MESA, Ariz. — Kris Bryant is expected to get to Arizona for the start of spring training late this week.
He might even stay for a while. Like it or not?
After months of trade talks involving Bryant — and other players the Cubs have discussed — camp opened Tuesday with the core intact and team president Theo Epstein talking about why it might stay that way into the season.
“We’ll probably certainly have a couple of real small moves, adding guys on minor-league deals and things of that nature,” Epstein said of deals expected to include the addition of Glenbrook North product Jason Kipnis, who will compete for playing time at second base.
“Whether anything big happens, I don’t know. Obviously, the closer you get to Opening Day, the less likely it is to happen, but there’s still some chatter going on across the industry, but we’re kind of turning the page, honestly, with our focus. We’re excited about the group we have in camp. And it’s time to pull together and focus on winning games.”
Bryant has been the highest-profile subject of Cubs trade talks all winter in the face of the team’s need to eventually meet a tapped payroll budget and in the wake of Epstein’s proclamation as last season ended that the club was open to listening to trade offers for any of its players.
Epstein has offered assurances to fans — and to Bryant, he said — that a trade won’t happen yet.
And after the deep-pockets Red Sox shipped out star right fielder Mookie Betts to the Dodgers in a salary dump blockbuster, nothing that comes next with Bryant would be a shock.
In fact, Epstein acknowledged he expected more significant changes by now — certainly more than just two additions of big-league contracts in one-year deals for outfielder Steven Souza Jr. and reliever Jeremy Jeffress.
“It turned out to be a bit of a slow trade market,” he said. “There was obviously a big trade this week, but beyond that, it had been a pretty robust free-agent market and a slower moving trade market.
“I think the reason we weren’t active with trades is just the desire to not force change. And we haven’t found deals we thought made us better at this point.”
If that means Bryant sticks around at least until the trade deadline in July, where does that leave the relationship — after both the winter of heavy rumors and Bryant’s loss last month of his grievance hearing over service-time manipulation?
“I’ll let him speak for himself,” said Epstein, who said he exchanged texts with Bryant after the hearing decision was rendered. “All along my view of the grievance has been that it was a byproduct of the business elements of the game and it was something that wasn’t our process but something that we would participate in as requested and be respectful of.
“I admire players who at the appropriate time are willing to stand up and assert their rights. There were no hard feeling[s] on either end, and I don’t resent Kris or hold it against him in any fashion. In fact, I respect that he was willing to do that even though it wasn’t easy.”
Bryant recently declined to comment on the subject during an event in his hometown of Las Vegas, but sources in his camp said after the arbitrator’s decision that he had “no ill will whatsoever” toward the club.
Whether the Cubs can improve on an 84-win season even with Bryant after so few improvements and with a first-year manager, well, that’s what spring optimism is for.
“I think we made a lot of progress in some important areas this offseason,” Epstein said, referring in part to vast changes among non-player areas. “I know it might bring some eye rolls because there wasn’t the kind of significant change to the roster that could have happened under another iteration of this. But I’m genuinely optimistic about this group.”
The annual PECOTA projections system that picked the Cubs to finish in last place a year ago predicts they’ll win 85 this year.
“I feel like the talent is getting overlooked a little bit, and that’s our own fault, because it hasn’t manifested the way it should have,” said Epstein, who has repeatedly pointed out that some stats (such as run-differential-based models) suggested the Cubs should have won 90 games last year. “We haven’t gotten the most out of it. …
“I’m genuinely excited and optimistic to see what we can do.”