Kris Bryant’s Enormous Payday Highlights Questions about the Rockies by Jay Jaffe March 17, 2022 © Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports Historically speaking, things have rarely worked out well for the Rockies when they’ve written large checks. Just limiting the timeframe to the past 12 years, the free agent signings of Ian Desmond and Wade Davis were disasters, and they bailed on homegrown stars Troy Tulowitzki and Nolan Arenado well before reaching the halfway point of their long-term deals, having suddenly decided they couldn’t afford to build around them. Yet even with those unhappy examples in mind, it’s tough to comprehend their signing of Kris Bryant to a seven-year, $182 million contract, a deal that was announced on Wednesday. Even with the signing of Freddie Freeman, the news of which broke later on Wednesday night, the Bryant deal is the offseason’s second-largest thus far, after Corey Seager‘s 10-year, $325 million contract with the Rangers, and it’s forth in average annual value, behind Max Scherzer’s $43.3 million, Seager’s $32.5 million, and Freeman’s $27 million. It’s the second-largest contract in Rockies history, after their eight-year, $260 million extension for Arenado. We’ll get to him. Bryant has an impressive resumé that includes an NL Rookie of the Year award in 2015, an NL MVP award and a World Series ring a year later, and All-Star appearances in both of those years plus ’19 and ’21. From 2015-17, he ranked among the top position players in the game, batting .288/.388/.527; his slugging percentage and 94 homers both ranked 16th in the majors, while his 144 wRC+ ranked 12th, and his 20.6 WAR third behind only Mike Trout (25.8) and Josh Donaldson (21.8). Yet his career over the four seasons since has been uneven, with injury-marred campaigns alternating with good-but-not-great ones. For that latter period, he’s hit .268/.364/.479 with 73 homers, a 124 wRC+ (tied for 44th), and 11.1 WAR, maxing out at 4.7 in 2019. He’s been a very good player, with power, patience, and defensive versatility. In 2021 alone, he made 47 starts at third base, 35 in left field, 33 in right field, 13 in center field, and 10 at first base. Still, that latter stretch does not eyeball as the credentials of a player in line for a seven-year, $182 million commitment starting at age 30, not even from a free-spending owner like the Mets’ Steve Cohen. And yet it’s come from the Rockies, who just over 13 months ago traded Arenado — whom the team had signed to that franchise-record extension in February 2019 — to the Cardinals along with $51 million dollars (!) in exchange for five players, four of them prospects. Arenado and the Rockies had been at odds since late 2019, near the end of a 91-loss season that he said “feels like a rebuild,” offending the delicate sensibilities of owner Dick Monfort and then-general manager Jeff Bridich. Their subsequent failure to sign even one major league free agent the following winter only exacerbated tensions, making a parting of the ways necessary. While an analysis of the Bryant signing shouldn’t be about Arenado, or Trevor Story, the two-time All-Star shortstop whom the team refused to trade last summer before letting him walk away as a free agent, one can’t help but feel as though this is Monfort overcompensating. The Rockies are overpaying a free agent with money that would have been better spent on retaining at least one of those players. Both had six-win seasons as recently as 2019 (versus ’17 for Bryant). Both are within a year of Bryant’s age, Arenado older by nine months, Story younger by 10. And both were homegrown — retaining them would have provided welcome continuity. Bryant may be a better hitter than either of them; even limiting the scope to the past three seasons, his 123 wRC+ outdistances Arenado’s 116 and Story’s 113, and his projection for 2022 is higher. Yet he’s been the least valuable of the three over the past three years because he’s not a top-flight defender at a premium position; his 8.7 WAR for that stretch is a distant third behind Arenado’s 11.1 and Story’s 12.0, and he projects to fall even further behind. And when I say overpaying… we’ll get to that, but first, Bryant’s 2021 season. After battling nagging injuries — back stiffness, left elbow, left wrist, and more — through a dismal 2020, during which he managed just a 75 wRC+ (.206/.293/.351), he was much better last year, though his power fell off notably after a July 30 trade to the Giants amid the Cubs’ ongoing fire sale. He hit .267/.358/.503 (129 wRC+) before the deal, and .262/.344/.444 (113 wRC+) after. While he posted his best barrel rate (10.3%) and average exit velocity (88.2 mph) since 2016, those aren’t exactly remarkable numbers, with the former ranking in the 67th percentile, the latter in just the 29th. As for the size of his contract, in our Top 50 Free Agents roundup, Ben Clemens predicted Bryant would receive an eight-year, $200 million deal, while the median crowdsource had him at six years and $150 million. Outside the FanGraphs fold, MLB Trade Rumors had him at $160 million over six years. In a lockout-fevered exercise connecting free agent hitters to teams, however, Dan Szymborski noted that his ZiPS-driven valuation — his multiyear projection times a dollars per win estimate — was for just $67 million over four years, though he himself predicted it would take more to sign him, coming in at $90 million over four years. While the AAVs from Ben, Dan (not ZiPS), and our crowdsource aren’t really that far apart, ranging from $22.5 million to $25 million, the ratio of the amounts at the extremes was larger than two to one. I’ll admit I had forgotten about all of those numbers when the news of Bryant’s deal came down, particularly when Dan handed off his seven-year projection: ZiPS Projection – Kris Bryant (Left Field) Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SB OPS+ DR WAR 2022 .285 .370 .515 515 88 147 33 2 27 80 58 8 121 -1 2.6 2023 .281 .367 .510 484 81 136 32 2 25 75 55 7 119 -1 2.3 2024 .279 .363 .500 466 76 130 30 2 23 70 52 6 116 -2 1.9 2025 .271 .355 .471 442 69 120 27 2 19 62 47 5 107 -3 1.2 2026 .267 .346 .452 409 61 109 24 2 16 53 41 4 100 -3 0.7 2027 .259 .335 .417 343 48 89 19 1 11 41 32 4 89 -3 0.0 2028 .255 .327 .397 239 31 61 11 1 7 26 20 2 82 -3 -0.3 This is for Bryant as a left fielder, since the Rockies have reason to be happy with Ryan McMahon’s stellar defense at third base last year. Projecting Bryant at third doesn’t change much, with an extra 0.2 WAR in three of the first four seasons but some of that coming off the back end. The valuations for the two projections: $67 million for the left field version and $70 million for the third base one, both more than $100 million shy of the investment the Rockies just made. Sweet fancy Moses. I asked Dan if he could recall similar instances of projected valuations that far below the actual deals, and he cited the $200-million-plus pacts of Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, and Alex Rodriguez (post-opt-out), particularly recalling Pujols’ valuation coming in at $131 million for his 10-year, $240 million deal. On Ryan Howard’s five-year, $125 million extension, ZiPS was “only” $75 million under. What those contracts all had in common was that they hailed from an era before analytics had permeated front offices. The only recent contract Dan could recall that overshot ZiPS by such a wide margin was that of Eric Hosmer; with Dan valuing Hosmer’s opt-out at $17 million, his estimate came in at $81 million for what he treated as a $161 million deal (instead of $144 million). None of those contracts, even the contemporary one, aged well. In that light, if Bryant’s deal is that far above projections, yikes. But maybe it’s not as bad as it looks. Bryant did put up 3.6 WAR last year, and 4.7 in 2019; that’s 8.3 WAR over two seasons separated by a 34-game struggle while the player and the rest of the world were an utter mess. Maybe ZiPS is putting too much stock in that, and maybe he starts this deal with two or three seasons in the four-win range before tapering off as he moves down the defensive spectrum. It’s worth noting that according to Statcast, Bryant has outslugged expectations; last year, he outdid his .449 xSLG by 32 points, and in 2019, he outdid his .457 xSLG by 64 points. In those two years, he added a combined 11 homers beyond expectations (six last year, five in 2019). While one could look at that and believe that the 2016 edition of Bryant, with the .554 slugging percentage and .566 xSLG, isn’t coming back, perhaps the increased carry for fly balls at high altitude will pay off for a player with a career groundball/fly ball ratio of just 0.81. Sure, maybe my rose-colored glasses are smarter than Dan’s machine. As evidenced by those other estimates I cited, it’s not like the entire industry views him as ZiPS does — some intelligent people really do see him as a player worth investing $150 million or more. Setting the valuation aside, one can be happy that Bryant, whose free agency was delayed by a year due to the Cubs’ service-time manipulation, is getting his big payday. He’s a very entertaining player who will hit some towering home runs and give Rockies fans a star to cheer for following the departures of Arenado and Story. Undoubtedly, in the short-term he makes the Rockies better and more watchable. This is a team that lost 87 games last year, one whose outfielders combined for a major league-worst 81 wRC+, and just 3.8 WAR. Left fielder Raimel Tapia may have blazing speed, but he hit for a 76 wRC+ and produced 0.3 WAR. Center fielder Garrett Hampson was a worse hitter (65 wRC+) but ever so slightly more valuable due to defense (0.5 WAR), and right fielder Charlie Blackmon was a long way from his All-Star days (94 wRC+, 1.5 WAR). Plug Bryant in for any of them and it’s an upgrade of at least a couple of wins. The problem is that still won’t be nearly enough to catch the Dodgers, Giants, and Padres (oh my!). Even with a rotation that has three reasonably solid starters (Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela, and Austin Gomber) behind staff ace Germán Márquez, that unit projects as the majors’ eighth-worst, and they’re several roster additions away from being a team that can contend. Assuming Blackmon slides into the DH role, they need two good outfielders, a shortstop to replace Story (they’re not winning anything with late-stage José Iglesias there, sorry), and a much better bullpen than the one that currently projects as the very worst in the majors. So the real question is where do the Rockies go from here? Will Monfort continue to spend money to build around that rotation, which has Márquez under control through 2024, Freeland through ’23, and Senzatela through ’27? Can a front office that experienced a regime change last year (Bridich resigned in late April, replaced by long-time vice president of scouting Bill Schmidt) and recently fired its head of analytics, Scott Van Lenten, after just seven months, point them in the right direction? Or will Monfort and company decide in 2024 or ’25 that it’s just too tough to build around another aging and expensive star and make another trade that sets the franchise back (though as with Arenado, they’ll need Bryant’s buy-in, as his deal features a full no-trade clause)? Those questions are unanswerable at the moment. What we know is that Bryant has found a home via a big contract, and that the Rockies have gotten a substantial upgrade via a very good player. How that will all pay off is anyone’s guess.