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Cubs beat Kris Bryant, but at what cost?

An arbitrator’s decision means they might be able to get more for the 2016 National League MVP in a trade. If that’s good, why does it feel so bad?

The Cubs plan to make Kris Bryant their leadoff hitter, even while they leave open the possibility of trading him.
Teammates congratulate the Cubs’ Kris Bryant after he scored what would be the game-winning run against the Pirates on July 12, 2019.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It never should have come to this.

The Cubs, a major-market franchise, never should have played the wonkish, rules-massaging game they played with Kris Bryant when he was a rookie. They never should have tried to squeeze another year of contract control out of a player they said they valued so highly. But they did, and here we are.

It never should have come to this, an uncomfortable situation between an organization cheering itself for winning an arbitrator’s ruling and a player who should have been the face of the franchise for a long, long time. Bryant has lost his service-time grievance against the team, meaning he won’t become a free agent until after the 2021 season. Another year of control means the Cubs might be able to get more for the 2016 National League Most Valuable Player in a trade. If that’s good, why does it feel so bad?

If the Cubs were big-league in the best sense of the phrase, they wouldn’t have taken the route they did in 2015, when they kept Bryant in the minor leagues for two weeks to start the season so they’d have one more year of control over him. Had the team called him up one day earlier, he would have finished the season with 172 service days, the threshold for a full season.

Tell me, chairman Tom Ricketts, is it worth it now?

The fan anger? The bad feelings? The bad look of a team trying to save money in the long term instead of tending to a player in 2015 who would give so much excitement to a starved fan base?

And what did you really get out of it? You got one more year on his contract. You might get some more top prospects in a deal. That would give you other young players to toy with. You can take the savings from the new contract you didn’t give Bryant and pour it into Wrigley Field suites and all the other things that make money for you.

The Cubs have been crying poor for a while now, not because they are but because they take their fans for fools. It’s why Nick Castellanos, who hit .321 with 16 home runs in 51 games for them last season, signed a four-year, $64 million contract with the Reds on Monday. That hardly breaks a bank, yet the Cubs stood by, hands in pockets, while the outfielder went elsewhere. At 27, he was the youngest free agent on the market.

The Cubs don’t want to go over the luxury tax for the second season in a row. Everything they do seems to be with that in mind. Too bad Joe Maddon isn’t around to come up with a slogan for a T-shirt. “Winning is a Luxury We Can’t Afford’’ would have worked.

At the recent Cubs Convention, team president Theo Epstein left open the possibility of holding on to Bryant, but it certainly didn’t sound like Plan A. It sounded like a message for any suitor who might be interested in Bryant.

“What’s most likely is status quo,’’ he said. “It’s hard to get long-term extensions done. It’s hard to get trades done. We have what we feel is a pretty good club. We’re trying to compete this year. We’re not in a position where we have to do anything.’’

Maybe Epstein’s words will get other teams to pony up for the third baseman. But no matter how much the Cubs might get in a trade, it will be a sad day in Chicago if they trade him — unless it’s to the White Sox.

A source told the Sun-Times’ Gordon Wittenmyer on Wednesday that Bryant isn’t bitter about the arbitrator’s ruling.

“Kris harbors no ill will whatsoever,” the source said.

Even if Bryant were angry at the Cubs, we’d probably never know it. He’s been the good soldier since the Cubs finally got around to calling him up from Iowa in 2015. He hasn’t had a discouraging word to say about anybody, except anyone who lives in St. Louis.

His detractors say he’s not the same hitter he was in his MVP season, but the only big gap last season was in RBI. He had 77 in 2019, compared with 102 in 2016. His .382 on-base percentage last season was ninth in the N.L. That’s .003 off his career OBP. That means he’s consistently a pain in the butt for opposing pitchers.

Ah, but the money. The Cubs don’t appear to want to give him a lot of it. They also don’t seem to want to give more to Anthony Rizzo, but that’s partly on the first baseman for signing a seven-year, $41 million extension in 2013. The contract is buried so far below market value it comes with an avalanche beacon.

There’s a theme here. The Cubs are coldblooded. Sentiment is for somebody else, not them. They’re not going to give back any advantage they have. They want to win at everything, possibly even baseball.

It’s why Bryant’s days with the Cubs could be numbered. And what a sad statement that is.