The Washington Nationals have had a third base conundrum since Anthony Rendon left before the 2020 season. The questions first centered on whether they should spring for Josh Donaldson. There were murmurs of addressing the hole with a trade for Kris Bryant. Then the Nationals held pat, started rookie Carter Kieboom in a shortened season, sent Kieboom down for part of it and now are back where they started.

As a result, the Nationals are again exploring a trade with the Chicago Cubs for Bryant, according to two people with knowledge of their plans. The interest, first reported by MLB Network, indicates Washington could use third base to address a larger need for a middle-of-the-order bat. Once Rendon departed, General Manager Mike Rizzo didn’t replace one all-star with another. He signed Starlin Castro; re-signed Howie Kendrick, Ryan Zimmerman and Asdrúbal Cabrera; and strengthened the bullpen with multiyear deals for Will Harris and Daniel Hudson.

But the 2020 season, despite being only 60 games long, made it clear that the offense needs more. That’s where Bryant makes a lot of sense.

For starters, he is a former MVP entering his final season with a club that could lose him in free agency next winter and get nothing in return. For the Nationals specifically, Bryant played under Dave Martinez when he was bench coach for the Cubs; Bryant could shift to a corner outfield spot if the Nationals want to give Kieboom another shot at third; and getting Bryant now, for less than it would have taken in 2019, would still give them almost a year of being the only team that can negotiate a long-term deal with him. Bryant is a right-handed hitter who profiles well in front of or behind the left-handed Juan Soto. And, maybe most importantly, he would make Washington markedly better in the last guaranteed season of having Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin atop the rotation.

Bryant doesn’t extend the current title window as much as he shoves it open for 2021. If he comes to Washington before next year, there will still be a chance he leaves at the end of it. Rizzo doesn’t like to discuss “windows,” because he constantly keeps the Nationals in contention. Over almost a decade, he has backed that with four division titles and a World Series championship. But that Scherzer is on the last year of his contract, that Soto and Trea Turner are still under team control and that the bullpen’s best pieces are on their last legs make this seem a bit more pressing for the Nationals. And that makes Bryant the right fit at the right time.

Only 28, Bryant is coming off a down season that was shrunk to 34 games by injuries and the pandemic. He has otherwise faced questions about his defense and a slight regression since winning the National League MVP award in 2016. He is under the Cubs’ control for one more year after losing a service time grievance in January. Bryant had petitioned that the Cubs manipulated his clock at the start of his career and that he should have reached free agency this November. But an arbiter sided with the Cubs, further fraying Bryant’s relationship with the club. In turn, it seems unlikely that he would re-sign with Chicago, despite helping the Cubs break their World Series curse in 2016.

Last offseason, the Nationals wouldn’t include Soto, Turner, Victor Robles or pitcher Jackson Rutledge in any trade package for Bryant, according to people with knowledge of those discussions. But now, with the Cubs’ leverage dwindling, it may not take any top prospects to complete a deal. Bryant made $18.6 million in 2020. He is due for a raise in his final year of arbitration eligibility. If Rizzo can take on that type of salary, the Nationals’ system — ranked low and top-heavy with young arms — has the pieces to make it happen.

This can all come with clashing truths. A Bryant trade could be smart for a team that has to improve its offense to stare down the Atlanta Braves in the NL East. A Bryant trade could also lead to a harshly short leash for Kieboom, a former top prospect who has just 165 plate appearances in 44 career games. But these are the dilemmas bred by attempting to compete for a title every year. Kieboom is a 23-year-old who, with a bit more seasoning, could blossom into a major league regular and a reliable bat. And he could also be knocked aside for a proven player who elevates the Nationals immediately.

If Washington chooses to keep Kieboom at third for now, there are other ways to add offense. Several corner outfielders are on the market, from George Springer to Marcell Ozuna, from Michael Brantley to Joc Pederson. Star catcher J.T. Realmuto, long prized by Rizzo, is a free agent. There is a deep pool of experienced, power-hitting first basemen who could come cheap. Then there’s DJ LeMahieu, one of the game’s best hitters, who split his innings among second (34 starts), third (11 starts) and first (one start, 11 games) with the New York Yankees in 2020.

But none of those players has shared a dugout with the Nationals’ manager. It’s hard to see any of them allowing for a one-year investment while Washington works out its long-term finances. Kris Bryant checks those boxes and many more.

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