According to a rumor out of Atlanta, the Cubs have told the Braves that if they're willing to part with any three of Drew Waters, Ian Anderson, Kyle Wright, and Austin Riley, Kris Bryant can be theirs. Obviously, there are reasons to be skeptical of this report, especially considering no other sources have confirmed this information. However, that type of package seems plausible for the Cubs to ask for.
Let me first get this out of the way: the Cubs shouldn't trade Kris Bryant to shed payroll. As I wrote two weeks ago, a mathematically-reasonable return doesn't make sense for the Cubs. In that article, I calculated Bryant's surplus value to be somewhere between $46.4M-$68M. If they do feel they must trade him, though, I would expect them to want to get more value than that in return.
Any three of the players mentioned in this rumor would exceed Bryant's surplus value. Even if you assume Riley's value dropped all the way down to a 50 FV after having a rough stint in the majors, a package of Anderson, Riley, and Wright would still be worth $83M, and I doubt Riley's stock dropped quite that far.
The most exciting prospect in the group of four is Waters. According to FanGraphs, Waters has “a solid chance to stick” at center field, and according to MLB he has a strong enough arm and good enough bat to be a valuable corner outfielder as well.
It seems like the Braves would be most likely to include Wright in a trade. Wright was still the 60th-best prospect in baseball in mid-2019 according to FanGraphs, but he was moved down the list due to concerns about his fastball missing bats. Wright is generally closer to major-league ready than Anderson, but the expectation is that both should be able to contribute at some point in 2020. FanGraphs projects Anderson as a #3/4 starter. MLB Pipeline is much higher on Wright than FanGraphs, ranking him just four spots behind Anderson as the 35th-best prospect in baseball.
I'm not sure what to make of Riley. At first glance, he's a highly-ranked prospect who could partially fill the void left by Bryant at third. However, there seems to be an obvious hole in his swing, as after a torrid May, in which he slashed .356/.397/.746, he slashed .191/.248/.395 over the rest of the major-league season. The power was certainly there, but Riley's power/strikeout profile is something the Cubs seem to be trying to get away from. Still, it seems likely that Riley can be a contributor in the majors in 2020.
If the Cubs got Waters, Anderson, and Riley from the Braves for Bryant, the trade wouldn't look too bad. I'm not saying the Cubs should trade Bryant at all, but if they're going to, this is the type of return they should and would be looking for. Waters could join the Cubs sometime in 2020, and could be their starting center fielder for several years. Anderson would be able to fill part of the void left by the departures of Cole Hamels after 2019 and Jon Lester, José Quintana, and Tyler Chatwood after 2020. Riley would join Ian Happ, David Bote, and Nico Hoerner as versatile players, some combination of which would slot in at second and third and rotate through the corner outfield spots along with the established regulars there. None of the players in this trade are likely to surpass Bryant's production individually, but a trade like this could diversify the roster and extend the Cubs’ window.
However, the return could look rough if you took the three least valuable prospects from this group of players and looked at their possible floors. Riley could continue to strike out nearly as much as Robel Garcia and end up as a bench bat with pop. Wright and Anderson could fail to develop their command and be good relievers or swing-men. These are all valuable profiles, but certainly not what you would want in return for Kris Bryant.
There's also the fact that even if this rumor is accurate, there is likely room to negotiate on the Braves’ end, especially because the Cubs seem to be unable to do anything without clearing payroll. For instance, I'm sure the Braves would like to include center fielder Ender Inciarte instead of Waters. Inciarte hasn't been a league-average hitter since 2015, but in the three-year stretch from 2016-2018 he averaged 3.0 fWAR due to his excellent defense. Inciarte's strikeout rate in that three-year period peaked at 13.1%, which would have been the lowest on the Cubs in 2019. His 2019 was cut short due to injury, limiting him to just 65 games, but a bounce back year wouldn't be surprising in the least, though he will be entering his age-29 season.
The money and team control, however, are an issue. Inciarte has two years remaining on his contract, along with a club option for 2022. He's owed $16.4M over the next two seasons combined (although his luxury-tax salary hit is just $6.1M/year), and his club option is $9M. To be clear, this is a team-friendly contract. If we project Inciarte to be worth 2.5 WAR each of the next two seasons, he would have $28.6M of surplus value (even without factoring in the club option). However, if the Cubs are in such dire need of clearing salary, acquiring Inciarte doesn't make much sense. It would mean a Bryant trade would only save the Cubs $12M as opposed to $18M in 2020, when, apparently, every dollar counts.
While getting Inciarte, Wright, and Anderson would give the Cubs a starting center-fielder and two intriguing pitching prospects who are near major-league ready, both things the team needs. The three players coming from the Braves actually surpass Bryant by basic surplus value calculations. The Cubs’ ask in this rumor is plausible, and even after negotiating down a bit from there, the theoretical return isn't bad. It's still hard for me to move past the fact that the Cubs would be trading their best player for salary reasons after a season in which they finished third in their division.