A few weeks ago, Kris Bryant lost his grievance against the Cubs for manipulating his service time. The arbitrator, Mark Irvings, ruled that Bryant hadn’t proved that the Cubs held him down for nefarious reasons, essentially requiring a smoking gun, even though Irvings didn’t rule on whether teams have the right to manipulate service time if they so choose. As I wrote at the time, the decision essentially pushes any action on the question to the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, which expires at the end of the 2021 season. The result is that Bryant won’t become a free agent until after the 2021 season. The Cubs have yet to make any significant roster moves this offseason, and there are rumors, as there have been all winter, that Bryant could be dealt.
Over the weekend, Bryant emphasized to reporters that he bears no hard feelings against the Cubs:
I’ve always had the stance I want to play here, I love the city,” Bryant said.
The only thing that matters is what comes from my mouth, and never once have I said I never wanted to play here. … I’m always open to it, I’m always here to talk, it’s fun to talk about stuff like that. It’s a city that I love so much, people I love so much, fans, teammates, everybody here that I’m so comfortable with. Of course you want to be here. I don’t hold those cards.”
It’s the Cubs that hold those cards. Bryant’s statement comes on the heels of David Kaplan reporting that the Cubs were “absolutely motivated” to trade for Nolan Arenado. On the surface, trading Bryant makes little sense. He’s the Cubs’ best player, Chicago is expected to contend in 2020, and Bryant’s salary isn’t exorbitant at $18.6 million, roughly half the AAV Anthony Rendon just received in free agency. On the other hand, of the six Cubs making more than $15 million, Bryant is the only one with good trade value at the moment. If the Cubs are looking to make a change — and a change seems to be desired after a disappointing 84-win season that resulted in a new manager — trading Bryant is the most realistic option to move salary and get good, young talent in return. And based on the Rockies’ reports, Bryant might also provide an opportunity to actually upgrade at third base with a long term commitment. But first, a note about the competitive balance tax.
Last season, the Cubs’ payroll was roughly $243 million, well past the second competitive balance tax threshold. As a first-time offender, their penalty was roughly $9 million. As their payroll stands at roughly $214 million, their penalty this season would amount to around $2 million. Without spending or moving another dime, the Cubs have dropped about $36 million in payroll since last season, when their 3.1 million attendees ranked fourth in baseball; their average ticket price was the highest in the game. The Cubs are also ready to help launch a new television network that should take revenues much higher, though they have had some carriage problems early on. The Cubs did spend more money than expected on Wrigley renovations, but those were financed by selling minority shares in the team and shouldn’t impact year-to-year operations. While the Cubs sit just $6 million over the first competitive balance tax threshold and would like to get under, they will have another opportunity to do so next season, as even with arbitration raises and expected options, the Cubs’ commitments amount to under $180 million. That includes an expected $25 million salary for Bryant, so if the Cubs want to wait a year to get under the CBT, despite the limited benefits of doing so, they can if they choose, and with Bryant on the roster.
If we want to compare Bryant’s trade and on-field value to that of Mookie Betts, a survey I published last month had the two pretty close in trade value in the eyes of our readers. That seems about right considering Betts was about two wins better than Bryant this year. But Bryant has a lower salary plus another year of team control at something close to Betts’ $27 million 2020 salary. Trading Betts netted one 50-FV prospect in Jeter Downs, a former back-end 50-FV prospect with off-field and injury concerns in Alex Verdugo, a utility prospect in Connor Wong, and something close to $20 million in salary relief, given the team only had to pay half of the $96 million owed to David Price.
It certainly appears that the Red Sox limited their trading partners by putting Price in the deal, though they also got it sweetened when they balked at the medicals of Brusdar Graterol. In any event, it seems like two good-but-not-great prospects is probably the foundation of any potential deal, though that Arenado rumor is also worth exploring.
At first blush, the Cubs acquiring Arenado for Bryant looks difficult to pull off given the Cubs’ apparent preference to dump salary. According to Kaplan, a deal might include a prospect from the Cubs and cash from the Rockies. That’s a somewhat curious setup given that Bryant should have a little more trade value than Arenado (our readers thought so) due to the opt-out clause that complicates any Arenado trade and nullifies most of the star’s value in a deal. For a team trading prospects for Arenado, waiving the opt-out for some additional cash makes the most sense, but in trading Bryant, who will be a free agent after 2021, that might not be required by Chicago. The Rockies could offset the risk by offering contingent cash — like the Marlins did when trading Giancarlo Stanton — and agreeing to kick in $5 million per year over the final five years of Arenado’s contract if he doesn’t opt out, which would lessen his tax salary to just under $29 million. The Cubs couldn’t get under the tax threshold in 2020, but they would have an opportunity to do so in 2021 with Arenado’s salary not much different from Bryant’s expected arbitration award. In that scenario, adding one of the Cubs’ decent prospects could make sense to finish a deal.
But any trade is going to get more difficult to complete as players arrive for spring training and teams get attached to what they have. Here are a few other options for the Cubs:
- Rangers: Texas could certainly use Bryant, but they don’t really have much to offer to entice the Cubs to make a deal. However, Bryant plus Jason Heyward and half his contract would mirror the Betts/Price deal and allow the Rangers to give up less on the prospect side.
- Braves: Atlanta lost Josh Donaldson to free agency and pivoted to Marcell Ozuna. The team has increased salary but likely is still cost-conscious. Moving Ender Inciarte in a Bryant trade would still add more than $10 million to the Braves’ payroll but might make a deal possible with Austin Riley and Kyle Wright or Bryse Wilson heading to Chicago as well. Adding three players ready for the big leagues would let the Cubs still compete without Bryant in 2020 while also getting younger and cheaper in the process.
- Phillies: Alec Bohm might not be able to handle third base in the majors, and with Rhys Hoskins locked in at first long-term, a Bryant for Bohm plus Nick Pivetta package would give the Cubs a well-known prospect plus a flier on a starter/reliever with talent in Pivetta. The Cubs would have to believe in Bohm as a third baseman and either be willing to let Anthony Rizzo go or be certain that the DH is imminent in the NL to make this deal possible. All of which to say, it isn’t likely.
- Nationals: If the Cubs want young pitching, they aren’t likely to get it from the Nationals, who don’t have a strong farm system. The only real possibility is a one-for-one swap of top prospect Carter Kieboom for Bryant, as the Nationals need all the other young talent — like Victor Robles — currently on the roster.
- Padres: If the Padres were in on Betts, they can be in on Bryant, who can play the outfield. San Diego would likely want to include Wil Myers in any deal and would probably need to pay down about half of the more than $60 million he is still owed, which would also negate nearly all his salary for tax purposes. It should also greatly increase the prospect cost, but given that MacKenzie Gore and Luis Patiño are likely not available, it’s hard to see a match.
- Angels: The team was trying for Joc Pederson in a smaller deal so they clearly aren’t completely averse to adding another outfielder despite the presence of Mike Trout and Justin Upton, and the eventual arrival of Jo Adell. Bryant isn’t a part-time player like Pederson so it is a little more difficult to piece together a trade without including Upton, which wouldn’t make much sense.
- Rays: This one might be my favorite. Tampa Bay would need to include Kevin Kiermaier, but they have a host of prospects in the back half of the Top 100, and two of those players plus more of the club’s envious prospect depth outside of the Top 100 could make a deal workable for both sides. Tampa Bay’s payroll might get to $100 million, but their lack of salary commitments beyond 2020 might it make worthwhile to go for it with Bryant over the next few years.
The Cubs still seem more likely to start the season with Bryant as their third baseman than not, but the end of the service time grievance coupled with the Betts deal cleared the path for a trade and established a comparable value. The Cubs aren’t likely to get a great prospect for Bryant, but they could get a couple of good ones. It’s hard to believe the Cubs might ignore their current window of contention, and maybe that’s where an Arenado deal makes sense. The Cubs are likely better, in the short- and long-term, with Kris Bryant as the team’s starting third baseman, but the rumors are too many not to explore the possibility of him in another uniform.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.