It’s year two of rumors about Kris Bryant and the Nationals despite them making no sense.
They make more sense than any suggestions around Nolan Arenado, though so does steering your car with your teeth.
But, any what-ifs around Bryant carry their own illogical weight. Yes, the Nationals need a third baseman. Yes, the Cubs are in an upheaval, from the front office to the roster. And, yes, Bryant has one year remaining on his contract.
This is not the NBA where get-something-or-he-walks has a stranglehold on transactions. It’s Major League Baseball, where pay scales are suppressed, salary for past performance is frowned upon and the rental market exists at the trade deadline more so than the offseason.
Bryant has one year remaining on what has been one of the strangest contracts in recent times. Bryant set a record, at the time, for first-year arbitration-eligible players after he achieved “Super 2” status thanks to his early summons to the big leagues. This happened a year after he broke Mike Trout’s salary record for pre-arbitration eligible players.
Also in 2015, Bryant and his agent, the inimitable Scott Boras, filed a grievance against the Cubs accusing them of manipulating Bryant’s service time in hopes Bryant would be granted free agency last winter. Bryant and Boras lost the grievance in January of this year.
So, here he is, a player whose production waned following an early MVP and is now a year from free agency.
The performance backtracking comes from a high bar and is perhaps a bit unfair. Bryant was National League Rookie of the Year in 2015 then MVP in 2016. His OPS was higher in 2017, though his bWAR took a significant dip from 7.3 to 5.6. He was down to 1.9 in just 102 games in 2018 and back to 3.7 after a full season in 2019. Last year was an enormous struggle: .644 OPS in just 34 games.
Bryant’s pedigree is enough for teams to throw out 2020. Though, the stumbling season is also part of their argument to devalue him whether in trade talks or future signings. For the Nationals, trading from a regrowing farm system and paying Bryant almost $20 million for one season does not make sense. It’s a dual asset investment for an organization which has numerous holes, needs all of its money now and later, and is often ranked at the bottom when farm system power is discussed.
The double-cost for the one-off season is not the lone reason a Bryant trade is not feasible, though it’s sufficient. The market is filled with quality players during what is expected to be a low-cost winter. Bryant’s salary is tied to his advancement through MLB’s payment tiers. It’s not relative to the current climate following a 60-game season which now precedes enormous questions about the finances of the next season.
Which means paying DJ LeMahieu, an obvious candidate of interest for the Nationals and everyone else, is more reasonable. Or Justin Turner. Or even Jake Lamb because of the low cost and need to fill other gaps.
None of this means the Nationals should not -- or will not -- check on Bryant. Of course they will. They’re a well-run, contending organization. Everyone listens to every option. At least those who want to retain their front office jobs.
Here, Bryant is The Lesser Arenado. The Rockies third baseman remains a non-starter because of his massive salary (the Nationals are not giving away players to pay someone more than they would have paid Anthony Rendon). Bryant presents similar complications, just scaled-down versions. This means he won’t be standing at third on Opening Day at Nationals Park in 2021.