Cubs' offers to extend Kris Bryant have been below market, but no luxury tax mandate exists


The Kris Bryant service time grievance was decided in the Cubs' favor and the club has two more years of team control of his contractual rights before he reaches free agency after the 2021 season. So what is next for both the team and the player?

Would the Cubs really trade one of their best and most popular players and the MVP of their 2016 World Series championship team?

Would Bryant agree to a long-term contract extension to stay in Chicago and forgo free agency when he could command a massive contract north of $250 million, potentially more if he has outstanding seasons in 2020 and 2021?

Sources close to Bryant confirmed he is willing to listen to a long-term extension, but the Cubs' offers were not anywhere close to what other top third baseman in baseball have recently signed for. The Cubs may be reluctant to sign any player to a large and lengthy contract extension because they believe players start to decline as they enter their mid-30s.

That philosophy isn’t entirely without merit; most players naturally see their production decline as they age into the latter stages of their careers. However, the problem with operating a major league team under that philosophy, especially a financial behemoth in a major market, is that top free agents can get longer term deals from other teams and find what they want on the open market.

In other words, playing in Chicago is nice but players want what they think they deserve. If a player can’t find it here, they will try to find it somewhere else.

People around baseball believe the Theo Epstein-led Cubs are opposed to including complete no trade clauses, which many other MLB clubs are willing to include for star players. Recent free agents at the top of the MLB pay scale include Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Nolan Arenado, and all of those players received full no trade clauses and no contract was for less than seven guaranteed years.

However, the Cubs have given both full and partial no trade clauses to some free agents since Epstein arrived, including Jon Lester (full no trade) and both Jason Heyward and Yu Darvish (limited no trade clauses).
Let’s look at the situation from Kris Bryant’s perspective. Why would he want to sign a below market deal to remain a Cub and then not have assurance he would not be traded during the term of the deal? He is about to enter the next phase of his life with his wife expecting the couple’s first child this year.
If Anthony Rendon was worth a seven-year, $245 million deal with a full no trade clause from the Angels this winter, what is Kris Bryant worth on the open market? Perhaps Rendon is a better third baseman, but from Bryant’s perspective, his versatility is a major selling point. He has and can play five or six different positions and does it without complaining.
Nolan Arenado is a wonderfully talented player for the Colorado Rockies but he signed a $260 million contract extension just last season worth $35 million a year and contains a full no trade clause. He is also only a third baseman, not anywhere as versatile as Bryant is.
Sources close to the situation confirmed Bryant wants a deal that is commensurate with his peers in the game, preferably from the Cubs.
“Those players who have recently signed all got long-term deals with certainty on where they would be playing. If you want to sign the best players in the game then you have to be willing to give those players what other teams are willing to give," a source says. "Otherwise, why wouldn’t a player just go through arbitration and then get to free agency where he could get his market value? Players aren’t going to sign what you want them to if they have more attractive options available to them.”
Another perception about the 2020 Cubs is the existence of a mandate from ownership to be under the luxury tax. Sources confirmed no such mandate from ownership exists. While the Cubs would like to reset under the luxury tax threshold for strategic reasons, ownership is well aware of the financial challenges they are currently dealing with in player payroll. Ownership is also prepared to navigate another year in the luxury tax if the club remains in the playoff picture in 2020.

While this is a new public perspective on ownership’s stance on the luxury tax, the Cubs of 2020 will be defined by their actions and not their words. If they truly want to win they must try to improve their roster.
Luxury tax is not computed on Opening Day but rather at the end of the season, giving management the opportunity to move players during the season if the team falls out of the playoff race. In fact, with the Bryant grievance now decided, it is expected that Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer will be executing a plan they have been crafting since the end of the season. That plan was hamstrung until the arbitrator issued his ruling and now can be put into motion.

Will Kris Bryant remain a Chicago Cubs star or will he be moved? While the Cubs will weigh all of their options they will not move Bryant to simply reduce costs and ownership made that clear. In fact, unless another club is prepared to give up a massive haul of players and pay all of Bryant’s at least $43 million over the next two seasons, the likelihood of him being traded is less than 50/50.

So how did the Cubs end up in this position just three short seasons removed from winning the World Series with one of baseball’s youngest clubs? A series of poor signings and a crucial lack of player development have red-lined payroll, putting the club in a very tough spot as they look to bounce back under a rookie manager and without several veterans whose contracts expired and were not re-signed.

“The Cubs still have some very good players, but unless they want to play with the big boys in the sport they are not going to be able to get their key guys to sign extensions unless they come to grips what these players can get from other clubs,” a source close to the situation told me.

Or as one rival executive put it, “The ball is in Theo’s court. If he wants to compete for his best guys then he has to be willing to pay long and large or he will lose his stars. Or, he can trade Bryant and see what kind of a haul he can get in return. Those are his options unless he is willing to let him walk after 2021 into free agency.”

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