I’ve long been fascinated by the Chicago Cubs, and if you’ve reard my wok over the past four seasons, that’s been borne out. When they won the World Series in 2016, most of us expected them to be competitive for years to come — they combined young, homegrown talent with the deep pockets needed to augment the roster in free agency, THE receipe for success in today’s MLB.
The Cubs haven’t been bad since that championship season. They’ve won two division titles and secured a Wild Card berth in the four seasons since, but they’ve been far from the dynasty many expected. Now that Theo Epstein is out, the team is signaling they’re ready to tear down major parts of the roster, including almost certainly wanting to be rid of the piece most considered the crown jewel of the team, third baseman Kris Bryant.
There are very real performance concerns with Bryant, who struggled mightily in 2020, and even in putting up strong seasons in 2018 and 2019 doesn’t boast great underlying stats. He regularly ranks in the bottom half of baseball in exit velocity, xwOBA, and other predictive metrics.
But the real reason why the Cubs are looking to ditch Bryant is financial. 2021 is his final year of team control, one where he’ll earn almost $19 million, and the Ricketts family have decided that’s unpalatable. The Red Sox apparently already tried to finagle a deal for Bryant, and they certainly won’t be the last.
The irony of this shouldn’t be lost on any reader. Bryant is one of the most famous examples of a team manipulating a star’s service time in order to gain an extra year of control. The third baseman put up a 1.652 OPS in 2015’s spring training camp, only to be sent to Triple-A for 12 days to “work on his defense”. The Cubs got their extra year of Bryant, and seemingly want nothing to do with it.
This should serve as an object lesson for the rest of baseball on the risks of manipulating service time. For the Yankees in particular, it wouldn’t be that surprising for the team to mess with Deivi García’s or Clarke Schmidt’s service time. They will also likely keep Jasson Dominguez in the minors until they can pull out a seventh year of control.
Unfortunately, I’m too much of a realist to imagine the Yankees not manipulating time this way. The potential economic payoff is too high, and even if you do trade a player down the line, the extra year of control makes them somewhat more valuable. The system is set up to support this, regardless of how one particular manipulated player’s saga ends.
Still, we’re going to see an ugly, tragic, and predictable ending to the relationship between the Chicago Cubs and Kris Bryant. Front offices increasingly see players as assets, a discounted-and-continually-discounting net present value that will be cut loose at some point. In the Cubs case, it seems as though Bryant is no longer worth keeping around, so I hope those 12 days spent in Triple-A were worth it.