Trading Kris Bryant Slams the Competitive Window Shut, but is it Necessary for the Cubs Long Term?
With the large contract the Cubs will need to offer Bryant in two offseasons to retain him, do the Cubs need to trade him now to set themselves up for long term success?
Any avid Cubs fan has heard all the trade rumors surrounding the star third baseman this offseason. Teams such as the Braves, Phillies, and Nationals, all teams who want to win now, have inquired about his availability. What many fans may not know its that Kris Bryant is currently in the midst of a service time grievance with the Cubs, something I wrote about almost three months ago. This grievance affects his market value significantly because whether or not a trade counterpart would have him for one or two years drastically affects the return the Cubs would receive for him. This grievance has absolutely delayed not only the Cubs’ trade talks with teams about Bryant, but their entire offseason plan.
The rumors speculating that Bryant may be traded is not inherently surprising. Given how the last two seasons have played out, significant change to the roster is needed by trading players from the current roster, which I wrote about at the beginning of the offseason. However, what is surprising is that the media and fanbase have somehow come to the consensus that trading Bryant would benefit the organization. Not only would losing Bryant immediately make the Cubs a non-contender for the next two years, but there’s also no guarantee it would help the organization in the future. At all. While baseball has gravitated towards a cost-cutting mindset of hoarding prospects as opposed to handing out large contracts to proven star players, that is not necessarily the best avenue of change when it comes to the Cubs’ long-term decision with Kris Bryant.
The problem with this strategy is that more often than not, prospects, even the top ones in baseball, do not pan out. Need I remind Cubs fans that Albert Almora is a former number six overall draft pick and just turned in a -0.7 WAR season? His trade market right now is nonexistent, and it is entirely possible that the three top prospects the Cubs would receive in return for Bryant all suffer the same fate. And if you want pitching prospects, you might as well cross your fingers that none of them suffer a career-ending injury before they even make the major leagues, which happens way more often than people realize. Realistically, the most likely result of trading for three top prospects is that one turns into a consistent starter, one starts strictly based on matchups, and one is out of baseball in two years. A top prospect turning into a consistent All-Star, like Bryant has, is the exception, not the norm. Those are the facts, and trading a current All-Star for prospects who have a very small chance of replicating that same success is irrational, especially for a big market organization like the Cubs.
Now that I’ve cleared up that the return for trading Bryant does not stack up to his worth right now, let’s get into how irreplaceable he is to this Cubs roster. Ever since Bryant’s rookie year on the Cubs in 2015, he has the third-highest WAR in baseball, 12th-highest BsR, and 12th-highest OPS (minimum 2,000 PA). He has a career 139 wRC+, indicating he has been almost 40% above league average at the plate for five years (FanGraphs). Not only that, he can play four positions on command, a testament to his athletic ability and versatility on the diamond, which is highly undervalued when it comes to analytics. Notice how the above statistics aren’t solely offensive metrics. They cover every single facet of the game, proving how multi-dimensional of a player he is. He has no shortcomings. Whether it’s defense, baserunning, or at the plate, Kris Bryant is at the top of baseball in every category.
While fans love Anthony Rizzo and consider him untradeable, let’s do a little comparison of the two. Both have been on the roster since 2015 and have completely different narratives surrounding them for unexplainable reasons. According to FanGraphs, Rizzo has a 138 wRC+ from 2015-2019, proving he’s roughly the same offensive player as Bryant. Defensively, yes Rizzo is a Gold Glove first basemen, but he cannot play multiple positions like Bryant can. And to top it all off, Rizzo’s BsR in those five seasons ranks 315th out of 334 qualified players. These stats prove one thing: Rizzo, unlike Bryant, is as one-dimensional as a player can get. Look, I’m by no means hating on Anthony Rizzo. He’s a great player and an even better leader. He deserves to be a Cub for life. However, I’m simply stating that when you remove the underlying bias and objectively compare the last five years of both players, Kris Bryant is leaps and bounds better. It’s not close.
I’m sure the last point of emphasis running through the mind of any fan who wants Bryant gone has to do with the perception of him lacking the ‘clutch’ gene. There is some merit to this, as 2016 and 2017 were years in which he struggled in clutch situations, for the most part. However, in 2019, Bryant ranked 32 out of 135 qualified players in FanGraphs’ ‘clutch’ rating (in 2018 he did not qualify for the stat due to his shoulder injury). This indicates he is trending in the right direction in what is far and away his biggest flaw. Although this is a real weakness of his so far in his career in a Cubs uniform, it is severely overblown. There are many times when Bryant has pulled through in clutch situations. Does the below video ring a bell?
This was a series-defining home run in which the Cubs were down 3-1 to the Indians in the 2016 World Series, desperate for the bats to come alive. After that moment, the Cubs would never trail in that World Series again. He also started off game six of the World Series with a home run in the top of the first, hit a game-tying two-run bomb in the top of the ninth in game three of the 2016 NLDS, and posted a .923 OPS the entire 2016 playoffs. There is not a chance in hell the Cubs win the World Series without Bryant’s bat in that postseason. Too bad he’s not “clutch” though, right?
The last reason for not trading Kris Bryant is that the World Series window for the Cubs, contrary to what many fans believe, is NOT over. Two seasons of not meeting expectations do not slam that window shut. People forget that the Cubs had the second-best record in the National League just two seasons ago with essentially the same roster as currently constructed. It’s also a great time to remind fans that if you make the playoffs, you are a World Series contender, much like the Washington Nationals proved this past postseason. Both the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals have gotten worse this offseason with star players not being retained, so the division is right there for the taking. If you trade Bryant now, that competitive window abruptly slams shut, which is right in the middle of Willson Contreras, Javier Baez, Kyle Hendricks, Yu Darvish, and Rizzo’s prime. How does that make any rational sense? If the Cubs do in fact trade Kris Bryant, you might as well tear everything down, trade the entire core of the roster, and start the rebuild from scratch. It is not possible to remain a contender in the short term after trading a talent like Bryant, who is irreplaceable given the current roster. I am by no means advocating for a total rebuild, but if Bryant is not a Cub next season, that is exactly what should happen.