Bryant in midst of un­cer­tainty

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - TOP OF THE SECOND - Paul Sul­li­van

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.

JOHN J. KIM/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Third base­man Kris Bryant agreed to a one-year, $18.6 mil­lion deal with the Cubs.

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