Staying power: Kris Bryant remains at center of Cubs’ 2019 plans

Not even the Cubs knew where their roster for 2019 was headed when they left Carlsbad, Calif., after the general managers meetings this week.

But two things were as clear as the sunny California skies:

First: Because of a bloated payroll that exceeds the luxury-tax threshold before offseason moves come into play, megabucks free agent Bryce Harper will remain a Twitter-trolling pipe dream barring massive restructuring of financial commitments.

Second: The only thing less likely than adding a Harper-level contract is a trade of former MVP Kris Bryant – no matter what any worldwide sports outlets might imply.

“If Kris Bryant were on another team we’d be trying hard to trade for him,” team president Theo Epstein said Friday, shooting down a report suggesting the Cubs might trade Bryant this winter.

“We are lucky to have some impact players, and we are looking to add to them, not subtract,” Epstein said.

Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer emphasized throughout the week the Cubs’ intentions of going all in on 2019 to get more out of a core of hitters that faded in particular in the second half this season.

With a competitive, potentially championship rotation already in place, a collective improvement from an offensive group that helped lead the 2016 championship run is a key to whatever the Cubs might achieve in 2019.

And nobody is more important to that than Bryant, the best overall hitter on the roster – who was hampered and idled for lengthy stretches last season by left shoulder soreness.

The Cubs and Bryant’s agent both say the shoulder was not seriously damaged, requires no off-season surgery and is expected to be back at full health and greater strength by spring training. Bryant said the same thing after the final game of the season.

“We think we have a really talented team, and there’s a lot of things we can do to get more out of this group, so that’s where our focus is,” said Epstein, who has changed hitting coaches for the second time in as many winters with that effort in mind (bringing former minor-league coordinator Anthony Iapoce back to the organization).

Specifically, Bryant was one of the young hitters who didn’t mesh well out of the gate with last year’s hitting coach, Chili Davis – making Bryant’s success an important factor in the coaching change.

Epstein was asked Wednesday whether anyone on the roster, such as Anthony Rizzo or Bryant, would be considered untouchable as the Cubs embark this winter on what figure to be exhaustive trade talks for bullpen help and hitting.

“We’ve never operated on ‘untouchables.’ I just think it sends the wrong message,” Epstein said, reiterating a point he has made almost annually. “I mean, there would be guys that, given what we’re trying to accomplish, it would be virtually impossible to envision a deal that would make sense to move them.

“I just don’t believe in operating with ‘untouchables,’ because why limit yourself in any way.”

Bryant remains a centerpiece to the Cubs’ commitment to extending their franchise-record postseason streak to five years in 2019, with a franchise-record payroll almost assured.

“There are players who are so important to us on the field and in the clubhouse that you’d be going backwards through whatever lens – narrow view, long view – by moving those guys,” Epstein said. “There are players who have almost made themselves untouchables. It’s semantics.”

The Cubs’ inability to negotiate a multiyear extension with Bryant in recent seasons might fuel speculation about the status of the two-time All-Star and former Rookie of the Year – including within the industry.

But since the day they negotiated Bryant’s signing bonus with agent Scott Boras, the Cubs never counted on such an extension with their No. 2 overall draft pick. They’ve operated under a projected competitive window with him that runs through 2021, his final season as a club-controlled arbitration player.

If anything, that makes the most plausible trade speculation at least a year or two away, and only in the event the Cubs change competitive direction in that time.

Certainly the Cubs consider 2019 a crossroads season as they try to recapture the urgency and production their young core showed in 2016, with manager Joe Maddon playing out a lame-duck seasons.

“Teams don’t stay together forever,” Epstein said early in the week. “It’s certainly time. It’s certainly a pivotal season for us as an organization for this group to go out there and accomplish some special things.”

 

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