It's the end of January, and the Cubs' offseason can finally begin in earnest.
Kris Bryant's pending grievance wasn't the only thing gumming up the gears in Theo Epstein's front office this winter, with luxury-tax considerations and other budgetary realities preventing the Cubs from making a move of much consequence in free agency. With those financial restrictions in mind, the Cubs' best option to shake up a roster that disappointed in Joe Maddon's final season as skipper is the trade market. Their best trade chip, perhaps, is Bryant.
But until today, he was untradeable.
Not because he's arguably the team's best hitter — a guy who in five years as a big leaguer has won a Rookie of the Year Award, an MVP and a World Series ring — but because teams had no clue what they were going to get. Would they be trading for a one-year rental to power one run at a championship? Or would they be getting two years' worth of one of baseball's biggest names? From the Cubs' perspective, the outcome of the grievance held considerable weight in what kind of return package they could receive in such a trade.
Well, now things are settled. Bryant lost the grievance, per a report from ESPN's Jeff Passan, and his free agency will come after the 2021 season instead of the upcoming 2020 season. That puts Epstein's front office in a position to ask for a significant amount in trade conversations because they can offer two years of Bryant instead of just one.
Does this long awaited decision mean a swift break in the logjam that has been the Cubs' offseason to this point? Does it mean Bryant will playing elsewhere come Opening Day? Perhaps not. There's a fine argument to be made that the Cubs would be wise to hang onto Bryant — as well as Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber; all four guys' contracts expire at the end of the 2021 season — and try to compete for championships over the next couple seasons. While the Cincinnati Reds have loaded up this winter, the NL Central still appears plenty winnable, especially with the collection of talent that still exists on the North Side.
If an a breakup of this core is inevitable, why not squeeze as much out of it as you can?
But after back-to-back seasons in which a team once believed to be revving up for a dynastic run played in all of one playoff game, rolling the dice and hoping to capitalize on what's left of the championship window is obviously risky and could mortgage the team's long-term future. Epstein made what he believed to be necessary change by replacing Maddon with David Ross. But augmenting the group of players who actually do the hitting, pitching and fielding has proven far more challenging. The Cubs have signed one player to a seven-figure major league contract this offseason, adding outfielder Steven Souza on a $1 million deal.
So is it time for a trade to create the kind of shakeup that can not only jolt some life into the next two years but help the Cubs stay viable beyond the 2021 season by adding long-term pieces to the organization?
It's rather difficult to find both of those elements in the same deal, but it's also rare that a player of Bryant's caliber becomes available on the trade market. It's more than a little ironic that Bryant, once the cornerstone of the Cubs' rebuild, acquired with a high draft pick that stemmed from a 101-loss season, could now be the Cubs' best way out of launching another full-scale rebuild. He's not on the kind of team-friendly, long-term contract that fetched such huge hauls for the White Sox when they traded Chris Sale, Adam Eaton and Jose Quintana to fuel their own rebuilding effort. But that apparently hasn't stopped Epstein from trying, with a former general manager telling NBC Sports Chicago's David Kaplan earlier this month:
“The Cubs' asking price for Bryant is a joke. They want nearly ready major league talent at the level of a Gleyber Torres type or close, and there is no chance a team is going to give them a package of those caliber of players."
The third base market has moved dramatically while the Cubs waited for their own third baseman's status to be figured out. Anthony Rendon signed a big-money deal with the Los Angeles Angels, and Josh Donaldson got a four-year contract from the Minnesota Twins. Nolan Arenado's name has been floating around the rumor mill for weeks, and the Colorado Rockies star has the kind of team control (his rather lucrative contract does have an opt-out clause in it) that Bryant doesn't, not to mention perennial MVP-caliber production and a closet full of Gold Gloves.
So some teams that were looking for a third baseman are content now. Some who missed out on Rendon or Donaldson and don't see a path to acquiring Arenado are still looking. But a lot of things need to align here to make dealing Bryant worth it. The market is smaller than it was in November, and the Cubs are looking for a very specific kind of player or players in return. It's a tight needle to thread. Certainly with a player of Bryant's caliber, a mere salary dump to get under the luxury-tax threshold seems like it would be a missed opportunity, an opportunity Epstein is trying to capitalize on.
But whether Bryant gets dealt in the less than two months before Opening Day or not, having a decision on the grievance allows Epstein to do plenty, chiefly weighing trade possibilities involving other players. Maybe there's a deal out there for Willson Contreras that will fetch Epstein exactly the kind of talent he's looking for. But he couldn't pull the trigger on such a move without knowing what he could've received for Bryant, could he? Maybe there's no ideal return package out there, but how could Epstein make the best deal for his team's short- and long-term future without knowing what his most valuable trade chip might have brought back?
If the last two winters across baseball have shown anything, it's that the offseason doesn't end until Opening Day arrives. We might be about to flip into February, more than three months since the Washington Nationals won the World Series and just days before spring training begins, but Epstein can finally get to work. The Cubs watched the winter's biggest free agents land everywhere but the North Side. If they're going to position themselves for another run at a World Series or simply ensure a healthier long-term outlook for the organization, there's still time to get that done.
But this is what you'd call a late start.Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago