With the Mookie Betts trade consummated (and a monster, at that), a lot of the national baseball attention is going to turn to the Cubs and Kris Bryant, as though it is only a natural consequence of the Betts trade that now there will be movement on Bryant.
I get it, I’m fine with people wanting to have those discussions, but without the same level of long-term, serious talks that the Red Sox had been having with the Dodgers and Padres for weeks, it’s very hard to see a trade for Bryant coming together in the week before players report to Spring Training.
Indeed, the early national commentary offers no indication that those kinds of serious, ongoing talks have been happening with the Cubs:
As for Kris Bryant rumors out there, there is to this point no talk between the Cubs and Braves about the star 3B
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) February 5, 2020
— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) February 5, 2020
Obviously we’ll track the rumors – obsessively – over the coming days and weeks as the news warrants, but I don’t want to give people the expectation that it’s “OK, Mookie trade is done, now Bryant is going to be traded next.” I think now it’s far, far more likely that Bryant is on the Cubs’ Opening Day roster.
And given how everything this offseason has played out, that’s almost certainly the outcome you should be rooting for as we sit here today.
It’s been the worst-kept secret in the sport that the Cubs would very much like to get under the luxury tax in 2020, and, at present have not yet done so. Depending on your calculator of preference, the Cubs are still projected to be a click or two over the $208 million luxury tax for 2020, and that’s before you would consider any in-season additions or bonuses accrued. From here, the Cubs probably have to drop at least $6 to $10 million in AAV salary to get and stay under the luxury tax.
There was a time when trading Bryant ($18.6 million) was arguably the best method to get under the luxury tax because it presented a unique opportunity to accomplish that goal while also adding significant pieces for the future when Bryant (and others) might depart in free agency, and would also create enough flexibility *this* year to supplement the roster in free agency while staying under the luxury tax. The needle-threading stuff.
But here’s the problem: with the Bryant service time grievance taking longer than free agency, and with potential trade partners filling up their rosters in other ways, a whole lot of what made shopping Bryant this offseason a palatable idea has now faded. Getting a huge return for Bryant – necessary to stomach a deal – seems a lot less likely now than it would have in December. Supplementing the roster in free agency after Bryant is dealt, too, is like … who? Who is out there that the Cubs could sign to seriously impact 2020 and try to keep a Bryant-less roster competitive?
That is all to say, while I remain open-minded about a Bryant trade this offseason, it has become very difficult for me to see (1) a realistic trade happening that I think is too good to pass up; and (2) the Cubs additionally making moves in the waning days of the offseason that lead me to believe the Cubs are, at most, only slightly less competitive overall than they would have been if they’d just kept Bryant.
If you can’t do both of those things at this point, then you’re best off just trying to get under the luxury tax in some other way, keeping the band together, and seeing where things stand in July. Maybe the team looks competitive, and you’re OK with the looming threat of a post-2021 cliff (despite the fact that the Cubs did nothing to really push in for 2020). Maybe the team stinks, and you’re OK with a soft-reboot sell-off at the Trade Deadline (despite the fact that the Cubs assumed a boatload of risk in that approach).
“Let’s just see what happens.”
It is the kind of status quo, no-addition, middle-road approach that I would have taken a huge dump on back in November, and it is no less deserving of a dump today. Dump away.
But the way the offseason played out – with the Cubs hamstrung by the service time grievance process, by their own financial dictates, and by their inability to develop young talent after 2016 – they are left with only bad choices at this point. And the best of those bad choices is probably status quo and a lot of hope. Something something ghost of seasons yet to come.