Kris Bryant is the story of the spring. The Cubs top prospect — and baseball’s top prospect, by most accounts — won’t stop launching home runs. It’s nearly the end of March, and he still has an OPS that begins with a 2. But that’s only part of the Kris Bryant story, as most of the attention has revolved around the fact that the he’s likely to begin the year in the minor leagues. The Cubs are using necessary defensive improvements as their cover, but it’s an open secret that they’re simply responding to the incentives set for in the Collective Bargaining Agreement; by keeping Bryant in the minors for a couple of weeks, they’ll retain his rights for the 2021 season.
While it won’t be a popular decision, it’s clearly the correct one. They are in essence trading roughly 10 games of 2015 value in exchange for a full season of Bryant in his prime, and while the Cubs clearly want to win this year, no player is so great that missing 10 games would meaningfully alter a team’s expected results. Even Mike Trout, clearly the best player in baseball, is only expected to add about half a win to his team’s ledger every 10 games, and Bryant is no Mike Trout. Even an optimistic projection for Bryant would have him adding maybe a quarter of a win to the Cubs season total if he started in the big leagues versus being held down for a few weeks. Baseball isn’t basketball; one guy only matters so much.
But while the rules clearly incentivize the Cubs to hold Bryant down for a couple of weeks, there is a point at which the present-for-future trade-off would no longer make sense, especially for a contending team. Let’s try to figure out where that point might be.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.