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The potential cost of trading for Kris Bryant and why the Diamondbacks will ultimately balk at that price

Mike Hazen’s goal is to build a sustainable winner with a continuous pipeline of talent and making smart trades. While the possibility of adding Bryant to the roster is fun to think about, the long term risks outweigh the short term gains.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at San Diego Padres Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Kris Bryant has been the subject of trade rumors this offseason, with the Diamondbacks reportedly interested. I believe their interest can be chalked up simply to due diligence that a marquee player like Bryant could be available. There is an obvious need and fit to add Bryant to the lineup, his presence would allow the team to move Eduardo Escobar to a full-time 2B role while Bryant plays at 3B. While the team doesn’t need a drastic upgrade at the 3B position individually, the domino effect is worth nothing. Not only would the Dbacks have a very potent lineup 1-8, but at least 4 players who should clear 25 homers whether or not the ball will still be juiced next season.

Such a lineup would look like:

CF Ketel Marte
3B Kris Bryant
LF David Peralta
2B Eduardo Escobar
1B Christian Walker
RF Kole Calhoun
SS Nick Ahmed
C Carson Kelly
Pitcher’s Spot

That would be a tough lineup for a pitcher to navigate through, with Nick Ahmed’s 93 OPS+ being the lowest number in that lineup while the other 7 hitters were above 100. Peralta’s numbers should improve with good health plus I think Walker and Escobar can easily repeat their 2019 outputs. Marte, Calhoun, and Kelly are obvious candidates for regression although in the case of Marte there is also a good chance his 2019 output is the new normal. With that strong a lineup, it makes the Dbacks a dangerous team in the National League if the pitching can hold up. If that’s the case, I have the Diamondbacks win total in the 89-92 range which would be good enough to host the Wild Card game in 2020.

The first and most important question about a Kris Bryant trade will be how much it costs? It very much depends on how you view Bryant moving forward, especially the glove. After accumulating 20 WAR in his first three seasons, Bryant struggled with a shoulder injury that sapped a lot of his bat speed and power. The result was a career low 85.8 MPH average exit velo and career lows across the board and essentially a 2 WAR season. The bat bounced back a bit in 2019, leading to an uptick in offensive production (10 point increase in OPS+ and wRC+) but defensive metrics soured on him a bit. Depending on if you use Baseball Reference or Fangraphs could determine how you see his present day value, but I’ll take the average of the two metrics since one is underrating and the other is overrating such value. In 2019, the average of the two WAR metrics placed him at 4.2. Steamer projects Bryant to put up 4.6 fWAR for 2020 and for 2021 I used the 4.2 average from 2019 as the projection.

My projection includes a $25MM salary in Bryant’s 4th and final arbitration season, using Josh Donaldson as the main case to compare. Donaldson got a $6MM raise in Arb-4, although Bryant has a bit stronger case being younger and Donaldson missed time the year before. I could see Bryant with a healthy and productive season getting a larger raise, as both players had an MVP award under their belt and at least 3 All-Star selections. When also factoring in the draft pick value, I put the slot value of the 31st overall selection of the 2019 Draft into the equation. Overall, it adds up to a $29MM surplus value for the Diamondbacks so the question becomes what do they send back to Chicago to match that value. In most trade talks, I presume Kristian Robinson and Corbin Carroll will be absolutely off limits to other clubs.

$29MM value is the equivalent to a prospect in the 51-55 range according to Fangraphs, which is a high-end 50 FV prospect. Curiously enough, that’s where I expect to see Daulton Varsho and Alek Thomas likely appear around. While I’m sure the Diamondbacks would be loathe to trade either guy, we’ll use Thomas as the centerpiece in the deal although I think he’ll be closer to 75 than 50 when Fangraphs releases their Top 100 board. Chicago may prefer Varsho, who is closer to the majors, but the Diamondbacks would likely balk at the inclusion of Varsho due to lack of catcher and outfielder depth in the organization. Varsho doesn’t have an everyday path at either position right now with Carson Kelly and Stephen Vogt behind the plate and Ketel Marte slated for his second year in center field. However, I think the team is also one injury at either position from needing to play him every day.

So with Thomas as the main centerpiece, he alone will not account for the total surplus value that Kris Bryant offers. The Cubs are in the market for young and high upside pitching, so I figure Corbin Martin, Jon Duplantier, and J.B. Bukauskas would be discussed. Each one of them have injury concerns with Martin recovering from Tommy John surgery, Duplantier’s long list of shoulder and arm problems, and J.B. Bukauskas’ long term role in question despite possessing electric stuff. I think Chicago would go for higher upside in Bukauskas over Martin and Dup given that they have a potential closer fall back option depending on how quickly his arm can recover after 20-pitch outings. Given that J.B.B. used to be a starter, it’s not a seamless transition to being a back-end reliever as they’d have to be able to make sure the velo recovers on back-to-backs, which will be necessary as a late-inning and/or high-leverage guy.

To add more stability to the deal, I think the team would give the Cubs the choice between their two top prospects in A ball: Levi Kelly and Matt Tabor. Kelly is too similar to Bukauskas right now in terms of value and fit, although he has a better chance of developing into a starter than J.B.B. Instead I think they’d take Tabor, who has a better chance of sticking in the rotation than Kelly, who posted equally as ridiculous numbers at the same level. Overall, I think they’d try to balance out upside with J.B.B. with security in Tabor.

This is what the Dbacks return would look like:

So the final package would be Alek Thomas, J.B. Bukauskas, and Matt Tabor for Kris Bryant. I was originally going to include the Comp. A pick, but would have given the Cubs an extra $2.2M in excess value so I excluded it to make them closer. From a value standpoint it is fair as the Diamondbacks are giving up $32MM (Thomas $23MM, Tabor $4MM, J.B.B. $5MM) in value in exchange for $29MM. At the same time, it would be a risky deal for the Cubs from a PR standpoint because despite while there is upside for an everyday center fielder, closer, and a #3 starter they would be waiting a couple years to see that return on investment. The Cubs may instead want to gamble on more upside (Robinson or Carroll) or demand a player that is or is close to being ready for the majors (Perdomo or Varsho) as the center piece with the addition of the Diamondbacks’ Comp. A pick in the 2020 Draft. I’m not sure how much Hazen values draft picks, but the value of that pick would be roughly $2.2MM based on the 2019 slot value for the 33rd pick.

While Bryant would be 3 years younger than when Goldschmidt was traded and is playing a tougher defensive position, higher salaries and less projected value overall closes the overall gap in surplus value between the two players. Goldschmidt was coming off 6 All-Star seasons in which he put up at least 4 WAR in each season with 3 Gold Gloves and 3 Top-3 MVP finishes. Bryant won the 2016 NL MVP award as part of the Cubs’ run to a World Series title, but since 2017 has not been able to repeat the success he’s had in his first three seasons and isn’t an elite defender at 3B. As a result of Goldschmidt’s accolades and Bryant’s bloating salaries combined with recent drop-off in overall production compared to his first three seasons, I think the surplus value different between Goldschmidt a year ago and Bryant this offseason has shrank considerably.

Ultimately I believe what will happen is once Bryant loses his service time case, teams will get on the phone with Theo Epstein to trade for the Cubs’ All-Star 3B. Mike Hazen will call up his former boss and figure out what the Cubs are asking for Bryant. The Cubs will then see what the Diamondbacks were able to snag for Paul Goldschmidt and demand that Hazen gives up more value than he’s comfortable giving up. The Diamondbacks absolutely crushed the Cardinals on that trade, taking advantage of the Cardinals’ desperation for a middle of the order bat to land two former Top 100 prospects with projected future values around 50. Weaver and Kelly would have paid for Goldschmidt’s excess value by themselves, but Hazen was able to squeeze out a Comp. B pick and a 40 FV prospect in Andy Young out of the deal and swing the net value in favor of the Diamondbacks. Hazen is smart enough to know when the price is too much and when to move on to the next negotiation, so I don’t think the team will drastically overpay in a Bryant trade.

Whether or not the Diamondbacks ultimately jump back in on the Bryant trade rumors is all speculation at this point. Both Hazen and Epstein likely have the prices they’re comfortable dealing with and won’t budge on it knowing they don’t have to make a move. As a result, I don’t expect a Bryant trade to Arizona to happen any time soon. The Diamondbacks are currently a fringe playoff contender and while Kris Bryant helps the team’s chances in that department it barely makes a dent towards winning the division barring a down season for the Dodgers. However such an acquisition could also result in negative long term consequences if the team overpays in prospect value and prevent them from competiting 4-5 years down the road.

Hazen’s goal has been to build the team to be a sustainable winner by being wise with the prospect currency he has available. The only time he’s included a top prospect in a trade was last season, in which he traded #1 prospect Jazz Chisholm for a young starter in Zac Gallen. Gallen was an underrated pitching prospect who flew under the radar until a breakout campaign, in the PCL of all places, last season that prompted a MLB call-up and Hazen executing the deal a month later. It was a great deal at the time, and it looks much better now with Gallen showing he is capable of developing into a #2/3 starter down the road. Hazen was comfortable doing that deal because he was getting the full control for Gallen. With Bryant, he’s getting 2 prime years at around $43MM in salary and a pick right after the first round so he might not be comfortable throwing in one of the organization’s top prospects around in a deal. It will be interesting to see if any team becomes interested in acquiring the 3-time All-Star 3B and how much they give up to land him.