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Making Sense of the Kris Bryant for Nolan Arenado Rumors

With Kris Bryant’s grievance finally settled, trade rumors will be made aplenty. An Arenado/Bryant swap appears unlikely, but it’s a move worth examining.

Photo: USA Today

After an impossibly long wait, word finally came this morning that Kris Bryant has lost his service-time grievance against the Cubs. To be clear, this was the expected result from everyone involved, but the ruling’s official result is nonetheless much more than a mere formality. Rumors have long swirled around KB’s future with the Cubs, and the difference between one and two years of team control affected both the team’s ability to market him to potential suitors as well as other team’s willingness to shell out a reasonable prospect return for a star player.

Hell, even the front office has maintained a standoffish, cryptic approach to what we all assumed was the inevitable with regard to the service time hearing:

Despite Hoyer avoiding direct statements, there’s little else this could have meant: Bryant’s delayed hearing results have drastically altered the Cubs offseason timeline. And now, with Josh Donaldson no longer an option for third base needy teams, the Cubs have full capability of seeing what they can get for their star third baseman.

It should be noted that KB’s relationship with the Cubs (if he remains with the team) is unlikely to be sullied. His decision to file a grievance was in partnership with the player’s union, as they sought a means to make this issue front-and-center for the new CBA. Per Jesse Rogers of ESPN:

The union thought this was the best chance to win a case because Bryant’s status as a prospect back in 2015 left the Cubs with no reason to keep him from starting the season in the majors. It is doubtful a similar case from another player would elicit a different outcome, but this could still be a winning move for the players.

It has brought the issue front-and-center, and considering new CBA negotiations are around the corner, it’s bound to be a hot topic. If everyone wants to see the best players in the game at all times, then both sides have a stake in it.

We all pretty well knew that Bryant was going to seek out his market value in free agency ever since he was drafted. Scott Boras wasn’t retained to promote a team-friendly extension, after all. Bryant also has a keen interest in the business of the sport, having served as the Cubs union rep, and his willingness to be the face of the MLBPA’s service time concerns cements that interest.

This is as much a business to the player as it is to the team, and to that end it is highly doubtful his play will be impacted. The same can not be said about another star third baseman, however, and that leads us to an intriguing trade scenario for the Cubs that wouldn’t be punting on the 2020 season.

A Kris Bryant for Nolan Arenado Swap is a Horse of a Different Color

Trading Kris Bryant for prospects almost certainly closes this competitive window right now, a move that could pay dividends in the future while further damaging any remaining good faith the team has with the fanbase. While the Cubs need to continue to restock the farm while employing younger, MLB-ready talent, sacrificing your best player while effectively ending perhaps the greatest run in organizational history would be imprudent.

With Bryant’s hearing resolution freshly laid out, rumors about his trade status immediately followed. Jim Bowden wrote just a few days ago about the viability of a Bryant-for-Arenado swap, and although he maintains its unlikely nature, it’s still interesting that this very rumor has been circulating widely this morning:

There’s a lot to unpack here. First off, Colorado is resigned to getting anything they can out of Arenado at this point. Nolan publicly decrying the organization for being “disrespectful” has simultaneously forced the Rockies’ hand to trade him while removing any leverage they might have had to receive a bevy of prospects in return.

It doesn’t help that Colorado inked their star player to an eight-year extension fresh off a Wild Card appearance, only to flounder to a 71-91 record last season and doing nothing of remote significance to suggest contention in 2020. Arenado has a bad taste in his mouth, and Colorado has themselves to blame for it.

There’s also the nifty coincidence that Arenado’s contract includes an opt-out after the 2021 season, the same time frame in which Bryant is still under team control. This makes the trade a bit more palatable for the Rockies, who must now know that Arenado wants to opt-out of this deal yesterday.

For the Cubs, the contract itself represents the opposite appeal. Arenado is a premier player at a position the Cubs will soon need a replacement. With rumors afoot that Nolan would “love” to play in Wrigley, an assurance from him that he’d forego a shot at free agency would give the Cubs a star player through his age-35 season at an already established market value.

We also know that, per the structure of the contract, Arenado will account for $32.5 million against the Luxury Tax throughout the duration of the remaining seven years. While the Cubs are looking to shed payroll now to dip under the ~$208 million dollar threshold in 2020, they could require the Rockies either 1) eat some of Arenado’s contract to level the amount of money swapping hands this season or 2) swap a bad contract on the Cubs for a lottery ticket prospect to even out the money. We also know the Cubs have money coming off the books soon, allowing the ability to carry that Luxury Tax hit while improving the roster after 2021.

Lastly, the Cubs could swap with Colorado straight up and then look to shed salary via other trades. All of this is hypothetical of course, but the endless rumors are beyond intriguing to explore.

Would the Cubs be Better off with Arenado?

The main factor to consider — aside from money — is what the trade would represent for the Cubs long-term. Let’s assume for a second that they consummate a trade and that Arenado waives his player option and remains a Cub through 2026. Is Arenado a better player to plug at third than KB?

Per Fangraphs, here are their career lines:

PlayerGPTriple SlashHRISOwRC+BsRUZR/150*WAR
*UZR/150 applies for Third Base only

To date, Bryant has been a discernibly better offensive player, and he’s done so in ~400 fewer games played than Arenado. He’s also a vastly better baserunner and maintains the ability to play corner outfield and first base in addition to the hot corner capably — versatility that can’t be overlooked when assessing value.

Arenado, on the other hand, clearly is better defensively — and perhaps unarguably the best third baseman in the game, period. Unlike Bryant, his elite defense has remained, and he’s also proven healthy throughout his career.

One caveat concerning Arenado is that he plays his home games at Coors Field, but let’s put that rumor to bed that his offense wouldn’t translate at an above-average clip. His career triple slash on the road is .265/.323/.476 with 98 home runs, an ISO of .211, and a wRC+ of 109. While those numbers are a clear dip from his home splits, they are more than tenable.

At Wrigley, Arenado has played 23 games (101 plate appearances) and he’s hit .247/.287/.495 with five home runs and a .247 ISO. Seemingly hitting more for power than average in an abbreviated sample size, his career wRC+ in the Friendly Confines is a somewhat concerning 101.

While Nolan has a couple of years more playing time, the two players are less than a year apart in age, making this comparison all the more relevant. The numbers paint the picture appropriately: Bryant is the better hitter and base runner while Arenado is the superb defender with a better track record of health.

I personally endorsed Bryant to win his grievance, as by default I side with the players over the owners. But that reality was highly doubtful to begin with, and my hope is that Bryant’s willingness to file a grievance provides the union with some leverage headed into the next round of bargaining.

With the grievance finally resolved, and with near certainty Arenado gets moved while the Cubs assess Bryant’s trade value, a straight-up swap became a natural curiosity. The end result is as muddy as is the plausibility of such a blockbuster. With endless variables come innumerable reasons a deal wouldn’t work. But I wouldn’t take it off the table, at least not yet.

The payoff for Denver would be to rid themselves of a disgruntled player on a large contract, receiving in return a player that would absolutely mash and put fans through the turnstiles as he seeks a huge payday after 2021. For the Cubs, they’d be potentially gaining long-term stability at a premium position, giving up a superstar for a cost-controlled player of the same caliber.

In truth, this deal seems highly unlikely. But because it could help both teams — granted, each club has created their own mess — and because the rumors are there, it doesn’t hurt to see what it might mean for both franchises.

Personally, I’d like to see the Cubs keep KB, try to extend him, and at worst-case try to win these next two seasons with the core they assembled. They’d be recouping a draft pick after Bryant rejects the Qualifying Offer and hits free agency (if the QO still exists then).

But if the Cubs are to move Bryant, Arenado presents the only viable trade in which they could still compete at the end of this window.

I think we could all live with that.

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