As the Cubs look to shake up their offense and trim salary this winter, longtime third baseman Kris Bryant is likely to be on the trading block. Bryant, drafted second overall in 2013, has one more year of control remaining following the worst season of his career. Bryant managed just a 76 wRC+ in 147 plate appearances this year, battling a series of injuries. In the five years prior, Bryant posted a 139 wRC+ and averaged over five wins above replacement per season, though his best production was concentrated at the beginning of his career.
Bryant has spent over 80% of his career defensive innings at third base, and metrics suggest he’s roughly average at the position. The bulk of his remaining innings have come at the outfield corners. It’s fair to say that Bryant can probably play all three of these positions capably, but he fits best as a third baseman.
Bryant was set to earn $18.6MM in 2020 before the season was cut short, and he’s arbitration eligible one last time before entering free agency after the 2021 season. While a small raise looks likely, I expect his ’21 salary to fall short of $20MM.
In at least four different seasons in Bryant’s career, $20MM would have been a bargain. But in the uncertain climate of the 2020-21 MLB offseason, the list of teams willing to spend that amount on a player coming off a bad year is likely to be short. With demand low, the Cubs might receive a minimal return in trade this winter. That could be a reason to keep Bryant for one last run in 2021, or at least hold him until the July trade deadline.
On the other hand, maybe the Cubs really want to reboot their offense this winter, and crave payroll flexibility. At the least, they’ll listen to offers. Keep in mind that Bryant is not actually under contract for 2021, and if the Cubs want sheer relief from the prospect of paying him, they could non-tender him on December 2nd and get nothing in return. That seems unlikely for a player who was a star just a year ago. As to the shape of a possible trade return, the Cubs probably can’t be too picky. They could choose a return geared toward winning in 2021, or seek players with multiple years of control remaining. They could look for players earning the league minimum, or accept someone making millions but still less than Bryant. They could fill rotation or outfield holes, or just take the best available offer. With that in mind, let’s dig into possible suitors.
We’ll begin by eliminating the Brewers, Cardinals, Reds, and White Sox. It seems highly unlikely to me that the Cubs, who are assumed to be trying to win in 2021, would trade Bryant to a division or crosstown rival with the same goal. We’ll also strike the Orioles and Rangers, who do not seem positioned for a push toward contention in 2021. We’ll cross off the Pirates for both reasons.
Here’s what we have left.
Teams That Could Afford Bryant And Could Make Room At Third Base
- Blue Jays: The Jays’ primary third baseman in 2020 was Travis Shaw, and he’s a non-tender candidate. As GM Ross Atkins put it, “I think we are in a position where we could add to this team with talent that is condensed in one player and a super high impact.” Bryant fits the bill.
- Nationals: Carter Kieboom struggled mightily for the Nats this year, and sliding Bryant in at third base for a year would be an easy fit.
- Braves: Austin Riley is the Braves’ incumbent at the hot corner, and his career has begun with an 87 wRC+ over 503 plate appearances. Bryant would fit with GM Alex Anthopoulos’ recent strategy of high-dollar one-year deals for Josh Donaldson and Marcell Ozuna.
- Dodgers: Replacing free agent Justin Turner with Bryant would be a bold move, but if that’s the Dodgers’ preference it’s a viable option.
- Tigers: The Tigers don’t seem close enough to contending to acquire a one-year rental like Bryant. But they could afford him, and primary third baseman Isaac Paredes did not play well this year. If the Tigers go on a spending spree with an eye on contending in 2021, Bryant could theoretically be a part of that.
Teams That Could Afford Bryant But Would Have To Use Him In An Outfield Corner
- Astros: The Astros have Alex Bregman locked in at third base, so Bryant would have to spend 2021 mostly playing right field. It’s not a crazy idea.
- Giants: Bryant offers more upside than incumbent third baseman Evan Longoria, but Longoria is under contract through 2022. Bryant would probably have to slot in at left field for the Giants over Alex Dickerson. It’s not an ideal fit for a team seeking a left-handed-hitting infielder.
- Marlins: Whether the Marlins could afford Bryant is up for debate, but I think it’s somewhat possible. They’ve got Brian Anderson at third base, but didn’t get much at the outfield corners in 2020. JJ Bleday isn’t quite ready, while Jesus Sanchez and Monte Harrison have Triple-A experience. Making room for Bryant for one year isn’t out of the question.
- Red Sox: The Red Sox don’t seem primed to go all-in on 2021, and they have Rafael Devers at third base. But if they do decide to make a push, they could trade or demote Andrew Benintendi and use Bryant in left field.
Teams That Don’t Seem To Have A Spot For Bryant
- Angels: The Halos have Anthony Rendon at third, Justin Upton in left, and Jo Adell in right. Upton hasn’t been great the last two seasons, but he’s signed through 2022. Adell struggled in his 38-game debut and could theoretically be held off for most of 2021, but doing that to accommodate Bryant seems unlikely for a team focused on pitching.
- Phillies: It’d be fun to see old friends Bryce Harper and Bryant finally unite in Philly. But the Phils have Alec Bohm slated for third, Andrew McCutchen in left, and Harper in right. If the NL adds the DH for ’21, then there could be room for Bryant.
- Mariners: They’ve got Kyle Seager locked in at third base for 2021, and by June should have an outfield of Jarred Kelenic, Kyle Lewis, and Mitch Haniger in place. It’s hard to see where Bryant would fit in.
- Twins: The Twins are set with Josh Donaldson at third base, Eddie Rosario in left field, and Max Kepler in right. Unloading Rosario to acquire Bryant is technically possible, though.
- Yankees: The Yankees are in good shape with Gio Urshela at third base, and figure to use Clint Frazier in left field and Aaron Judge in right.
- Mets: J.D. Davis served as the Mets’ primary third baseman in 2020, while Jeff McNeil and Dominic Smith handled left field. All of these players, including Bryant, can play multiple positions. All three Mets players hit well in 2020, and I can’t think of a good reason they would replace an affordable player with Bryant. Maybe there’s some combination of trades that gets Bryant to the Mets, but it’d be a lot of moving parts. Or, as with the Phillies, the addition of an NL DH for 2021 could open up a spot.
Teams That Could Find A Spot For Bryant, But Probably Can’t Afford Him
- Padres: The Padres have pushed their payroll pretty far, but it’s never wise to count out A.J. Preller. University of San Diego alum Kris Bryant would be a fun addition, but they’re already expected to shop Wil Myers due to his salary. Perhaps if they succeed on that front, and/or they non-tender Tommy Pham, the Padres could pull it off.
- Diamondbacks: Demoting Eduardo Escobar and plugging Bryant in at third as their big right-handed bat addition would be intriguing for the Diamondbacks, but with the club looking at a reduced payroll I can’t see how they’d add a $20MM player.
- Rays: The Rays could find a spot for Bryant, maybe in right field, but with one of the game’s smallest payrolls it’s difficult to picture a $20MM addition.
- Royals: The Royals don’t have much in the way of contracts, but after you add in their arbitration eligible players, paying for Bryant could be a reach. They are one team in this bracket that could make it work if they really wanted to.
- Athletics: The A’s could be aggressive in cuts with other aspects of the team and fit Bryant into an outfield corner, but it doesn’t seem likely.
- Indians: Bryant would make for a solid corner outfield rental for the Indians, but they’re not going to add Bryant in an offseason where they’re expected to trade Francisco Lindor.
- Rockies: The Rockies are generally expected to shed payroll, entertaining offers for Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story. I can’t see how Bryant fits there.
In my opinion, the teams best-suited to trade for Bryant are the Blue Jays, Nationals, Braves, Dodgers, and Astros. Of course, that’s without knowing the motivations of those clubs and whether they’d offer something the Cubs would consider worthwhile.