The Chicago Cubs have a tough question to answer. But any questions regarding Bryant and the Seattle Mariners are easy. At least for the Mariners themselves. Because it all comes down to timing.
Bryant is a really good player. A sound defender at third base, though not quite as cat-like as a few years back. A big bat anywhere from the two-spot to the No. 5 hole in a very good lineup. He has shown leadership skills on a perennial contender that won it all not long ago. He’s remained healthy with very few exceptions, is still in the prime of his career (he’ll be 28 in January) and there’s no discernable drop-off in production.
Why would the Cubs trade him if he’s so good?
Well… timing. Bryant, who is earning $12.9 million this season as a result of arbitration, is set to become a free agent after the 2021 season. He’s likely to cost a ton to keep, and an extension may be out of the question, since Bryant is represented by Scott Boras, who believes in the open market for his players.
Bryant’s value on the open market is likely to be well into the nine-figure range. He already turned down a $200 million extension.
So, the way I see it, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and the Cubs have four choices.
1. Keep Bryant for two more years after 2019, hope to re-sign him following the 2021 season as a near-30-year-old, while dangling an extension just in case the player loves Chicago and the Cubs so much he doesn’t want to entertain leaving and is fine with potentially leaving millions on the table — despite barking at $200 million last fall.
2. Keep Bryant into the 2020 season, attempt to move him if the club isn’t contending around mid-season, or if they are competing, after the season is complete.
3. Keep Bryant into his walk year and sell him off as a rental if the club isn’t a true contender, giving the Cubs a chance to win with him two more times.
4. Trade Bryant this winter.
The last option gives the Cubs the best chance at a very high return, one that could replenish both their 25-roster with talent, but also lend a hand in their fading farm system (following tremendous success graduating talents such as Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Wilson Contreras and Bryant himself over the past five or so season). Every segment of time that expires over the course of the baseball calendar reduces Bryant’s trade value; he’s getting older, control years willow away and his arbitration years are making him a pricier acquisition in salary terms. His $12.9 million salary in 2019 probably gets closer to $20 million for 2020 and could net the former first-round pick a $25-30 million payday in 2021, his last of four runs at arbitration before free agency.
Trading for a 28-year-old Bryant for two years and $40-45 million is vastly different than the acquiring team getting him for a full season plus a few months at the end of another, just one full season or even just the final two months of a regular season.
The Cubs would be idiots not to entertain the idea of moving Bryant this offseason, and per Passan’s report, it sounds like that’s a distinct possibility.
For Seattle, the question also is about timing.
While Seattle should have internal discussions about every available player as good as Bryant, he is controlled through 2021 only. They’ll have the same problem — likely to a much higher degree — getting Bryant to sign an extension as the Cubs. So how valuable is Bryant to this Mariners club for the next two years?
Certainly valuable, he’s a top-10 MVP type player. But the Mariners’ timeline suggests spending significant trade assets on a player more likely to walk after 2021 than any other scenario plausible is prohibitive.
There are scenarios, however, where trading for Bryant make more sense then they do after the surface discussion we just had above.
What if Seattle acquired Bryant this offseason and moved him in July? What if they acquired Bryant this winter and traded him away next winter?
All reasonable thoughts, at least in process. But the price to acquire Bryant is going to be greater than the selling price any other time moving forward.
Let’s create some arbitrary scenarios in order to attach value to the transactions.
Then Bryant plays three months for Seattle and hits .280/.370/.530 and plays the same average or better defense at third base.
What’s he worth in July, 2020?
Not Rodriguez, Gilbert and Williamson. Maybe two of those players and a throw-in, and the premium name (Rodriguez in our sample) may not part of it anymore.
What’s Bryant worth after the 2020 season? Maybe Gilbert and a low-level upside play.
Reminder: Bryant’s arbitration salaries matter here, too. He was a Super Two, which got him started in salary increases after his second full season in The Show, escalating his annual numbers. The vast majority of clubs will balk at paying a steep price in talent, then paying the player they acquired $20-25 million a year. Not that Bryant isn’t worth it, but that’s the way a lot of clubs operate.
July 2021? Not getting a premium prospect in return. Might get few B+ players … maybe a George Kirby and an Evan White type if the market squeezes and the demand is higher than the supply, but that’s rarely the case in the middle of the season for hitters.
On top of that, what’s Bryant truly worth to the 2020 Mariners? Would the club have a realistic and legitimate chance to win anything? And are those chances worth the difference in the trade cost and the assets potentially recouped by moving the player months later? That’s a pretty risky proposition and I don’t know if there’s a soul or group of souls on the planet so good at market valuation that far ahead to come up with a reconcilable result in favor of the Mariners putting forth such efforts at this point in their rebuild. And if Bryant doesn’t promise to make a significant difference in the club’s ’20 outcome, it’d be all about ’21, the last year they’d own Bryant’s contract.
The Mariners’ assets should be aimed at winning, not just winning more than they are right now. Bryant helps the Mariners win more games in 2020 and 2021, but there are few signs he can help them actually win in 2020, and not many more signs ’21 would be different.
In the end, Bryant isn’t likely the best fit for Seattle, at least via the trade route anytime soon. Especially since the best values in the Mariners’ farm system could have legitimate ETAs of 2021 or 2022, not only generating the club’s timeline, but supporting it with absurdly high value.
If Bryant remains the fringe-MVP candidate he’s been the last 2-3 years until he hits free agency, maybe Seattle uses the one asset they know they can and will replenish every year — cold, hard cash — to land Bryant, or someone like him, and insert him into a lineup with the likes of Rodriguez, Jarred Kelenic and company.
It’s also worth noting Kyle Seager‘s contract with the club ends after the 2021 season, so the hot corner opens up organically if Seattle wants to go that route.
One last thing: Yes, this all can change if Jerry Dipoto goes out early this winter and makes a few impact starting pitching additions, because perhaps a major trade acquisition, like Bryant, on top of that makes the Mariners a legitimate Wild Card contender in 2020, with a chance at more than that in 2021.
To get to that point, those pitching adds will have to be pretty darned good, and it doesn’t appear a Gerrit Cole-Mariners relationship has any chance of happening.