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Safe or out? Kris Bryant question hangs over Cubs as pitchers and catchers report for spring

If Bryant is the huge question of the spring, at least three others are worth watching if the roster remains intact and the Cubs have any chance to catch the Cardinals and Brewers and to stave off the big-spending Reds in the National League Central.

Chicago Cubs v Milwaukee Brewers
Kris Bryant
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The Cubs’ front office and ownership only need to look toward Boston for an idea of how a trade of their best hitter, former league MVP and World Series winner might play out with fans.

The Red Sox’ pending trade of the dynamic Mookie Betts after failing to sign him to an extension has earned the kind of swift and severe backlash that threatens to overshadow the ongoing investigation into the cheating scandal that already cost the team its manager.

In fact, trading Kris Bryant on the heels of the Betts trade is certain to stoke national storylines about how broken the industry’s economic system is when two of the richest franchises in the game choose to trade popular, premier players in their 20s to leverage their short-term value rather than try to win with them.

Luxury taxes. Service time. Payroll budgets. Billionaire business decisions.

Dive in or doze off when it comes to the business of baseball.

What’s most certain and most significant for the Cubs as pitchers and catchers report for spring training Tuesday is that Bryant’s status will hang over everything else happening in camp until he’s traded or until he opens the season with the team — at which point the trade-deadline countdown starts.

The Cubs have fielded a few more calls regarding Bryant since he lost his grievance over service-time manipulation less than two weeks ago. But little has changed in his status, insiders say, since team president Theo Epstein suggested last month that Bryant might open the season with the club.

“What’s most likely is status quo,” Epstein said during the Cubs Convention. “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, and we’re not in a position where we have to do anything.”

It’s not like Epstein will shrink from a trade, however unpopular, if he gets what he wants. This is the guy who traded Nomar Garciaparra out of Boston.

And trade talks for Bryant at least take on a more substantive than theoretical tone because the result of the grievance preserved the two remaining years of club control.

But Epstein and other team officials have made it clear for months that they’re under no mandate to trade players and won’t force a deal, even as they try to push their projected payroll back under the budget ownership provided.

And if status quo indeed persists with this roster into the season, then the answers they find to all the other burning questions over the next six weeks might matter more than it seems to fans disappointed with a budget-minded winter that has led to little, if any, on-paper improvement since missing the playoffs in 2019.

If Bryant is the huge question of the spring, at least three others are worth watching if the roster remains intact and the Cubs have any chance to catch the Cardinals and Brewers and to stave off the big-spending Reds in the National League Central.

1. Where will the contender-caliber starting pitching come from?

If Yu Darvish puts together an entire season that looked like his second half of 2019, the Cubs have as good a place to start in their rotation as almost anybody in the league. And if Kyle Hendricks is healthy all year, and if Jon Lester has enough guile and gas left in the tank to bounce back, that’s a competitive top three. And if Jose Quintana finally returns to something close to his 2016 All-Star form . . . you get the idea.

That’s a lot of ifs for the four pitchers who actually enter camp with starting jobs.

Beyond that, do you like Tyler Chatwood in a return engagement after his 2018 demotion to the bullpen for the fifth spot? Or the unproven Alec Mills? Or the less proven Adbert Alzolay? Maybe newcomer Jharel Cotton?

This is definitely not your dad’s, or Jake Arrieta’s, rotation.

2. Is there any relief for the pitching in the bullpen?

Not at first glance. The Cubs are counting on even more ifs and dice-roll upside propositions in the bullpen than the rotation after adding only one major-league contract (Jeremy Jeffress) since losing veteran relievers Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler and David Phelps to free agency.

Promising right-hander Rowan Wick is back from an impressive rookie season, along with 2019 lefty linchpin Kyle Ryan.

Beyond that, the upside viewpoint involves a healthy Brandon Morrow, a bounce-back by disappointing veteran Craig Kimbrel and finding another Ryan or Wick among this year’s cast of low-level signings and trades.

“We like a lot of the talent we’ve picked up,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We’ve been active trying to get power arms that can help us back there. We’re excited about the guys we brought in, and hopefully they can come together and we have a really effective bullpen. But there is more volatility in that area, some by nature of bullpens in general. But [also because of] fewer veteran guys that have done it repeatedly.”

3. Volatility? Did somebody say something about the leadoff spot?

The Cubs haven’t been the same offensive team since Dexter Fowler’s two seasons atop the order in 2015 and ’16.

Without a true leadoff acquisition over the winter, the mix-and-match is back, with new manager David Ross calling it “a priority” in his offseason planning and saying he’s not ruling anybody out over past failures in the role.

Newcomer Steven Souza Jr. has limited experience in the spot and just enough on-base success when healthy to suggest he’s a right-handed option to join the mix.

As Ross said during the Cubs Convention when asked who his leadoff hitter will be, “I don’t know.”