What’s the trade landscape for Kris Bryant? 4 questions about the Chicago Cubs third baseman heading into 2021.
This is the sixth in a series of position-by-position analyses of the Chicago Cubs after the 2020 season.
Here are four questions about the third base position.
1. Can the Cubs really expect to receive a respectable return for Kris Bryant one year closer to free agency?
Well, the Boston Red Sox received young outfielder Alex Verdugo, two infield prospects and about $41 million in salary relief for Mookie Betts (who was to become a free agent this winter before signing a 12-year, $365 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers in July) and left-hander David Price (who is signed through 2022).
Betts has played longer and accomplished more than Kris Bryant while playing more home games in a hitter-friendly ballpark. Bryant’s production in two of his last three seasons has been stunted by an array of injuries that he has tried to play through.
There may be a few teams in a win-now mode that have the young players with a high ceiling to satisfy the Cubs’ needs. This theory didn’t crystalize last winter, but the possibility Major League Baseball retains the expanded playoff format gives more teams hope to win a championship.
Regardless of where he plays in 2021, Bryant said after the Cubs’ season-ending loss to the Miami Marlins that he felt better after establishing a new training routine while recovering from a minor oblique injury in late September.
After coping with shoulder, knee, wrist and oblique injuries the last three seasons, Bryant’s medical report is bound to be combed over thoroughly before any potential deal is completed.
2. Where does Bryant stand with the Cubs?
Bryant never has asked to be traded, stating his desire to stay with the franchise as part of a core that helped produce a World Series title and five playoff appearances in six seasons.
“It means a lot to all of us,” Bryant said after the Cubs were eliminated by the Marlins in the first round of the National League playoffs. “Those guys in there, too, will probably say that we’ve taken each other for granted. You never really realized how long you have playing with each other.
“It’s been incredible just to be here with those guys. Obviously, you see what they can do on the field. But just as people — as husbands and fathers and brothers — it’s unbelievable. This group of people here in this organization and everybody in the city, it’s just amazing. It’s been so fun. Even this year, it’s been so fun.”
At the same time, Bryant has been accustomed to wondering about his future for the last 12 months. A spring training meeting with team President Theo Epstein provided some clarity as the Cubs sought a fast start with their core, but the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a 60-game season engulfed by health and safety protocols and limits on in-game tools.
And after the season-ending loss, Bryant preferred to reflect on his tenure with the Cubs instead of speculating on his future.
“I don’t know my future, so I’m just being grateful for what I have right now in this moment,” Bryant said. “Being able to talk to you guys in this awesome (interview) room that wasn’t here when I first got here in this awesome clubhouse. The history here, sitting in the clubhouse with maybe some Hall of Famers and just unbelievable talent in there. I try to not let myself go to the future in thinking about that because what I have right now, a lot of people would want to be in my shoes.”
Bryant’s rare use of profanity in response to critics of his health was his sharpest response to a series of skepticism, starting shortly after a false report last November stated he turned down an extension worth $200 million. That caused him to delete his social media accounts from his cell phone. But his loyalty to the Cubs hasn’t wavered.
3. So what happened on the field?
Bryant set the tone in the first two weeks by working Milwaukee Brewers starter Brandon Woodruff for a 10-pitch sequence in his first at-bat from the leadoff spot.
But Bryant, who already coped with back stiffness three weeks earlier, dealt with left arm soreness while extending on a swing and later coped with a stomach ache. He never got in a rhythm, partly because of a sore left wrist while trying to make a diving catch against the Indians in Cleveland on Aug. 12.
Bryant struck out 40 times in 147 plate appearances, although some data will point to some called-third strikes out of the zone and spotty calls that caused him to expand his strike zone.
Nevertheless, it was a baffling season until the final two games, when he went 3-for-8 with two home runs and six RBIs against the White Sox.
Manager David Ross praised Bryant’s defensive improvement under the supervision of coach Andy Green, and Bryant was credited with one run saved — an impressive improvement over his minus-6 mark in 2019. But three of Bryant’s four errors in 2020 occurred on fielding miscues.
4. Where do the Cubs and Bryant go from here?
For at least the last season, the Cubs have tested the trade waters with some of their impending free agents after exploring extensions.
The Cubs’ flaws — lack of success against hard throwers, a general lack of contact, lack of speed and starting pitching depth — are obvious.
But it’s too much to expect that trading one person — even a three-time All-Star who won’t turn 29 until January like Bryant — can address all those needs.
Last season the Atlanta Braves were thought to be the perfect match for the Cubs involving a Bryant trade. But the Braves stuck with homegrown talent Austin Riley, who hit a mammoth tie-breaking home run in the first game of the NL Championship Series against the Dodgers.
Riley’s defense and contact rate need work, but he’s only 23. Carter Kieboom struggled in his first season replacing Anthony Rendon with the Washington Nationals, but he’s also only 23.
The New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics, who each were eliminated from the playoffs despite hopes for a long run, appear destined for a shakeup. It would seem virtually impossible that the A’s would deal two-time Gold Glove third baseman Matt Chapman, who won’t become a free agent until 2024.
But the fan bases of the A’s and Cubs have tired of their abrupt finishes to once-promising seasons.
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