The first thing broke late on Friday, so you may have missed it, but there’s already a pretty significant rumor connecting the Washington Nationals to Kris Bryant. Not that it should surprise you, given that there was months-long reported interest last year, and given the obvious hole the Nationals face at third base (combined with a diminishing window to take advantage of having Scherzer-Strasburg-Corbin).
So, today’s updates won’t surprise you either, but they do add further billows of smoke.
The Cubs are engaged in trade discussions on many of their players, in part because several are entering their walk years, in part because club officials want to change up the mix. The Ricketts’ directive on payroll, however, will largely determine the team’s course.
The biggest question, at the moment, is what the Cubs will do with third baseman Kris Bryant, who is projected to earn $18.6 million in arbitration following his injury-marred, career-worst season.
A non-tender for the 2016 National League MVP seems unthinkable; Bryant had a .912 OPS from 2016 to ’19, offers defensive versatility and will play next season at age 29. But what if teams decline to offer sufficient value in a trade, essentially daring the Cubs to make Bryant a free agent?
Such a strategy would be risky for any club that actually wants Bryant, and the Nationals are among those interested, as first reported by MLB.com’s Jon Paul Morosi. Agent Scott Boras would dismiss Bryant’s lackluster 2020 as an aberration, similar to those other players experienced in the shortened, pandemic-ridden season, and seek full value on the open market.
Increasingly, it feels like Bryant is not going to be a legit non-tender candidate, and he will have SOME marginal value on the trade market. That doesn’t mean the Cubs will move him before the December 2 non-tender deadline (I’m sure they’d prefer to, though), because teams like the Nationals still might be willing to call any Cubs bluff and wait to see what they do. But as Rosenthal points out, it’s not as if the Cubs *couldn’t* tell the Nationals, hey, times are extraordinarily tight, and we might have to non-tender Bryant if we can do some other things. So if you want him before he hits free agency, you just need to send us a little something, and soon.
Meanwhile, C.J. Nitkowski was on MLB Network Radio talking about the Nationals’ needs, and sure enough, he also brings up Bryant:
— MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM (@MLBNetworkRadio) November 23, 2020
A lot of this is dot-connecting, but with multiple reports of interest, those dots become all the more obvious. The Nationals have a strong need at third base. The Nationals might be particularly interested in a short-term fit. The Nationals have a particularly good relationship with Scott Boras. The Cubs aren’t realistically expecting a huge return for Bryant. The Cubs might be best off taking a post-hype big leaguer in a Bryant deal instead of a middling package of meh prospects. The Nationals have two post-hype big leaguers who could appeal to the Cubs, Victor Robles and Carter Kieboom. (Again, I’m not saying the Cubs could get both in a deal like this.)
Say what you will of the merits of trading Bryant for a post-hype, change-of-scenery guy versus just hanging onto Bryant for one more year – I’m very open to those debates. But what you can’t argue at this point is that if the Cubs have decided they must move Bryant, the Nationals are probably one of the best realistic fits out there.
From the Cubs’ perspective, there is an interesting angle, too, because the Nationals have not one but TWO of the post-hype types I’ve been talking about as a possible fit for a Bryant deal. That is to say, Bryant’s trade value at this point – because of the down 2020 season, the injury questions, and, most importantly, a single year of control at ~ $20M – is sufficiently low that you aren’t going to get a package of impact prospects for him.
Instead, if you were aiming for a young, controlled return in a Bryant deal, it is going to be for guys who’ve gotten a chance in the big leagues, and have shown their warts. The two Nationals I reference, then, are center fielder Victor Robles and infielder Carter Kieboom.
Robles, 23, was a tip-top prospect for a long time, exploded onto the scene in 2018 with 21 brilliant games at just 21 years old. He slipped to below average offensively in 2019, but the glove was still great in center field. Last year, in the shortened season, however, he was just terrible all around:
Robles’s final year pre-arbitration is 2021, so for as much hype and value as there was early on (we REALLY wanted him last year in a Bryant deal if it was going to happen), there are now considerably more questions about just how much value he’d have in trade. Hence, “post-hype.”
Kieboom, 23, is in a similar spot, though unlike Robles, he’s never shown it in the big leagues, and is more of a pure projection prospect (if he has projection left):
Kieboom was given a shot this year to really grab an infield job and run with it, but it didn’t happen. He’s capable of playing any infield spot, and given his youth and control, the Nationals might be less inclined to move him at this point. But there’s no question that doubt has creeped in about whether he’s going to become a big-league-caliber starting position player going forward, or just a nice bench piece.
At their current level, neither Robles or Kieboom is going to knock your socks off. That’s kind of the point when it comes to where Bryant’s value is. But each does offer talent you could dream on, and maybe they turn a corner in another organization.
To be sure, I’m not saying the Cubs could get BOTH for Bryant at this point (they were rumored as pieces (plus more) in a trade for Nolan Arenado). And it’s conceivable that the Nationals wouldn’t move either one at this point. But I’m just saying: when you talk about the mold of a guy the Cubs could get for Bryant and try to reshape the offense a bit, this is the kind of deal you’re looking at.