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Cubs questions entering camp: Will Kris Bryant be with the club on Opening Day?

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NBC Sports Chicago is evaluating some of the most pressing Cubs questions entering spring training. First up: Will Kris Bryant be a Cub come Opening Day?

It’s been the biggest question facing the Cubs since the start of the offseason: Will third baseman Kris Bryant be a Cub come Opening Day?

Bryant’s future on the North Side is uncertain. Trade rumors aren’t prophetic, but the 28-year-old has been a fixture of them this winter. If the Cubs move Bryant, they’ll net young assets and financial flexibility in return, benefitting the franchise in the long run.

Bryant is the Cubs’ most valuable trade chip, but his service-time grievance lingered into January, impeding them from moving forward with potential talks earlier this offseason. Before the ruling, suitors didn’t know if Bryant had one or two more years of team control.

Late last month, an arbitrator ruled in the Cubs favor — meaning Bryant won’t hit free agency until after 2021. It’s no coincidence “multiple National League teams” recently contacted the Cubs regarding Bryant, now knowing his contract status. This doesn’t mean a deal will materialize.

If a team wants Bryant, they’ll have to hit the Cubs’ asking price. Theo Epstein and Co. want to compete in 2020, and Bryant being on the North Side will help that goal. And, if the Cubs come out of the gates hot, they could push for a postseason berth and reevaluate Bryant’s situation next offseason.

The Cubs know there’s risk bringing back a largely unchanged team from 2019, but they also believe there’s plenty of room for internal improvement too.

“I also look at the talent that we have on paper and I talk to our players and I get excited about how good of a team we can be,” Epstein said last month. “We were an 84-win team last year, but underlying stats projected out, we were probably a 90-win team. Not to say we didn't have issues — we did. Not to say we don't have holes now — we do. But there's significant upside with this group of players.”

Holding onto Bryant this offseason would also give the Cubs more time to negotiate a long-term deal with him, which — despite the disparity between he and the club over contract value — hasn’t been ruled out.

“I think we're realistic about it. It's been a few years with some of these guys that we've been trying to get something done,” Epstein said of extending core players. “It hasn't happened yet, and it doesn't mean it can't in the future. It's really hard to predict the future.

“You never know — sometimes you're only one phone call away from signing a guy to a long-term contract and sometimes you're one incoming call away from a deal.”

If the Cubs hold onto Bryant and don’t look like a postseason contender this season, they can always pursue trading him this summer or next offseason. Granted, they may receive less valuable offers than this offseason, as Bryant will be closer to free agency.

Until something changes, Bryant will be with the Cubs in Milwaukee on March 26. But even though pitchers and catchers report to camp next week, the Cubs’ offseason may only be beginning.

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