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In appreciation of Kris Bryant

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The tall slugger was probably gone after 2021 anyway, but it’s still sad to see him go.

Kris Bryant looks around Wrigley Field on his last day there as a Cub
Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Out of all the Cubs’ No. 1 draft picks of the 2010s, the one I thought truly had Hall of Fame talent was Kris Bryant.

For a number of reasons, largely injuries, I don’t think he’s going to get there. But in his six-plus years as a Cub, he surely gave us some Hall-worthy performances.

The Cubs had the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft after a 101-loss year in 2012. Can you imagine what the last six Cubs seasons would have been like if the Astros, picking first, had taken Bryant instead of Mark Appel?

Would the Cubs have then taken Jon Gray, who went third to the Rockies? Gray has had a decent career, but not even close to the value Bryant has produced (27.6 bWAR for KB, 11.7 for Gray). There were some other very good players selected later in that first round, including Tim Anderson and Aaron Judge. (Also, Kohl Stewart!)

So thanks, Astros, you probably helped the Cubs win the 2016 World Series.

KB hit nine home runs in 32 games in the Cubs system in 2013 after signing (and hit .364/.457/.727 with six homers in 20 games in the Arizona Fall League), and then demolished Double-A and Triple-A in 2014, combining at those levels for a .325/.438/.661 slash line and 43 home runs in 138 games.

It seemed pretty clear Bryant had nothing left to prove in the minor leagues, and then came spring training 2015. I wrote back then that Bryant’s spring at-bats were becoming the ones you stopped everything you were doing to watch, and he wound up hitting .425/.477/1.175 (yes, not a typo, that’s a 1.652 OPS) with nine home runs in 40 spring at-bats, and one more homer in a “B” game that didn’t get counted in the official stats.

But the Cubs sent him back to Triple-A Iowa, saying he needed to “work on his defense.” Everyone knew Cubs management was simply using a loophole in the rules to get an extra year of team control over Bryant.

Mike Olt was the Cubs’ Opening Day third baseman in 2015, and then he got hit by a pitch, breaking his wrist, about a week into the season. The Cubs muddled with Jonathan Herrera at third base for just enough days before KB was called up, enough to get that extra year of control.

I don’t want to belabor that here, but if Bryant isn’t held back for those extra few days, he’d have become a free agent after 2020, the worst year of his career in which he missed half of an abbreviated season with injuries. What happens to him then?

Moot, because it didn’t happen.

Anyway, back to 2015: Bryant went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in his MLB debut April 17, 2015, and it took 21 games before he hit his first MLB home run, at Miller Park. His teammates gave him the silent treatment, clearing the dugout:

Another highlight of Bryant’s 2015 season was this two-run walkoff homer against the Rockies July 27 after the Cubs had blown a three-run ninth-inning lead (love Len Kasper’s call, “Oh, baby, Kris Bryant!”)

Just a few weeks later, Bryant walked it off against Cleveland, leading to the famous “Strop Strut”:

Bryant would hit 26 home runs that year, breaking the Cubs’ rookie record of 25 set by Billy Williams in 1961 and tied by Geovany Soto in 2008. Both those men won the NL Rookie of the Year award and so did Bryant, a unanimous choice, getting all 30 first-place votes. Finishing second was current Cub Matt Duffy.

2016 was transcendant for Bryant. He went into the year vowing to cut down on his strikeouts (he had led the NL with a Cubs franchise record 199 in 2015), and he did so, with just 154 K’s in an MVP season in which he hit .292/.385/.554 with 39 home runs and a league-leading 121 runs, producing 7.3 bWAR.

Bryant had many great games in 2016 but none greater than the 5-for-5 day he had June 27 in Cincinnati, two doubles and three home runs for a team-record 16 total bases. Here are all five of those hits:

In the 2016 postseason run, Bryant hit .308/.400/.523 with three home runs. He seemed to have nowhere to go but up.

But in 2017, Bryant’s production faded, just a bit. While he hit .295/.409/.537 for a career-high .946 OPS, he hit just 29 home runs and seemed content to take walks, a career-high 95. 2018 was wrecked by injuries, including a scary moment when he was hit by a pitch in the head April 22, 2018 in Colorado [VIDEO].

While Bryant recovered to hit .282/.382/.521 with 31 home runs in 2019, his production seemed a bit down, particularly against righthanded pitching.

Then he had a terrible, injury-prone year in 2020, appearing in just 34 games and hitting .206/.293/.351 with four home runs. As noted above, if he has to go to free agency after that year, what happens?

Anyway, it didn’t, and Bryant started out 2021 as if he wanted another MVP award. Through May he was hitting .324/.406/.611 with 12 home runs in 50 games. Between that and some other good Cubs performances, it seemed as if a return to the postseason might happen.

In June, though, both Bryant and the Cubs went south. You know what happened to the team, but from June 1 through the date of the trade KB hit .191/.296/.362 (27-for-141) with six home runs and 42 strikeouts. The Giants had better hope they’re not getting that version of Bryant. He started out in his first Giants game apparently wanting to prove that wasn’t his real self. Like his fellow ex-Cubs Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez, KB homered in his Giants debut [VIDEO].

Bryant hit 160 home runs as a Cub, which ranks 15th in team history, ahead of Mark Grace and behind Andre Dawson. Here is his final Cubs homer, hit last Tuesday in the ninth inning of a 7-4 loss to the Reds [VIDEO].

There is a meme among some Cubs fans that Bryant is not a “clutch” hitter. The numbers do not back up that assertion. With two out and RISP, Bryant has hit .245/.375/.444 (79-for-322) with 16 home runs and 122 RBI. While that .819 OPS might not sound great, the MLB average for such things in 2021 is .230/.335/.386 and in the last full season, 2019, it was .238/.339/.410. Conclusion: Kris Bryant is an above-average hitter in so-called “clutch” situations.

And he is a good fielder at multiple positions. This year he played all three outfield positions, played them well and also had time at his “normal” position, third base, as well as first base. As noted above, he’s likely never going to reach that Hall of Fame potential; he’s played a lot of outfield this year and I always thought he might wind up there anyway.

KB seems like a good human being, too. He doesn’t drink, married his high-school sweetheart and they now have an adorable one-year-old son. We are lucky, as Cubs fans, to have had him on our side since 2013. I wish him well in San Francisco — we’ll see him back at Wrigley September 10-11-12, the first of the “Big Three” to return, and that ought to be a rousing welcome — and wherever he winds up in 2022 and beyond.