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The Kris Bryant market might be ready to heat up

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The Cubs star lost his service time grievance, meaning he won’t be a free agent until after 2021. Will he get dealt before the season, and will the Phillies be in on him?

Chicago Cubs v. Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Maybe it was always going to end this way: Kris Bryant, one day removed from having enough service time to be a free agent after the 2020 season, lost his official grievance against the Cubs. He cannot be a free agent until after 2021.

It’s a rather devastating — if expected — loss for players who’ve been subjected to this kind of roster trickery in ownership’s neverending quest to extrude as much cost efficiency as they possibly can from players by delaying their path to arbitration and free agency; the two major salary escalators. The ramifications of this decision as it relates to the relationship between owners and players and the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement talks will be heavily scrutinized.

In this moment, more immediately, there is a different discussion to be had: Will the Cubs now trade Bryant, 28, knowing they have an additional year of control to leverage in talks, and will the Phillies get involved? Bryant’s a player just about every team could use, but the Phillies’ lack of a certified third baseman to start this year makes them seem like that much more of a reasonable fit. To this point, there’s been very little connecting the Phillies to Bryant. The team has been content to let major free agent upgrades at third base go on to other homes, and the front office doesn’t seem all that squeamish about playing either Scott Kingery or Jean Segura full-time at third. At least not publicly.

Complicating things a bit is Alec Bohm, the team’s top positional prospect who, for the moment, also plays third base. He’s set to debut with the Phillies in 2020, barring disaster, and has no real path to playing time at any other position, either because he doesn’t play it or because it’s occupied by an entrenched starter already. There are high hopes for Bohm, but it’s unreasonable to expect him to perform at Bryant’s level as a rookie, and so the Cubs star would represent a significant upgrade for 2020, and also probably 2021.

Bohm could be included as part of a proposal for Bryant, solving this hypothetical roster logjam but depriving the team of its most highly-anticipated hitting prospect in some time and significantly depleting the farm in exchange for a widened competitive window for the next two years. Bryant’s positional flexibility also can’t be discounted: In addition to nearly 600 starts at third base, Bryant has played at first base, both corner outfield spots, and even made one start in center field. The thought of acquiring him to play center, where he’d displace Adam Haseley, is kind of absurd but, hey, can’t rule anything out I guess.

Chicago Cubs v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

It’s basically inarguable that having Kris Bryant on the Phillies would make them a much better team for the next two years. There’s overwhelming evidence to show that Chicago’s former Rookie of the Year and MVP is the kind of impact talent you want if you’re serious about making a World Series run. To that end, though, the Cubs may decide to keep him and make a run at a contested NL Central, possibly reevaluating their stance in July or waiting until next offseason. Either way, they’d have fences to mend with a critical player who has made no secret of his displeasure with how he (and others who’ve had their service time manipulated) has been handled by his team. He’s almost certain to walk after 2021.

There’s also the lingering threat of the Braves or Nationals making a strong play for Bryant, which would be a blow to the Phils’ division title hopes. Some evaluators favor both Atlanta’s and Washington’s prospect crops to the Phils’, the assumption following that being that either team could top a Phillies offer if they so chose. Constructing baseball trades is a bit more difficult than just comparing public prospect rankings, though, so all we can really do with that information is handicap the race.

No one knows what’s coming next. Maybe Bryant is shipped out before Spring Training starts, or maybe the Cubs try and placate him for a bit while they make one more run with their current core. Maybe the Phillies get serious about adding another marquee name to their lineup, or maybe they decide holding on to top minor leaguers and running with Kingery/Segura to start the year is the way to go. We stand to learn a lot about the attitudes of both teams in the next few weeks.