You’re going to grow as tired of hearing it as I am of writing it, but it’s the necessary framing for all these conversations: since we don’t know what attendance and revenues will look like next year, it’s pretty hard to surmise what the baseball budget is going to be next year.
For that reason, if no others, even the folks who are as plugged in as it gets are going to have to leave hugely important topics wide open as we enter the offseason:
By laying off 100-plus employees in recent weeks, the Cubs have already told us what their approach to this offseason will be. Any big payroll addition would almost certainly correspond with a big salary subtraction. Maybe that means trading Kris Bryant and offloading the roughly $20 million that he stands to make through his final year of arbitration.
The Cubs wouldn’t non-tender Bryant, right? That would be an embarrassment for the Cubs and a bad indicator of the game’s overall health. Bryant could aim for the one-year guarantee that Josh Donaldson got from the Atlanta Braves prior to the 2019 season ($23 million) or request the kind of opt-out clause that Nick Castellanos can use after his first year with the Cincinnati Reds. This worst-case scenario would be a colossal waste of talent, a disappointing ending for a homegrown MVP who will be extremely motivated next season. The idea also probably can’t be totally dismissed out of hand because the Cubs have shown us how they are managing the downturn.
That’s a part of the latest from Sahadev Sharma and Patrick Mooney at The Athletic (well, plus me, as the Donaldson concept came from one of our recent podcast episodes of ‘Onto Waveland’), and it provides context for just how (1) uncertain the financial state of the game/the Cubs, and (2) critical the decision is on Kris Bryant, specifically.
To the extent the Cubs front office absolutely, unequivocally had to pare payroll 30% from last year – an arbitrarily-selected figure, but chosen because it’s a massive drop – they could accomplish it entirely by non-tendering Bryant and signing no one this offseason. Bryant’s expected 2021 salary is the biggest chunk that is not currently guaranteed and could just go away if the Cubs got desperate enough.
Let me be clear: that’s a brutal offseason. But the point is that the Bryant tender decision could wind up, in isolation, being the central thing for the financial component of the Cubs’ offseason. Thinking about the player, his importance to the organization over the last six years, and his upside … boy does that suck. It sucks that circumstances and a very down season and some injuries have all conspired to make non-tendering Kris freaking Bryant even a conversation. But it is.
The fact that it’s a conversation now makes it all the more likely that the primary focus of the next month for the Cubs is going to be to find a trade partner that wants Bryant for one year at his expected arbitration salary of $19-$20 million-ish. In a normal environment, even coming off a down year, the Donaldson example illustrates that Bryant would definitely have some meaningful trade value. But when every team is gonna be trying to cut salary? It’s a tall ask to take on $20 million AND give up a quality return. (That’s why I tend to think if Bryant is traded, it’s probably not going to be for impact prospects. Instead, it could be for some big league piece(s), maybe that have a smaller salary, and maybe that are controllable for longer but need even more of a bounce-back/breakthrough.)
Your only real alternative here is the sides getting together on an extension – backloaded to accommodate the financial situation, but large enough to justify Bryant not wanting a chance to bounce back in 2021 before hitting the market. I tend to think that’s pretty darn unlikely on both sides, though. Again, it sucks that the most realistic outcome in all of this is Bryant departing this offseason rather than signing an extension, but that’s where things are.
So, then, we circle back to the possibility that, if trade talks prove futile over the next month, the Cubs will have to decide to either drop a huge chunk of salary (and reap the risk that Bryant has a tremendous 2021 season – not exactly far-fetched!), or to keep one of their best players and “risk” the cost.
As we sit here today, my gut says the Cubs will work very hard to trade Bryant for whatever they can get, and failing that before the December 2 tender deadline, they will tender Bryant a contract. That might mean the offseason is just as slow and tight as ever, but the potential for Bryant to be great in 2021 – either in a competitive year, or as a trade candidate at the Deadline – is too significant to just give him away for nothing. Yes, even knowing that the budget may have to be squeezed in other places.