kris bryant smileBaseball’s long winter is upon us, and that means it is time for yet another offseason of Prospects Progress.  The format may be a little different this year, but the general point is the same.  Each article will take one prospect … maybe a big name you instantly recognize, and maybe a fringe guy you haven’t heard of … and will spend some time looking at his numbers, his risk factors, and how he projects to fit into the Cubs’ future.

To start things off, allow me to introduce the best healthy prospect in baseball today.

Kris Bryant, 3B
Born: January 4, 1992
Acquired: First round pick, 2013 draft

In 2013 Kris Bryant tallied just shy of 150 total professional plate appearances and finished with a combined line of .336/.390/.688. That performance was good enough make him one of the ten best prospects in all of baseball before the 2014 season started.

As we looked at the looming season last winter, we knew that in 2014 he would be playing against tougher competition in prospect heavy Double A and would be facing wiley veteran pitchers in Triple A. The more pragmatic fans figured his numbers would go down. They had to go down. No one would put up better numbers in the highest levels of the minors than he did in the lowest levels, right?



Wrong.

If you witnessed Bryant’s relentless charge through the farm system in person this summer, you were fortunate. One day you may well be telling your grandkids how you saw the notable Bryant and his patient, powerful swing before he broke into the majors. And you saw him win all of those awards.

The only question … and it is a question … is whether or not that will be a happy story. For all the awesomeness Bryant displayed in 2014, his success in Chicago is not certain. He may well be the best hitter to come out of the Cubs farm system since Rafael Palmeiro. He may also be the Heir to Tuffy Rhodes.

Let’s start with the positives.

The Upside

Bryant was fabulous this season. He played less than half a season in the Double A Southern League and still finished second for the season in home runs (22). Of those with 100 or more plate appearances, he claimed the top spot in SLG with a whopping .702. Second place weighed in at just .561. He was on the only hitter with more than 100 PA in the league to finish with an OPS over 1.100. Or 1.000. Or .950. His ISO of .347 led the league by .071. His 14.5% walk rate was good for ninth best. His final line of .355/.458/.702 is just about as great as any of us could have hoped for.

Oh, and I should point that Bryant was doing this at the age of 22, and 22 is decidedly on the young side for Double A.



And then he went to Triple A.

His 21 Triple A home runs were only good for 13th in the Pacific Coast League (one slot behind temporary teammate Javier Baez, actually). His walk rate of 14.5% was good for 12th in the league (again, using 100 PA as my minimum), and his ISO of .324 was third (behind Kyle Blanks and future teammate Jorge Soler). He concluded his Triple A season with 70 games and a line of .295/.418/.619. And, once again, he did that despite being a lot younger than a lot of his competition.

Given all that, it isn’t surprising that the early projections for 2015 are already lining Bryant up for a major league wRC+ of 130 and a WAR (assuming average defense at third) of 4.0. Four wins above replacement would have ranked Bryant as the number eight third baseman in baseball, just below Chase Headley and above Matt Carpenter. That is a significant projection for a guy who will be a 23-year-old rookie.

The Risk

Strikeouts.

That’s the risk.

Bryant’s strikeout rate in Triple A finished at 28.6%; that is definitely high enough to cause concern. The 14.5% walk rate offset the strikeout rate somewhat, and that massive ISO meant he maximized the contact he did make, but at the end of the day the strikeout rate could be an issue.

But, to be honest, I don’t think it will be.

While it is very difficult (arguably impossible) to find a player who finished a Triple A season with a strikeout rate greater than 30% who went on to have a successful major league career, strikeout rates in the high 20% range aren’t quite so terrifying. In fact, when we set that strikeout rate into the context of the rest of his numbers, I actually like what I see despite the swings and misses.



Bryant is going to strike out a lot in the majors, but I don’t think the totals will be career destroying. He’ll probably be over 30% in that category for his first couple of seasons, but long term I strongly suspect he’ll settle back into the same high 20% bracket shared by a lot of other significant major league sluggers. If that is how it plays out, then the Cubs are probably going to be pretty happy.

I should talk about Bryant’s glove a bit here as well. While some reports are very high on his defense at third base, I am personally not as confident. The best case for the Cubs, of course, is that Bryant emerges as a Gold Glove candidate and starts piling up 5 WAR and 6 WAR seasons right out of the gate, but that strikes me as being highly unlikely. I tend to think he’ll look more average (at best) as a third baseman and will ultimately slide into the outfield within a season or three.

To some degree, though, the question of position takes second stage to Bryant’s bat. That bat will ensure his success (or lack thereof) in the major leagues, and thirty years from now it will be for the bat that we remember him (or, possibly, don’t).

Conclusion

Assuming he stays healthy, Bryant will make a brief return to Triple A to open the 2015 season. His arrival in the majors should happen in late April or early May, and from there the only question will be where he hits. Joe Maddon may want to bat him sixth or seventh to try to keep some of the pressure off of him, but it will be very tempting to bat him anywhere from second through fourth.

That’s right. Second. The slot that the statistics tell us should go to the best hitter in the lineup. I’m not saying he’ll outproduce Rizzo and Soler and Castro in 2015, but, from the day Bryant reaches the 25-man roster, any conversation about the Cubs’ best overall hitter will almost certainly have to include him. Sure, he’ll strike out more than we really like (particularly in his first year or so), but he’ll also take plenty of walks and will launch a lot of impressive long balls. His plate approach is already more refined than many guys who have been in the majors a few seasons, and, given his age, his offensive output should continue to improve for a few years yet. From day one, he will be a force to be reckoned with.

He should also be a great deal of fun to watch. His power was made for the modern Twitter/Vine connected universe of fans, and I suspect it will be a matter of time before Bryant at bats become some of the most talked about baseball moments on social media.

The risk that he will ultimately bust is real and is not insignificant, but, on the whole, I think Bryant is more likely ticketed for stardom than infamy. He may well be the best right-handed hitter to come out of the Cubs farm system in decades.




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