SAN DIEGO — The third-base dominoes began to fall around baseball when Anthony Rendon signed his mega-deal with the Los Angeles Angels on Wednesday. It means a market that Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo called “active” can really take off. The end result might be a shocking trade of former MVP Kris Bryant, who would be leaving the Chicago Cubs after five seasons.
“The chatter around Bryant has been steady,” one rival executive said this week at the winter meetings.
The Cubs will probably have to wait in line until one more free agent, Josh Donaldson, comes off the board. That’ll leave Bryant as an attractive chip who will cost limited dollars, though top prospects would undoubtedly have to go back to Chicago. Things could move quickly.
“The third-base market is an active market,” Rizzo said before Rendon signed with the Angels. “There are several teams in the market for that particular position. I think it will move fairly rapidly, not only in the free-agent market but also in the trade market.”
Donaldson is next up and could be a great fit for Rizzo and the defending champions. They aren’t afraid to sign the bigger, longer-term deals, though Donaldson’s contract will pale in comparison to Rendon’s. The Texas Rangers are scanning the market for a third baseman as well, and there are reports that the Philadelphia Phillies are doing the same. After Rendon’s signing, league sources pointed to the obvious: Donaldson potentially inking a contract with Washington or Texas, unless the Atlanta Braves change tactics and are willing to sign their player long-term.
Atlanta’s style has been to augment its young team with veterans who won’t tie up the payroll. General manager Alex Anthopoulos has been a master at being nimble in the offseason and then adding in-season to improve his team. Donaldson’s one-year deal last season was great for team and player. The Braves are hoping the same goes for pitcher Cole Hamels, who inked a one-year contract earlier this month, as did catcher Tyler Flowers and outfielder Nick Markakis this offseason. But the Braves know they need more pop in their lineup.
“It’s fair to say we’d like to add a middle-of-the order bat if we can,” Anthopoulos said. “We are exploring options at third base.”
Not surprisingly, sources say the Braves are focused on Donaldson before they turn to the trade market. They’re desperate for someone to hit behind Freddie Freeman as Donaldson did last season.
“We used to talk about that with Chipper [Jones] and trying to get somebody behind him,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said Wednesday. “I think it’s big. It’s important. Will it happen? I don’t know. I’d sure like for it to.”
There aren’t many at these meetings who believe the Braves will outbid Texas or Washington for Donaldson’s services, and that’s when the Braves can turn to the Cubs. It could be a match made in baseball heaven.
But first a review: Why would the Cubs be willing to trade the only player in baseball history to win college player of the year, minor league player of the year, rookie of the year and MVP — and do so in four straight years?
In a word: circumstances.
No team wants to trade a player of Bryant’s caliber, but the Cubs’ offense needs some change, their farm system — and big league team — needs some arms, they have four key players within two years of free agency, and besides Javier Baez, Bryant would bring the most talent back in a deal. He’s one of those who will be a free agent after 2021. The Cubs simply can’t pay them all.
“We haven’t been able to sign a lot of our key players to contract extensions, so we have to face that reality,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said last month. “You can’t operate in a theoretical world where a few more of these guys have signed.”
And perhaps just as important as anything, as mentioned earlier, this offseason is full of teams needing third basemen. It’s a perfect storm of circumstances that could bring the Cubs and Braves to the table.
Why Atlanta? Their propensity for short-term cost certainty fits Bryant’s profile. He’s likely to make about $45 million in the arbitration process the next two years, which would undoubtedly be two contending seasons for the Braves. Then he can leave via free agency if he chooses.
The Cubs, meanwhile, could pick from a pool of pitchers that includes Mike Foltynewicz and Max Fried at the major league level and highly touted prospects Tyler Wright and Ian Anderson at the minor league level. Plus, the Braves could send third-base prospect Austin Riley and/or Johan Camargo back in a deal.
The teams fit like a glove.
One source also indicated that Snitker thinks Bryant would “fit in perfectly” with his current Braves, bringing championship experience with him. One sticking point could be Bryant’s service-time grievance, which is making its way toward an early January decision, according to a source. If Bryant wins, he will become a free agent after next season. As unlikely as that is, the teams might have to agree on two deals, one with less service time in mind and one for two years.
“Generally speaking, the less control you’re getting back on trades, it’s going to impact what you’re going to give up,” Anthopoulos said. “If it’s the last piece, you might stretch a little bit more … You have to be open-minded to anything at this time of year.”
Either way, Anthopoulos is ready to pivot if Donaldson moves on. The Cubs seem ready as well.
And if it doesn’t work out? The Dodgers could be lying in the weeds, scoping out what’s left of the third-base market, meaning the Cubs could have even more options.