CHICAGO – It seems inconceivable that a grievance over a 2015 dispute remains unresolved but here are the Cubs and Kris Bryant, nearly five years later, waiting and wondering.
Talk about the need for increased pace of play.
The Bryant service time issue drags on, leaving the Cubs in limbo as they await an outcome that will inform their short- and long-term future.
This was supposed to be the offseason of seismic change with a no-holds barred approach to trades. Instead, the cost-conscious Cubs’ most significant addition has been manager David Ross, a cheaper but not necessarily better version of Joe Maddon.
When ESPN’s Jeff Passan reminded everyone how little the front office has done this winter with a tweet Monday – Passan correctly labeled the Cubs as a “free agent straggler” that had spent $0 – the hand-wringing resumed.
If Opening Day were next week instead of March 26, Cubs fans could justify storming the gates of Gallagher Way. But patience is advised. Changes still could be in the offing.
Not until the Cubs get a Bryant decision can they consider any major moves. The Cubs expect news within the next week or so but privately have acknowledged frustration with the drawn-out process.
If an arbitrator rules in favor of Bryant and declares him a free agent at the end of 2020, he will, in theory, become harder to trade with free agency looming next winter. If the ruling sides with the Cubs, Bryant’s contract will continue to run through 2021 – an attractive two seasons of control for potential trade partners.
For those of us who believe the Cubs would be making a mistake trading Bryant – still among baseball’s top 25 players, in my book – the team could win by losing the grievance. Forfeiting an extra year of control would sting Cubs president Theo Epstein but also would make teams more unwilling to give up top prospects for a lone season of Bryant.
The best possible outcome for a Cubs team serious about contending involves them striking a long-term contract extension with Bryant back-loaded with big money. But, alas, that also appears the most remote result. Too much contentious history exists between the team and agent Scott Boras, who represents Bryant, to stake much hope on that possibility.
If Bryant indeed loves Chicago and wishes to spend his entire career with the Cubs, now would be the time for him to remind Boras that the agent works for the player – before it’s too late and Bryant becomes an ex-Cub. Consider that the Cubs also could keep Bryant regardless of any ruling and re-evaluate everything around the All-Star break when teams in the trade market often show more desperation for impact players.
Whenever the Bryant domino falls, it could trigger a series of moves made within a payroll the Cubs will try to keep under the luxury-tax threshold of $206 million. With baseball’s third-highest payroll in 2019, according to Spotrac.com, the Cubs paid a $7.6 million penalty for exceeding the limit.
As a result, they strive to avoid becoming a repeat offender that carries heavier penalties – and the threat of penalizing the Cubs through the amateur draft always looms. In a detailed analysis of the Cubs’ luxury-tax dilemma, Brett Taylor of Bleacher Nation estimated that the team could face as much $25 million in additional cost if it goes over the luxury tax again in 2020. That’s not a number easily dismissed.
That said, it won’t be easy for Epstein to avoid going over the tax in 2020 even after shedding as much as $60 million in contractual commitments to players such as Cole Hamels ($20 million), Ben Zobrist ($14 million) and others. At some point, too, Epstein figures to approach Chairman Tom Ricketts for funds necessary to fill pressing needs – outfielder Nick Castellanos? – but the Cubs will be more frugal than many expected for the second straight winter.
Arbitration awards means raises for players such Bryant – who’s expected to make $18.5 million – Javier Baez and Willson Contreras. Pitchers Yu Darvish ($22 million), Jon Lester ($20 million), Craig Kimbrel ($16 million) and Tyler Chatwood ($13 million) still are expensive. So is outfielder Jason Heyward ($23 million), the ultimate albatross.
This is what happens when teams fail to draft and develop their own starting pitchers, the biggest blot of Epstein’s Cubs resume. Having to buy starting pitching during Maddon’s tenure has caught up to the Cubs. It’s like an NFL team forced to make tough roster choices once its franchise quarterback’s rookie contract expires. Not everybody can get paid, not every hole can be filled.
Practically, everything hinges on a grievance that has taken far too long to settle.