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Three Ways to View Kris Bryant in 2021

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OK, I’ll admit it without hesitation; I’ve been pretty hyper-critical over Kris Bryant and his performances over some of the recent seasons. I mean, he did hit just .206/.293/.351 last year, right? In other recent seasons, his error rate was up, strikeouts were up, injuries seemed to plague him, RBIs were down, and his clutch hitting was tepid at best.

This year? He’s mashing again, just as he did when he was the MVP recipient in 2016. Kudos, KB, you appear to have regained whatever was missing – a welcome sight to the Cubs and their fans.

The biggest difference between 2016 and 2021 for Kris Bryant and the Cubs? On this date in 2016, the Cubs were 23-6, 7.5 games ahead of the second-place Pittsburgh Pirates, and had already amassed a +101 run differential. As of today, the Cubs are sitting in third place, fighting to reach .500 (currently 15-16 equating to a 484 winning percentage), with a less than attractive run differential of negative six.

Kris Bryant in 2021: The Overtly Obvious

The Cubs’ mediocre showing, thus far, in 2021 isn’t Kris Bryant’s fault. Bryant is currently slugging .308/.395/.673, with a 1.068 OPS. He also leads the team with a dozen doubles and an OPS+ of 194, not to mention his nine bombs and 22 RBIs in a total of 29 games played. Bryant’s managed to produce these eye-opening numbers in 107 at-bats (124 plate appearances). In terms of offense, no other Cub is even close to putting up Bryant-Esque numbers this season. While Matt Duffy is also batting .308, he’s had literally half of the plate appearances that Bryant has had. Again… extremely impressive.

As of now, Bryant is carrying this team when they step to the plate. Ian Happ is struggling (.167/.307/.250), Javier Baez is starting to pick up the pace, but still way behind where he should be (.245/.289/.529), and even Willson Contreras (.217/.321/.467) and Anthony Rizzo (.231/.336/.444) are nowhere near peak form. Yep, these are Bryant’s Cubs as of late, but for how much longer?

Kris Bryant in 2021: One Thing Everyone Wants to Forget

Despite what he’s done for the team, one way or another, Bryant’s days as a Cub are likely numbered. With the exceptions of Happ and Contreras, the remainder of that list above hits free agency in November. Unless contending by July 12, the date of this year’s All-Star Game, the Cubs are likely to be sellers by the July 31st trade deadline.

It’s blatantly and painfully obvious that the proposed retool is looking more and more like a full-scale rebuild, while some might even utter that other unethically ugly word, “tanking.” They can’t (and won’t) keep them all. Like it or not, trading Bryant makes the most sense, especially considering his numbers this season, as he’s going to fetch the best return on the trade block.

Take a deep breath, gasp if you must, but if the Cubs were to deal Bryant on the trade deadline, he has 76 games left to play as a Cub; less if they trade him prior to July 31st. Should the Cubs let him ride out the season in Chicago, they face letting him walk away as a free agent, getting nothing in return. In the unlikely scenario that the Cubs actually let that happen (they have been known to do less logical things lately…), Bryant has just 131 games left in a Cubs’ uniform.

Kris Bryant in 2021: Playing for His Future

Let’s take a moment to venture back to 2015. Chicago called Bryant up to the majors in a manner that cost him an extra year of remaining under team control. Ownership and upper management defended the decision based on an alibi that cited injuries to other players as the reason for Bryant’s delayed call-up. True? Maybe, maybe not. Unethical? Yes, if in fact their tactics were designed on the premise of keeping KB for an extra year. Illegal? Nope. The entire premise of service-time manipulation will be addressed during this winter’s CBA talks, but in the meantime, they just did it to Nico Hoerner as well.

Kris Bryant Reflecting on the Past While Focusing on the Present

To put it in the bluntest of terms, the Cubs royally screwed Kris Bryant and got away with it, and both Bryant and his agent (Scott Boras) are very well aware. Byant filed a grievance but subsequently lost, leaving him to play an extra year before earning free agency that should have come his way this past winter. To Bryant’s credit, he’s remained outwardly professional, but you know he must be seething inside, knowing that he has no choice but to play an additional year for millions less than what he could have been making. Bryant may have forgiven, but he certainly hasn’t forgotten.

The Ressurection of Kris Bryant as Free Agency Looms

I won’t, even for a minute, accuse Bryant of intentionally dogging it last season, but the 180-degree turnaround that he’s managed to pull off in 2021 is somewhat intriguing. His nagging shoulder injuries haven’t bothered him at all, not even while playing in freezing temperatures at Wrigley Field this year. His bat went from what can only be described as pathetic in 2020, to almost indescribably potent in the current campaign, and he’s also started to attempt stealing bases again this year (one steal, one caught stealing, so far), while 2020 saw zero attempts and 2019 saw only four – all of which were successful.

Oh, to have been able to be a fly on the wall at KB’s house this offseason. It didn’t take phone calls from Boras to remind Bryant that after such a lackluster season in 2020, that he’d better get his act together in 2021, as his free agent value was declining by the inning. Will Bryant be able to continue to compile numbers in the 2021 season worthy of fetching that Bryce Harper or Mookie Betts type of deal? There’s still a ton of baseball to be played this season, but a complete ressurection may be the only thing that offsets some of his more recent shortcomings.

Can the Cubs and Bryant Come to Terms on an Extension?

Bryant says he’d love to remain in Chicago with the Cubs, but is that really the case, or is that just KB being the consummate professional? If you could find 100 things to accuse Bryant of doing wrong, being unprofessional wouldn’t be one of them, so even if he’s justifiably pissed to the nth degree, he hasn’t bashed the team. Yes, he’s been very outwardly vocal about the service-time manipulation issues in MLB, but he’s also said (in the above video) that he holds no grudges against the Cubs.

The team started massively disintegrating this past offseason, and even if Bryant would still want to stay, it seems likely that Scott Boras will make that an impossibility. Boras has said that he and Bryant would “consider any reasonable offers” for an extension, but when it comes to Boras, aka MLB’s super-agent, ‘reasonable‘ becomes a very subjective word. After the service-time issue, Boras isn’t about to give the Cubs any sort of discount for retaining Bryant, even if that’s what KB would ultimately like to do.

The Cubs have slashed millions in salary, far more than they needed to in order to get below the luxury tax threshold, which was their originally stated objective. It’s inconceivable to believe that they did this in order to finance re-signing KB, especially not knowing what Bryant would show in 2021. The deeper you dig, the more apparent it becomes that Kris Bryant is now playing for his 2022 (and beyond) contract agreement, wherever that may be. A Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, MVP bid, and/or another All-Star appearance will only increase his value in the free-agent market and KB would be a fool not to be playing for his future while serving what appears to be a very mediocre 2021 Cubs team.

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main image credit Embed from Getty Images

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Ken Allison is the senior of two MLB Department Heads, as well as a writer and editor for Overtime Heroics. A life-long MLB fan, he's also written for CubsHQ and had the opportunity to try out for the Chicago Cubs in 1986.