Bryant in midst of uncertainty
It wouldn’t be a surprise if Kris Bryant has spent the entire offseason wondering where he will be playing in 2020. Everyone else has.
It has been the most talked-about Cubs rumor since he left town after the team’s late-season collapse, and when Bryant returns to Chicago for the Cubs Convention next weekend, his uncertain fate no doubt will be the primary topic of conversation during the three-day fan fest.
When you have won an MVP award at age 24, established yourself as one of the game’s biggest stars, helped end a 107-year championship drought and filled Wrigley Field on a near-daily basis, the news of your imminent departure is going to cause a little controversy.
But with spring training only one month away, team President Theo Epstein has yet to start swinging his reckoning ball, and Bryant remains Cubs property after agreeing Friday to a one-year, $18.6 million deal, avoiding arbitration.
It might be only temporary relief. Bryant and the Cubs await an arbitrator’s decision on the players union grievance over alleged service-time manipulation in 2015, which will decide whether he’s a free agent after 2020, as Bryant hopes, or 2021, as the collective bargaining agreement dictates.
Assuming he will have two more years before free agency, the Cubs should be able to pry a boatload of talent from any interested team, so the asking price reportedly is exceedingly high — as it should be. The Cubs aren’t exactly known for trading homegrown players of Bryant’s talent, mostly because they’ve seldom drafted and developed players who have succeeded as much as Bryant has over his first five seasons.
It wasn’t Epstein’s fault the Cubs traded Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio a couple of generations ago and never heard the end of it. But rest assured Epstein — and the Rickettses — never will hear the end of it if Bryant continues his Hall of Fame trajectory elsewhere and the return on the deal is Broglio-ian. Of course, if they let Bryant leave as a free agent for nothing, it would be even worse, so Epstein is between a rock and a hard place.
You would have to believe new manager David Ross has been lobbying Epstein to keep Bryant, his friend and former teammate, but Ross said at the winter meetings that he has to “try to look at the big picture” and take out the friendship part.
If that’s the case and Epstein doesn’t think Bryant will sign a reasonable contract extension, it makes sense to find out what the Cubs can get for the slugger now instead of waiting until the July 2021 trade deadline, when his value would drop significantly because he would be only a two-month rental.
“Obviously you want more guys like Kris Bryant on your team,” Ross said, adding that Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have to look at every option to “make this the best team they possibly can this year and long term.”
With no free-agent signings or trades, the Cubs have made less news this winter than the Lincoln Park coyote while remaining mostly out of sight. The only part of the so-called “reckoning” Epstein threatened has been the switch from Joe Maddon to Ross.
Perhaps that one move will be the difference between a good team that fell apart down the stretch the last two seasons and one that figures to contend in 2020 with the current core in place. No one on the Cubs will say that because it would be an indictment of Maddon’s laissez-faire managing style, which apparently grated on management in the aftermath of the 2016 championship.
But if the status quo on the field remains and the only big change is the manager, the only way to read it would be the Cubs believed addition by subtraction — discarding Maddon — was the only move needed.
There’s still time to make a deal, and the Bryant rumor won’t go away until, well, maybe it will be here as long as he remains a Cub without a long-term deal. It’s something he would have to deal with, and let’s face it — it’s a small price to pay for $18.6 million.
To Bryant’s credit, he’s not blowing off the Cubs Convention, at which he’ll have to answer endless questions about his uncertain future. He has been a stand-up player through thick and thin, which you can’t say about all of his teammates, much less the Rickettses, who once again won’t hold a question-and-answer session with fans, as they had done almost every year as owners until the 2019 convention.
Former general manager Jim Hendry used to make it a point to be accessible to the media and fans when the Cubs were awful and to be scarce when the team was winning. The Rickettses have taken the opposite approach, hiding from the difficult questions they know will be asked.
Maybe they can learn a lesson from Bryant before they dump him.
Third baseman Kris Bryant agreed to a one-year, $18.6 million deal with the Cubs.