The Rockies have nabbed the free agent they’ve been looking for, reportedly agreeing to the terms of a seven-year, $182 million deal with Kris Bryant. The contract, which is pending physical examination, also contains a full no-trade clause. Bryant is a client of Boras Corporation.
Bryant will step in as the new face of a franchise that has caved in Nolan Arenado and seen Trevor’s Story has hit free agency the past two offseasons. It’s the biggest free agent investment in franchise history, one that will tie the four-time All-Star to Denver throughout his 36-year season.
Heading into the offseason, few would have expected Colorado to make these kinds of major sensations. The Rockies have finished fourth in Western Newfoundland and Labrador in each of the past three seasons, and are 74-87. Some outsiders have called for Colorado to tear things down and embark on a full rebuild, but ownership and the front office have maintained they don’t view the team as far removed from contention.
Since the start of the offseason, Colorado has reportedly been targeting a major offensive upgrade to its outfield mix. The Rockies have reportedly registered players like Kyle Schwarber and Michel Conforto as well, but it has become clear in recent days that Bryant is their desired target. There was talk of whether they would spend at the level necessary to land him, but owner Dick Monfort signed a seven-year deal with an average annual value of $26 million to bring in one of the most recognizable stars in the game. Game.
Bryant, of course, earned that fame during his days with the Cubs. The second pick in the 2013 draft, he immediately entered pro ball as one of the game’s top prospects. Bryant lived up to those expectations, tearing up the minors for a season and a half. The Cubs delayed his league debut a few weeks into the 2015 season to push back his path to free agency, but he made his debut in mid-April and started off as a star.
The University of San Diego product hit .275/.369/.488 with 26 home runs in his freshman season, earning the National League Rookie of the Year award. Bryant had a slightly alarming clip that year, but he improved his contact rate significantly in his sophomore season. The star third baseman hit .292/.385/.554 in 2016, earning NL MVP honors and helping the Cubs to a 103-win season and their first World Series title in 108 years.
Chicago never became the multi-year dynasty some fans expected, but Bryant continued to excel on generally good teams over the next few seasons. He combined for a 0.284/0.390/0.511 rating between 2017 and 2019, ranking 17th among position players in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement during that span. Bryant seemed on the way to a mega free agent deal, but his production plummeted in 2020. In that year’s shortened season, he posted a low .206/.293/.351 line on 34 matches. What kind of production the Cubs could expect from him — as well as how his free agent market might ultimately collapse — looked very up in the air in 2021.
Bryant didn’t regain his MVP form last season, but he rebounded from his 2020 downturn. He hit .267/.358/.503 in 374 plate appearances on the North side. That wasn’t enough to save the Cubs from a June-July skid that took them out of the postseason, and it became clear they were likely to move the impending free agent by the 30th. July. Minutes before trade deadline, Cubs shipped Bryant to Giants for prospect Alexander Canary and Caleb Kilian. That deal made Bryant ineligible to be tagged with a qualifying offer, so the Rockies won’t lose a draft pick to add him.
Its production has dropped a little in the Bay Area. Bryant hit .262/.344/.444 in 212 plate appearances in black and orange. Nonetheless, he hit the market after a productive .265/.353/.481 season line. Heading into his campaign at 30 with an MVP pedigree, he seemed to have re-emerged as one of the top prizes in this year’s class. MLBTR listed Bryant as the No. 4 free agent of the winter in November, projecting him to receive a six-year, $160 million guarantee.
Bryant’s actual deal tops that mark, as he lands a seventh year and $22 million more, plus no-trade protection. Only Corey Seager, who earned $325 million over ten years, received more collateral among free agents this winter. (Carlos Correa and Freddie Freeman still have the possibility of exceeding this mark). The height of the investment perhaps suggests the Rox had to pay a premium to convince Bryant to join a club that isn’t a clear immediate competitor. Despite the confidence of all owners and the front office, Colorado still seems to have a weaker roster than the Dodgers, Giants and Padres in a busy NL West.
There’s also the fact that Colorado’s last two superstars haven’t left the organization on the best of terms. Arenado and the Rockies had a messy argument before trading him to the Cardinals, with Arenado saying he felt “disrespected” by then-general manager Jeff Bridich. Story, meanwhile, said he was perplexed by the organization’s decision not to trade him at last summer’s deadline; there’s been no indication that he plans to re-sign since he’s been on the open market.
Bryant and the Rockies are no doubt hoping their long-term relationship will end happily. It’s the biggest decision ever made by first-year general manager Bill Schmidt, who took over baseball operations when Bridich stepped down last April. There are obviously a lot of risks in any type of investment of this magnitude, and Bryant’s profile is not without some areas of concern.
As mentioned, his 2021 campaign – although a marked improvement on his 2020 numbers – was not a return to the peak level. Bryant’s 123 wRC+ was a personal low in one of his six career non-truncated seasons. By definition, that’s still solid work (23 percentage points above league average offensive production), but it’s not the kind of production that will get MVP support. And Bryant never had the jaw-dropping batting metrics one would expect from a player who has had so much success.
His average exit speed of 88.2 mph last season was right within the league mark. His average exit speed on balls hit in the air (91.4 MPH) was just a hair above average (90.9 MPH). Bryant fares better in metrics like hard contact rate (40% vs. 35.4% league mark) and barrel percentage (10.3% vs. 6.6% league average) , but both ratings are better than the elite. He’s still drawn a fair share of walks and hasn’t been particularly strikeout-prone since his rookie year, but his peripherals have more closely aligned with a player who ranked 44th in wRC+ last season (on 135 batters with over 500 plate appearances) than with a superstar performer.
There’s no doubt manager Bud Black will put Bryant into day-to-day training, though precisely where on the diamond remains to be seen. He’s played mostly third base in his career, but Colorado has a Gold Glove-caliber defenseman in the hot corner of Ryan McMahon. It seems likely that Bryant will spend most of his time in the outside corner, at least next season. He was generally seen as a capable cornering defender, although he didn’t seem comfortable handling the tricky right-hand field at Oracle Park during his few months in San Francisco. Bryant has some experience in center field, but he’s never been a regular option there and would be a poor fit for that position at spacious Coors Field.
However, the Rox plan to use it, they have made a significant financial commitment to add star power to the lineup. The specific financial breakdown has yet to be shared, but Roster Resource’s Jason Martinez estimates that adding a $26 million salary to the books in 2022 would bring Rox player commitments to around $141 million. That’s only slightly below the 2019 opening-day franchise record of $145 million, leaving little room for more additions unless Monfort approves an unusual level of spending.
There’s enough roster uncertainty that the Rockies are ill-advised to rest on their laurels now. They’re clearly aiming to return to the legitimate postseason, and areas like center field and the bullpen remain question marks. Colorado will have to keep pushing forward — raising payrolls beyond Monfort’s previous comfort level and/or dealing with a lean agricultural system for immediate relief — if they’re serious about hanging on. to division. At the very least, though, the Rockies have definitely signaled that they see themselves as capable of meeting that kind of challenge — striking a deal few would have seen coming six months ago.
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