Kris Bryant's Cubs career tells the story of how MLB put the squeeze on its stars

When the last out of the 2016 World Series arrived — the final hurdle in the Chicago Cubs’ 108-year quest for a championship — it seemed appropriate the ball found Kris Bryant. Just 24 years old, the third baseman broke into a grin as he fielded it and fired to first to set off the long-awaited celebration.

At the time, he was the avatar of the new Cubs. He had arrived in 2015 as baseball’s top prospect and fueled a surprise playoff run, earning NL Rookie of the Year honors. In 2016, he got even better, won NL MVP and lived out a sports savior story in delivering a title to the North Side of Chicago and Cubs fans around the world.

He was far from the only star on the team, and his presence was by no means singular. But Bryant was the difference — the promise of the Theo Epstein plan that plunged Wrigley Field into the darkness of a rebuild, fully realized in an astounding two-year leap to the top of the world.

On Friday, Bryant begins what is likely his last homestand as a member of the Cubs. Set for free agency after the season, and attracting the attention of contenders as the Cubs steer toward a sell-off, Bryant is likely to be dealt by MLB’s July 30 trade deadline.

These days, he’s the avatar not of a team, but of the contemporary baseball star. Bryant’s seven years in the majors have charted the course of a sea change in how MLB franchises treat the game’s best players — a shift that has squeezed top talents from all angles by whittling away at assessments of talent and fan connection in favor of a relentless centering of finances.

At one point, it would have been impossible to imagine a player of Bryant’s stature in his team’s lore ever leaving. Now, it’s a given.

A star everyone saw coming

Outside of all the winning, Bryant’s career also began as a flashpoint for MLB labor relations, before it was baseball’s most constant undercurrent.

With Bryant clearly ready for the show ahead of 2015 — he batted .425 with 9 homers in 14 games that spring — the Cubs front office sent him to Triple-A in the most transparent instance of service time manipulation, coining a dubious phrase about how Bryant needed to “work on his defense” in the process.

Young players must reach six years of MLB service time by the end of a season to become a free agent. Because of how the rules are set up in the collective bargaining agreement, keeping a player off the roster for about two weeks will gain a team an extra year of his services. The Cubs did just that, and Bryant filed a labor grievance seeking to become a free agent after 2020 instead of after 2021. The grievance took more than four years to resolve, and an arbitrator eventually ruled against him in January 2020.

There are several important reasons Bryant was eager to have his free agency come as soon as possible, especially in 2015. MLB teams have rapidly soured on paying players in their 30s, leaning into an aging curve that increasingly favors the young players who also have little financial recourse. The younger a free agent, the higher the bidding could go.

But it was also a matter of leverage. It stood to reason then that the Cubs were at the beginning of a long period of contention. Fellow stars Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez were already signed through 2021, so perhaps Bryant could command an extension to maintain the core of a dynastic team.

As it turns out, there was plenty of contention, but no further World Series appearances. Other franchises lapped the Cubs, especially in the pitching development realm, and they fell into a pattern of scrapping for disappointing postseason appearances. Cubs owner Tom Ricketts emphasized the financial woes of MLB teams during the COVID-19 pandemic — calling the losses “biblical” — and it became clear the days of the Bryant-Rizzo-Baez core were numbered.

Epstein departed over the winter, unwilling to undertake the rebuild that seemed imminent. Longtime lieutenant Jed Hoyer took over and promptly traded away ace Yu Darvish. After an initial run atop the division this spring, the Cubs now look like surefire sellers, which means that maneuvering for an extra year of Kris Bryant will indeed win them a prize, in the form of whatever prospects the rest of his season can bring back.

Chicago Cubs left fielder Kris Bryant takes up his position during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals Monday, July 19, 2021, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Joe Puetz)
A capable defender at third base and in the outfield, Kris Bryant is likely to be shipped to a contender by MLB's July 30 trade deadline. (AP Photo/Joe Puetz)

The new national pastime: Dissecting stars

Let’s get this out of the way: Since he debuted in 2015, Bryant has been among the very best position players in MLB. By FanGraphs WAR, he has been the fifth-most valuable hitter over that span, and by Baseball-Reference WAR, he’s 12th.

Even since 2017, when he has theoretically “fallen off” from his breakneck early career spree of accomplishments, he has been the 22nd-best position player by FanGraphs, virtually tied with Bryce Harper and slightly ahead of fellow trade rumor magnet Trevor Story.

He has been at least 25 percent better than the average hitter (by the park-adjusted offensive stat wRC+) every year except the shortened 2020 season, which was even shorter for Bryant due to injury woes.

And that’s where his narrative gets muddled. Chicago fans, at some point, starting taking out their frustration over the underwhelming team performance on the best player.

In reality, he missed significant time only in 2018 — when he still played 102 games with an .834 OPS — and in 2020. That didn’t stop the swell of cries that he was “soft” or not worth his salary. By the end of last season’s miserable pile-up of injuries, he was understandably fed up, telling reporters “I don’t give a s***" about critics.

Reframing Kris Bryant

It's interesting to compare Bryant to Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman, who has tracked a similar path on a later timeline. He was also the No. 2 pick, and he played a similar role in the Astros’ rise from rebuild to championship. However, he signed a five-year, $100 million deal covering the 2020 through 2024 seasons, befitting or perhaps simply accepting the new archetype for how young stars. Bregman, Ronald Acuña Jr. and others have traded some (or a lot) of their peak earning potential for guarantees and security.

Bryant was not keen to give up any of that potential, and it shouldn't have changed the way he's viewed. He has gone through the usual year-by-year arbitration process and, in return, endured often inane commentary about his future. Earning high-end arbitration salaries thanks to his prodigious early career production, Bryant will have made about $63.5 million by the end of 2021.

It's unclear who will be paying that salary by year's end, though.

So many contenders (the Giants, the Mets …) could use a player like him that it's clear his future won't be tied to the team that battled to tamp down his earnings, and whose inadequacies came to unfairly define his storyline. The move might serve to clarify the game’s posture toward accomplished stars who sit just below that MVP threshold.

Since 2010, 10 players have posted multiple 5+ WAR seasons before turning 25. One is Mike Trout, who might be the best player of all time and is under contract with the Angels through 2030. As for the rest of them, their paths lay bare the uneven priorities that drive the movement of star players, with many teams pressing them to accept below-market deals or hit the road as freshly minted antagonists.

So far, three of those young stars have reached free agency and signed with new teams. Jason Heyward, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. Three signed extensions on one side or the other, but were traded explicitly because of money concerns. That’s Giancarlo Stanton, Mookie Betts and Francisco Lindor. Three are approaching the moment of truth now: Bryant, Carlos Correa and Corey Seager. They are wildly similar in many ways, but Bryant is the most decorated, most consistent and — in what might count as news to Cubs fans — by far the most durable.

Assuming he is on the move, Bryant is an interesting test case of the sport’s demand for good players — a weird thing to have to test, but here we are.

We know the flip side of some teams’ unwillingness to spend on a familiar face is that other franchises will pounce on the chance to secure elite talent, as the Dodgers did with Betts. You could argue the Mets also did this one step down the talent ladder with Lindor. If he lands in the right situation, Bryant could make a lot of sense as a candidate to join that club of players who emerge in greener pastures on the other side of a painful trade process.

Those 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 who has challenged Trout’s all-around greatness. Lindor is relatively even with Bryant on track record, but stars at shortstop, where his ability is more scarce. Bryant nonetheless seems to warrant a deal with a proportional version of the same approach, one that sees him as a talent too rare to just let go.

The question is simply whether, in 2021, lucrative extensions are offered to a 29-year-old who can play third base and corner outfield, who will be 25 percent better than average with the bat or better, who will likely be worth 4 to 5 WAR a year. It’s about whether it extends to Kris Bryant, but it’s also not. We’ve been reminded many times that the name no longer factors into the calculus.

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