Kris Bryant's Cubs career tells the story of how MLB put the squeeze on its stars
When the final of the 2016 World Series arrived - the final hurdle in the Chicago Cubs' 108-year quest for a championship - it seemed appropriate that the ball found Kris Bryant. Only 24 years old, the third baseman grinned as he set him up and fired first to trigger the long-awaited celebration.
At the time, he was the avatar of the new cubs. He was a top contender in baseball in 2015 and made for a surprising playoff run that became NL Rookie of the Year. He got even better in 2016, winning NL MVP and living a sports savior story by delivering a title to the North Side of Chicago and Cubs fans around the world.
He was nowhere near the only star on the team, and his presence was by no means unique. But Bryant was the difference - the promise of the Theo Epstein Plan that plunged Wrigley Field into the obscurity of rebuilding that was fully realized in one amazing two-year leap to the top of the world.
On Friday, Bryant begins what will likely be his last homestand as a member of the Cubs. Slated for post-season freelance agency work, Bryant will attract competitor attention as the Cubs head for a sell-off, and Bryant is likely to trade through the MLB's July 30th close.
These days he's not the avatar of a team, but of the contemporary baseball star. Bryant's seven years in the majors marked the way for a profound shift in how the best players of the game are treated in MLB franchises - a shift that squeezes top talent from all angles by providing ratings of talent and fan connections cuts away finances in favor of an inexorable centering.
At one point it would have been impossible to imagine that a player of Bryant's stature in his team's lore would ever walk. Well it is given.
A star that everyone saw coming
Aside from all the wins, Bryant's career also began as a focal point for MLB labor relations before it became baseball's most constant undercurrent.
Since Bryant was clearly ready for the show before 2015 - he hit .425 this spring with 9 homers in 14 games - the Cubs front office sent him to Triple-A in the most transparent instance of service time manipulation and coined a dubious sentence about like Bryant, it had to "work on his defense".
Young players must have six years of MLB service by the end of a season to become a free agent. Due to the collective bargaining agreement, a team gains an additional year of service by suspending a player from the squad for around two weeks. The Cubs did just that, and Bryant filed a labor lawsuit to become a free agent after 2020 instead of 2021. The complaint took more than four years to settle and an arbitrator finally ruled against him in January 2020.
There are several key reasons Bryant was anxious to have his free agency as soon as possible, especially in 2015. MLB teams have quickly soured from paying players in their thirties and turned to an aging curve that is increasingly the young Preferred players who also have little financial recourse. The younger a free agent is, the higher the bid can be.
But it was also a question of leverage. So it was obvious that the Cubs were at the beginning of a long argument. The two stars Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez were already signed until 2021, so maybe Bryant could order an expansion to get the core of a dynastic team.
As it turned out, there was a lot of argument, but no other World Series appearances. Other franchises overtook the cubs, particularly in pitching development, and they fell into a pattern of scrapping for post-season disappointing performances. Cubs owner Tom Ricketts highlighted the financial troubles of MLB teams during the COVID-19 pandemic - called the losses "biblical" - and it became clear that the days of the Bryant-Rizzo-Baez core were numbered.
Epstein left for the winter because he was unwilling to tackle the apparently imminent reconstruction. Longtime lieutenant Jed Hoyer took over and immediately swapped ace Yu Darvish. After an initial run at the top of the division this spring, the Cubs now look like surefire sellers, which means that by maneuvering for an extra year they will actually win Kris Bryant a prize in the shape of all the prospects the rest of him have Season can bring back.
Kris Bryant, a skilled third base and outfield defender, is likely to be extradited to a competitor by MLB's close of trading on July 30th. (AP photo / Joe Puetz)
The new popular sport: dissecting the stars
Let's get that out of the way: since his debut in 2015, Bryant has been one of the best positional players in the MLB. He was the fifth most valuable hitter on FanGraphs WAR during that period, and he is 12th on baseball Reference WAR.
Even since 2017, when he theoretically "fell away" from his breakneck success frenzy at the beginning of his career, he is the 22nd best positional player from FanGraphs, practically on a par with Bryce Harper and slightly ahead of the rumor magnet Trevor Story.
He was at least 25 percent better than the average hitter (based on the park-adjusted offensive value wRC +) every year, with the exception of the shortened 2020 season, which was even shorter for Bryant due to injury issues.
And then his story begins to falter. Chicago fans at some point begin to vent their frustration over the best player's disappointing team performance.
In reality, he only missed a significant time in 2018 - when he was still playing 102 games with a .834 OPS - and 2020. That didn't stop screaming that he was "soft" or not worth his salary. At the end of last season's miserable accumulation of injuries, he was understandably fed up and told reporters, "I don't care about critics".
Recast by Kris Bryant
It's interesting to compare Bryant to Houston Astros' third baseman Alex Bregman, who followed a similar path on a later timeline. He was also number 2 and played a similar role in the Astros rise from rebuilding to championship. He did, however, sign a five-year deal for $ 100 million for the 2020-2024 seasons, appropriately or perhaps simply accepting the new archetype for young stars. Bregman, Ronald Acuña Jr., and others have traded some (or much) of their peak earnings potential for guarantees and collateral.
Bryant didn't want to give up that potential, and it shouldn't have changed his mind. He has gone through the usual arbitration process from year to year and in return has often endured stupid comments about his future. Bryant earns high arbitration salaries thanks to his amazing early careers and will make about $ 63.5 million by the end of 2021.
However, it is unclear who will be paying that salary by the end of the year.
So many contenders (the Giants, the Mets ...) could use a player like him that his future will not be tied to the team that struggled to curb its revenue and whose inadequacies unfairly defined its action. The move could serve to clarify the game's stance towards savvy stars sitting just below that MVP threshold.
Since 2010, 10 players posted multiple 5+ WAR seasons before turning 25. One is Mike Trout, who is perhaps the best player ever and is signed to the Angels through 2030, revealing the unequal priorities that drive the movement of star players, with many teams pushing them to accept offers below market price or as fresh-baked Antagonists take to the streets.
So far, three of these young stars have reached the independent agency and signed with new teams. Jason Heyward, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. Three signed extensions on one side or the other, but which were explicitly traded for financial reasons. These are Giancarlo Stanton, Mookie Betts and Francisco Lindor. Three are now approaching the moment of truth: Bryant, Carlos Correa and Corey Seager. They're very similar in many ways, but Bryant is the most decorated, enduring, and - which might be news to Cubs fans - by far the most durable.
Assuming he's out and about, Bryant is an interesting test case of the sport's demand for good players - a strange thing to test, but here we are.
We know that the downside of some teams unwillingness to spend money on a familiar face is that other franchises seize the opportunity to attract elite talent like the Dodgers did with Betts. One could argue that with Lindor, the Mets also made that one step down the talent ladder. If he lands in the right situation, Bryant could make a lot of sense as a candidate to join this club of players emerging on the other side of a painful trading process on greener pastures.
These extensions are richer than Bryant should expect, and that's fair. Betts is a consensus top five player in the game and the only active player to have challenged Trouts all-round greatness. Lindor is relatively even with Bryant, but plays the main role at Shortstop, where his skills are rather scarce. Bryant still seems to justify a deal with a proportional version of the same approach, viewing him as a talent too rare to just let go.
The question is simply whether a 29-year-old who can play as third base and corner outfield who is 25 percent better than average with the club, or better who is probably worth 4 to 5 WARS, will be offered lucrative additions in 2021 in the year. It's about whether it extends to Kris Bryant, but neither is it. We were often reminded that the name is no longer included in the calculation.
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