With Kyle Schwarber out the door last week, can Kris Bryant be far behind as the Cubs shake up the championship core during a budget-minded winter?
Not so fast, newly promoted team president Jed Hoyer told NBC Sports Chicago on Thursday as an especially quiet and very socially distanced “winter meetings” wrapped up with barely a third base coach and a Rule 5 pitcher to show for the week.
Hoyer said he “absolutely” sees a path by which Bryant could still be a Cub on Opening Day while leaving options open for the team moving forward from there — regardless of payroll-budget problems and Bryant’s pending free agency.
For more than a year, Bryant has been eminently available in trade talks as the Cubs have looked to bring down payroll and retool the roster with an eye toward the next contending core.
And his departure has seemed all but imminent after the pandemic torpedoed the 2020 trade-deadline market and threw industry revenue projections into turmoil.
But there’s nothing imminent or certain about the former MVP being shipped out this winter, Hoyer said Thursday.
“I think that’s been treated as a certainty,” he said. “Listen, Kris is a great player — he’s a superstar player — that obviously didn’t have the year last year that he had hoped. But when you look at our offense, there were several other players that had similar struggles.
“What do we expect from him in ’21? We expect far more of the normal Kris Bryant-type performance than we got last year,” Hoyer added.
“I don’t think it should be treated as a fait accompli that [a trade is] going to happen.”
That obviously falls short of ruling out a trade.
But the early signs in player markets this winter might already be pointing that direction.
Bryant, 28, is a three-time All-Star expected to make close to $20 million in his final season before free agency.
The players who have been acquired both as free agents and through trades so far in a slow-moving winter have involved short-term financial commitments.
The biggest annual commitment was the Braves’ $15 million signing of starting pitcher Charlie Morton on a one-year deal. Not even the few multi-year deals inked so far have reached $20 million.
And with COVID-19 deaths and infection rates rising to record numbers nationally with the onset of winter, teams have been unable to clearly project revenues for 2021.
Reports this week suggest that many teams — like the Cubs — have yet to set firm payroll budgets for their front offices for 2021.
Further uncertainty surrounds the likelihood that spring training and the start of the season will be delayed — but without so much as a working plan for whether that might involve a two-week delay or perhaps even a month or more.
Only Thursday did a vaccine get preliminary approval in the U.S.
“I assume at some point they’ll tell us an estimation of when the season’s going to start, when spring training’s going to start, and that things may kind of work backwards from there,” Hoyer said.
“If the season gets pushed back, then, yes, I think the hot stove season will get pushed back as well, because people will wait for additional information, which is just the smart thing to do.”
When Cardinals president John Mozeliak said this week that “January is the new December,” he may have been underestimating the impact of all the variables in play.
Could February — or even March — be the new December if spring training is pushed back?
And with little clarity regarding payroll budgets or even training schedules — or rules such as roster sizes and the universal DH for that matter — how does a trade get done that requires as many potential moving parts as one involving Bryant?
Even if this were a normal winter economically, moving Bryant would be a challenge — if only because the Cubs have the right to expect a reasonable return in player capital and because Bryant’s trade value was dampened by struggles during an injury-hampered, pandemic-shortened season.
Pay $20 million for 2021 and give up players as well? That was one factor that came into play last year when the Cubs discussed trade possibilities — with Anthony Rendon and, more comparably, Josh Donaldson, free agents.
Donaldson lingered long on the market. And after holding tight to all the core players, the Cubs lost the summer trade market.
But if this market lingers into February, it almost certainly means more knowledge about the impact of the pandemic on the upcoming season — in direct contrast to the way baseball was blindsided last year.
And that should mean a greater ability to count on a summer trade market and a chance to leverage a bounce-back season from Bryant for better return.
“Listen, we’ve known Kris since he was in college and since we drafted him,” Hoyer said. “He’s a wonderful person. I think there are a lot of fantastic years ahead of him.”
Maybe even one more in a Cubs uniform.