season help.
This is almost certainly not happening
The logic of cost control measures just doesn’t make sense right now, no matter how you spin it. The Cubs are still squarely in their contending window and have a team of young, mostly affordably stars they can try and win again with and have a realistic shot of doing just that.
They’ll definitely have to start prioritizing who to pay in free agency and who to let go, and that might very well include Bryant down the line, but a trade right now is nonsensical. Especially if, as the ESPN report claims, the Cubs’ only legitimate plan to replace him is with David Bote. Which is funny because David Bote is a fine backup but nowhere close to a Kris Bryant replacement.
Every offseason has a handful of rumors that aren’t quite made up but are ... definitely embellished to the point that we can even call them a rumor. This seems to be one of those, and it would be surprising if it went any further than this. There is at least a path you could see it happening though.