The Cubs wouldn’t be so cruel as to name Kris Bryant their leadoff hitter and then trade him, would they?
If they would be so cruel, would a trade be crueler to Bryant or to all the Cubs fans who love him?
The answers, in order, are:
• Yes, the Cubs would trade him, given the right offer, though it seems more unlikely now than it did a month ago … that is, unless they get off to a bad start. If that happens, he’ll probably be the first Cubs player to go before the trade deadline, with that pesky luxury tax being such a burr under chairman Tom Ricketts’ saddle.
• A trade would break the hearts of all the fans who, having resigned themselves in the offseason to life without Bryant, saw all kinds of hope in manager David Ross’ announcement Wednesday that KB would be Cubs’ leadoff hitter this season.
And it’s not just fans who would be upset. The idea of Bryant and Anthony Rizzo hitting 1-2 in the order already has Cubs players excited.
“It gives me chills,” catcher Willson Contreras said.
There are chills, and then there are cold business decisions.
Understand this about team president Theo Epstein: He would trade large portions of his extended family and a body part to be named later if he thought it would help him win another World Series. If you doubt that, ask Rick Renteria, who was the Cubs’ manager until Epstein decided a suddenly available Joe Maddon would be the Cubs’ manager. Renteria, who had one season with the team, was sent packing. By almost any standard, that’s heartless.
There wasn’t much of a public outcry about such a callous move. There hadn’t been enough time to fall in love with a manager who went 73-89 in one rebuilding season. And very few people were thinking about Renteria when Maddon was holding up the World Series trophy two seasons later.
But there’s a decent chance of a public uprising if Epstein trades Bryant. Five years into his career, the 28-year-old is already one of the most popular players in team history. He won a National League Rookie of the Year award, an NL MVP award and a World Series within two years of arriving in the big leagues. He’s a three-time All-Star. He gets on base a lot. He’s intelligent and engaging. Some people get lost in his blue eyes, which is a problem when he’s trying to pick up a fastball at the plate.
Epstein can gush all he wants about what Bryant has meant to him and the organization, but if he decides circumstances warrant a trade, he’ll do it in a second. If Epstein has a sentimental bone in his body, it’s probably in his left little toe.
This is not a good place to be for the Cubs, public relations-wise. Naming Bryant the leadoff hitter while keeping the door open to trading him isn’t just a mixed message. It’s a strain on both player and fan base. Bryant seemed to find some peace in Ross’ recent stated belief that his third baseman won’t get dealt, but let’s see how he feels when the trade rumors follow him into the season. Fans will feel the same way about Bryant trade rumors as they would ticket-price increases.
Ricketts is talking up the Cubs, even as uncertainty reigns.
“Barring some kind of crazy injuries, I think we should win our division and get back in the playoffs, and when you’re in the playoffs, there’s no reason to think you won’t go all the way,” he said.
Overly optimistic talk can be found in every spring-training camp. But you don’t normally get that kind of talk when one of your best players is still a trade possibility. It’s just another reminder that this is a very strange time for the Cubs, who missed the playoffs last year after four straight postseason appearances. It’s almost as if the team doesn’t quite know how to handle the ambiguity of the moment.
Bryant is important enough to be the leadoff hitter the Cubs haven’t had since Dexter Fowler and, by the way, fans, you might not want to get too attached to him. It’s awkward, though I suppose it would be just as awkward if he were batting cleanup. The whole idea of trading him is strange.
The most interesting scenario would have the Cubs and Bryant getting off to a good start. Then we’d find out if the goal for 2020 is winning or avoiding going over the luxury-tax threshold for the second season in a row.
In the meantime, enjoy watching Bryant hit leadoff. And try to ignore the haziness of his future.
Good luck with that.