Kris Bryant has had as tumultuous of a career of any Cubs player in recent memory. After winning NL rookie of the year in 2015, NL MVP in 2016, and finishing seventh in MVP voting in 2017, he was beloved among the Cubs fanbase and viewed as one of MLB’s best players. But due to rumors regarding his lack of interest playing for the Cubs long-term, his agency representation, and a couple of injury-plagued seasons, the connotation surrounding his name has flipped entirely over the past three years. The first words that come out of most Cubs fans' mouths when hearing Kris Bryant’s name is now “soft” and “overrated.” Is this warranted? Should the Cubs invest long-term money in Bryant? The answer is quite complex.
When Kris Bryant is at His Best, There’s Few Players that Compare
Before getting into what the Cubs should do with Bryant this offseason, it’s worth highlighting how productive he has been over his Cubs career. Since his rookie season in 2015, Bryant is sixth in MLB in fWAR behind only Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Francisco Lindor, Josh Donaldson, and Christian Yelich. That’s not too shabby of a list to be on. I understand Bryant has not been as productive since his 2017 season, but you cannot deny that his ceiling is as high as practically any player in the majors.
I would also argue that the narrative surrounding Bryant’s “regression” in recent seasons is overblown. Yes, he struggled mightily in 2018 and 2020, both injury-plagued seasons. But for whatever reason, people throw 2019 into that narrative and act like Bryant has had three consecutive bad seasons. That is false. Bryant was an All-Star in 2019 and finished the year with a 4.8 fWAR, highest on the Cubs.
The Argument that Bryant Has Regressed is Exaggerated
This argument that Bryant is no longer the player he used to be has become so mainstream around Cubs brass that I believe Kris Bryant is now actually as underrated as anybody in baseball. The following tweet, which is a laughable overreaction, is but one reason why I hold this to be the case.
I mean, do people with this school of thought realize Bryant was the 24th best player in MLB according to fWAR just one year ago? Part of the reason that 2019 season is glossed over and why Bryant is so underrated is because much of his value goes unnoticed to the naked eye. There’s a hell of a lot more to a player’s worth than the ability to hit homeruns and make web-gems in the field, and Bryant excels at practically all of these “boring” aspects of the game.
Value Hidden to the Naked Eye is Still Value
For starters, Kris Bryant is a phenomenal athlete. This makes him lethal as a baserunner, proven by his 11th best-in-MLB BsR since 2015. This athleticism also provides him the ability to do things like beat out infield singles and play five different positions in the field, a skillset highly sought after in today’s game. These are all aspects of value that go unnoticed to the casual fan because they don’t move the needle from a marketing standpoint, as sports media prioritizes flashiness. Just as Bryant is under appreciated due to lack of flashiness, Javier Baez is arguably over appreciated for the same reason.
Sure, Kris Bryant’s 2019 season still isn’t up to par with his seasons from 2015 – 2017. I understand. But baseball is a weird game in that players don’t necessarily improve year after year. With the amount of data available today, hitters have to constantly adjust as opposing organizations use that data to exploit their weaknesses on a game-by-game basis. This fact, along with Bryant’s recent injury issues, makes his “regression” since 2017 no surprise at all. It also means that it is absolutely possible Kris Bryant gets healthy, makes a couple adjustments offensively, and reverts back to his 2015-2017 form in 2021 and beyond.
Lack of Durability is a Long-Term Issue
However, the flip side of that coin is that all of the hidden value aspects of Kris Bryant’s game will deteriorate as he ages. This is the one part of Bryant’s long-term value that, for lack of a better phrase, scares the shit out of me. As Bryant ages, he will slowly lose his athleticism and everything I mentioned in the two paragraphs above will prove negligible. At some point in the foreseeable future, Bryant will no longer be able to play the outfield on command; he will no longer be an elite baserunner; and he will no longer beat out infield singles.
The Cubs Should Not Extend Kris Bryant
Not only that, do you think Bryant’s lack of durability, which has been his predominant hindrance offensively since 2017, will magically improve as he gets into his 30’s? Hell no. These minor bumps and bruises will only become more frequent. And for a guy that will be reaching age 30 when he hits free agency for the first time in the 2021 offseason, this is a terrifying reality.
Listen, I’m one of the biggest Kris Bryant fans there is and I believe the negative perception towards him by the Cubs fanbase in recent seasons is unwarranted and wrong. But if I’m going to objectively evaluate how Bryant’s strengths and weaknesses will play out long-term, I can’t be all sunshine and rainbows. As much as it pains me to say this, but given him and his agent's likely asking price, I don’t believe it is in the Cubs’ best interest to commit long-term money to Kris Bryant.