April 2015 feels like it was just yesterday. I was telling this to a friend of mine (a Cubs fan) just the other day. The top overall prospect in all of baseball—a sweet-swinging rocket-launcher—was awaiting his chance to provide a jolt of excitement into the bleachers at Wrigley Field, one moonshot at a time. That’s when Kris Bryant became the poster child of a heated debate that reverberated throughout the baseball landscape regarding service-time manipulation.
As front offices and GMs year-after-year held their top prospects down in the minor leagues during April and May to extend their contractual control over the player long-term, fan bases throughout baseball clapped back, wishing to have their best players on the field at the outset of the season, especially when hope springs eternal on Opening Day. While this remains an ongoing issue even today, it’s been refreshing to see some teams veer away from this practice a bit.
After being named an All-American in 2012 and 2013, the Cubs selected Bryant with the No. 2 overall draft pick in the 2013 MLB draft out of the University of San Diego (the Astros selected pitcher Mark Appel with the No. 1 pick). Bryant was then named Minor League Player of the Year in 2014, rising through the ranks quickly, and became baseball’s next can’t-miss-prospect waiting in the wings.
He finally made his MLB debut on April 17, 2015, against San Diego (the ninth game of the season for the Cubs) where he batted cleanup (!) and went 0-4. And for the record, waiting for nine games to have an extra year of contractual control over a potential star player makes all the sense in the world, but it simply illustrates a glaring flaw in the system. But that’s a discussion for another time.
Shortly after his long-awaited debut, Bryant would live up to the hype immediately and take the National League by storm, clubbing seven homers in May on his way to a 26-HR, 99-RBI rookie season in just 151 games.
The 6’5″ Las Vegas native was named to the All-Star team and went on to win the 2015 NL Rookie of the Year award in a unanimous vote. A star was born in Wrigleyville.
If that wasn’t good enough, the following season in 2016 was pure, storybook magic. Bryant was again an All-Star, won the NL MVP award and helped lead the Cubs to a World Series championship, their first in over a century dating all the way back to 1908.
Kris Bryant was now not just a star but one of baseball’s biggest stars. He had officially arrived. He went on to have another terrific season in 2017, posting career-high marks in traditional categories such as AVG, OBP, and OPS while finishing 7th in MVP voting in the National League that season while the Cubs would eventually lose to the Dodgers in the NLCS in just five games.
Bryant had reached the pinnacle of baseball’s elite. He was also a fantasy superstar, perennially selected in the first/second rounds of fantasy drafts each spring. A fan-favorite on one of the league’s most beloved teams. A young, handsome, marketable star in one of the game’s most popular markets. Everything was going right. And then just like that, everything went wrong.
Tough Times Don’t Last
Flash-forward to the present day. It’s February 2021. In what feels like the blink-of-an-eye, the Cubs’ former face-of-the-franchise no longer appears to be in the team’s long-term plans. The Cubs haven’t won a playoff series since 2017. Bryant has made just one All-Star team in the past four seasons and is coming off by far his worst season (albeit a truncated 60-game MLB season) as a major-leaguer. Trade rumors continue to swirl around the former MVP, as he had previously been linked to the Rockies and Nationals before reports last week suggested that Bryant could potentially be traded to the Blue Jays or Mets within the next few weeks as spring training looms.
The Cubs and their franchise player appear headed for a divorce as they have never been able to come close to an agreement on a long-term contract extension, which dates all the way back to that 2015 rookie season when the MLB Players Association filed a grievance on Bryant’s behalf against the Cubs. In that grievance, the MLBPA claimed that the team “acted in bad faith” by keeping the top prospect in the minors for so long. Bryant lost that grievance approximately a year ago, which ultimately determined that he would become an unrestricted free agent after the upcoming 2021 season, after agreeing to a one-year, $19.5 million contract in his final year of arbitration.
It’s felt like a stunning tumble from the top of the mountain for the player affectionately known as “KB”. Whether justifiable or not, the baseball world at large seems to have moved on from Kris Bryant in 2021 just as quickly as it embraced him in 2015, as there seems to be a consensus opinion that he’s been bad for three straight seasons (he hasn’t—more on that to come). There has even been surprisingly little fanfare from opposing fan bases about the possibility of acquiring Bryant in a trade this off-season, despite numerous outlets reporting that the soon-to-be-free-agent has been widely available throughout the winter.
Bryant is the #13 third-baseman coming off the board in fantasy drafts currently. Thirteen!
Jose Ramirez, Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado, Anthony Rendon, Alex Bregman, DJ LeMahieu, Rafael Devers, Eugenio Suarez, Yoan Moncada, Max Muncy, Matt Chapman, Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., and then Kris Bryant. Followed thereafter by Jeff McNeil, Bohm, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Tommy Edman, and Gio Urshela.
I won’t push back much against those top-seven. It’s also easy to be infatuated by Moncada’s skills, despite his struggles last season. And Suarez really picked up the pace after a slow start last season once he had enough time to recover from his offseason shoulder surgery. He feels like a known commodity at this point, and there is something to be said for that surely. But Bryant is constantly being selected after the likes of Muncy, Chapman, the trimmed-down Vlad, Jr., and in some cases McNeil, Bohm, Hayes, and Urshela. This just doesn’t feel right.
So let’s quickly break down Bryant’s perceived decline over the past three seasons and what went wrong.
Shoulder injuries are brutal in baseball, for pitchers and hitters alike. And that’s especially true for power hitters. A recurring left shoulder injury in 2018 derailed Bryant’s season, limiting him to just 102 games while posting the worst numbers of his career virtually across the board as he spent multiple stints on the injured list.
The injury did not require surgery, but with a player who has such a unique one-handed follow-through with his left shoulder on his swing path, it’s no wonder that he struggled so mightily while battling that type of injury. For more evidence of this, look at Nolan Arenado’s miserable performance in 2020 due to his own left shoulder injury, who also utilizes a similar left-handed follow through on his swing path.
Despite the power outage due to the shoulder problems (evidenced by a paltry .460 SLG), Bryant’s on-base skills still propelled him to a respectable .834 OPS and solid 121 OPS+. The Cubs went on to lose a wild extra-inning Wild Card playoff game against the Rockies.
During the first half of the 2019 season, all seemed right on the North Side. Bryant certainly seemed back to his normal self. He slashed .297/.403/.552 with 66 R, 17 HR, and 44 RBI in the first half alone. He made the All-Star team and reminded everyone of his MVP days as one of baseball’s brightest stars. This seems critical to projecting Bryant moving forward, as it certainly gives hope that a healthy Bryant still possesses the skills to be an elite player.
Everything was back on track, but then he slumped in the second half; most notably in August as he battled a chronic knee issue, the Cubs failed to make the playoffs, and the season ended yet again in disappointment.
But despite the second-half swoon, an overall season with 108 R, 31 HR, 77 RBI, and a .282/.382/.521 slash line in just 147 games can’t be viewed as anything other than successful (and worthy of an early-round pick in fantasy drafts). There seems to be a widely-accepted belief that Bryant has struggled since 2017. His first half in 2019 (and even his overall stat line) prove that simply not to be true.
If there is any player who wants to take a mulligan on the abbreviated 2020 season and Men-In-Black it from the record books entirely, it would be Bryant. His 2020 season was an abject disaster, ruined by numerous nagging injuries which included a minor back issue during the summer, a left elbow issue early in the season, a left wrist and left ring finger sprain as the result of a diving attempt in the outfield, and lastly a troublesome oblique injury from an awkward swing.
I mean, 11 RBIs? The MLB record for RBI in a single game is 12. He was by any measure one of the worst full-time position players in baseball during the mere 34 games he played, severely compromised by the litany of injuries he sustained during the course of the season. We could dive deeper, but there really isn’t much of a point. Suffice to say, he was awful. The Cubs went on to lose two straight games in the opening round of the playoffs to the Miami Marlins, ending their season.
There’s no sugar-coating the Statcast chart above from Baseball Savant. Bryant was terrible in 2020, as he was again hampered by multiple injuries and failed to meet the expectations of Cubs fans and fantasy managers who selected him in the early rounds of drafts, leading directly to his plummeting ADP in 2021.
Expectations for 2021 and Beyond
Bryant enters 2021 at a career crossroads, hoping to veer back onto the path of superstardom instead of continuing along the less desirable path of a once-promising but now declining career entering his age-30 season. If ever there was a “contract-year” narrative to get behind, this would seem to be it. Bryant will (finally) become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and he stands to benefit immensely from a strong bounce-back season in 2021 in hopes of securing a big payday next offseason. A clean bill of health and a strong 2021 season would vault the still-in-his-prime Bryant back into superstar status and make him one of the most coveted free agents on the market next winter.
The 2021 Chicago Cubs team preview here at Pitcher List by Daniel MacDonald (@danthemacs) identifies Bryant as a potential mid-round fantasy sleeper, projected to slot right back into his customary two-hole in the Cubs lineup this season. The Cubs’ recent addition of outfielder Joc Pederson provides even more lineup support to Bryant and teammates Anthony Rizzo, Javier Báez, Wilson Contreras, and Ian Happ.
So the most important question we need to answer, as best we can, is to determine whether or not Bryant still possesses the tools and skills needed to be the fantasy star that he was in the past. Injuries are not binary and not all injuries are created equally. Players get saddled with the injury-prone label far too often. Sometimes it’s justified, yet other times it’s an oversimplification. Bryce Harper was once considering injury-prone. Same with Anthony Rendon to an extent, until they weren’t anymore. Then there are players like the Yankees’ bash-brothers Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton who have certainly earned that reputation.
But getting injured and being injury-prone don’t always go hand-in-hand. Bryant’s injuries in 2020 in particular seemed fluky in nature and will not carry over into the upcoming season. An overreaction to bad injury luck is one of the easiest ways to identify a buying opportunity in fantasy baseball.
|Season||Barrel %||Exit Velocity||Launch Angle||Hard Hit %||1st Pitch Swing %|
A review of Bryant’s Statcast profile reveals some concerning trends, however. While his injuries should again be taken into account here, there are some notable red flags. First and foremost is the precipitous decline in his barrel percentage. Injuries or not, the inability to square up the ball consistently would surely explain a dramatic decrease in offensive production.
The decreasing hard-hit percentage and exit velocity mirror that as well. Somewhat surprisingly—and worrisome—is the fact that Bryant has never once, not even in the good years, ranked amongst the top-10% in the league in either of those two metrics. Even during his stellar 2017 season, the only Statcast category that Bryant really shined in was wOBA, which was driven by his terrific walk-rate.
I personally would also love to see Bryant get back to attacking the first pitch more often, as he did in 2015-2016, as his first-pitch swing % has dipped noticeably since those early seasons as well. There is an argument to be made that he is being too patient at times and missing out on opportunities to attack early in the count. The increase in his launch angle back to his previous 2015-2016 levels is surely an encouraging sign though.
Bryant remains a household name when it comes to fantasy baseball, due to the splash he made in his first few seasons, and as such, his ADP will surely creep up as fantasy drafts get underway this spring. Name value carries a lot of weight in fantasy drafts. Especially once reports start trickling out of the Windy City that Bryant “feels great” and is in the clichéd “best shape of his life” during spring training. This can certainly cause a trap, where drafters will be tempted to chase past performance instead of having realistic expectations for future performance. But it’s again worth noting that nothing about the injuries that Bryant dealt with in 2020 should impact him heading into the upcoming season.
ZiPS projections from FanGraphs currently has Bryant pegged for a .252 AVG with 86 R, 24 HR, 67 RBI (596 at-bats). Not too optimistic if we’re being honest.
Just like any of you who fondly remember Bryant’s prodigious 2015-2016 seasons, I remain intrigued by the idea of a fully-healthy Bryant heading into 2021. His current triple-digits ADP offers tremendous upside in the middle-rounds and screams bargain with the injury risk that is baked into his cost at that point in the draft. Plus, he offers multi-position eligibility at 3B/OF in the majority of leagues as well. It’s also worth mentioning that fantasy managers who drafted Bryant in the past few seasons likely feel burned by him and may shy away this season, creating even more of an opportunity to draft him at a discount.
Kris Bryant's early career has been EPIC
Among 3B*, only one player has at least a .280 BA, .900 OPS, and 135 HR in his first 5 seasons in MLB.
*Played at least 55% of games at 3B pic.twitter.com/nPJuGGay0u
— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) July 22, 2020
The tweet above courtesy of CBS Sports HQ on Twitter from last summer is a nice little reminder of just how productive Bryant had been up to his disastrous 2020 campaign. A truly special player and a difference-maker in fantasy circles as well.
However, Bryant’s weak Statcast profile admittedly gives me pause and surely does temper my expectations a bit. Whether those troublesome trends can simply be attributed to injury is something Bryant will be looking to debunk this year. The MVP-version of Kris Bryant is not likely coming back any time soon, especially with his 30th birthday on the horizon.
Third base, as well as the outfield, are also two incredibly deep positions in fantasy this year which complicates Bryant’s draft-day value as well. And while something along the lines of his 2017 or 2019 seasons is likely a best-case scenario (110 R, 30 HR, 80 RBI, .285 AVG), that’s still well worth an early-round pick in fantasy leagues in any given year.
It does sort of feel like a make-or-break season for Bryant in 2021, as he stands at this career crossroads with his free agency looming. Taking everything into account though, I personally still have Bryant ranked in that same tier along with LeMahieu, Suarez, Devers, and Moncada—well ahead of his current ADP. Despite the recent trends over the past few years, there is just too much to like here:
- Hitting in the middle of a favorable lineup
- Contract year—this can’t be understated
- Appealing ballpark
- Clean bill of health entering 2021
- History of star production as recently as 2019
What’s not to like? I’ll be the first to acknowledge the troublesome warning signs as it relates to Bryant in recent seasons, specifically that Statcast profile, and wouldn’t recommend him if his ADP was in the 50-75 range. But 107? I mean, come on. I simply believe there is too much value and worthwhile upside to be had at his current draft price. The risk (is there even a risk in the 10th or 11th round?) is worth the reward in my opinion, and I remain hopeful that Bryant takes the path back to superstardom.
Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)