A trade centred around Bryant has been speculated of for years. His relationship with the organisation has been rocky, a dispute over service time looming for several seasons. Injuries meant Bryant played just 34 games in 2020, after making it onto the field only 102 times in 2018. He has failed to build on the dream career start he enjoyed, winning Rookie of the Year, MVP and the World Series over his first two seasons.
Bryant had a torrid time at the plate in 2020. There’s an awful lost of blue on his Baseball Savant page. While that’s a small sample size and he was far from full health, there’s no question that he’s not repeated the standards he kept in 2016 and 2017. Bryant’s xwOBA was in the top 7% in 2016 at .388 – he was .355 in 2018 and .354 in 2019.
His walk rate has never got close to the 14.3% high-water mark of 2017. Bryant’s hard-hit rate has not been above 34.1% since 2017, when it was 36.8%. That figure was at 38.9% in his MVP campaign.
A former second overall pick, a Rookie of the Year, an MVP. Bryant is a three-time All-Star, but his record since those first three seasons has been riddled by injury problems. A cautious front office may wonder if he can ever get close to that standard. An optimistic general manager will look at the 135 wRC+ in 2019.
He was an elite hitter when he was last healthy. Perhaps, then, the future of Bryant, the potential trade package and possible landing spots, depends on how his health projects.
There have been back, wrist, shoulder, finger and oblique problems. Celebrating his 29th birthday in January, and with one healthy season in his last three, we might have seen the best of Bryant. With that in mind, with a hefty 2021 salary, clubs are not going to send a haul to acquire him. Any trade will either include an extension or have the possibility firmly in mind. How can teams know what value Bryant has?
Any team looking to trade for Bryant needs to be prioritising 2020, but they also need to be willing to invest in him long-term, just as the Dodgers did with Mookie Betts. Teams will want to see what Bryant looks like before committing to him through trade or as a free agent.
There’s every chance he gets healthy and makes multiple more All-Star teams. Bryant hit 31 homers in 2019 and he continues to take plenty of walks. The Cubs should be looking to extend him, seeing what sort of team-friendly deal they can secure after a down year. If they are unwilling to do that (as seems to be the case), they must be patient. A trade in the offseason is unlikely to return much of note. If Bryant can be healthy in the first half of 2021, and hit near his 2019 level, they could just get a team to give up a couple of high-value prospects.