By: Francisco Rojas
Cubs need a healthy Kris Bryant to have a huge year
Kris Bryant has been one of the biggest contributors to the Cubs winning ways for the better part of the last six years since he made his MLB debut in 2015. Since his debut, he’s done some incredible things with the bat. Like any big league, he’s had his highs & lows, injuries, All-Star teams & MVP awards. But this year, Chicago will need Bryant to stay healthy & tap into the player we’ve seen be a huge piece to the club’s past success.
Six years ago, Bryant came in as the number one ranked prospect by Keith Law and led Chicago to the playoffs for the first time since ‘08, on his way to winning National League Rookie of the Year. The very next year, he helped the Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years, making his second straight All-Star appearance and winning NL MVP. In 2017, Bryant received MVP votes (finished seventh), and the team reached the NLCS that year, losing in five games to the Dodgers. From there, the last few seasons have been tricky for him. In ‘18 he was limited to just 102 games because of shoulder injuries. The next year he bounced back, making another All-Star team, and hit 31 home runs while slashing .282/.382/.521, dealing with a few minor knee & ankle injuries, but was still able to play 147 games. And last year was rough. He suffered an impact fracture in his left wrist and two torn ligaments in his left ring finger, only playing 34 of a possible 60 games in the COVID shortened season and had career lows in his slash stats (.206/.293/.351).
Before we get to what Bryant has been doing to this point in the young season, let’s briefly discuss the dismal Cubs offense. Chicago’s is last in the Majors with a team batting average of .211 and their strikeout percentage (28.2%) is fourth worst in baseball, according to FanGraphs. We shouldn’t expect this to last forever, as it’s early in the season, and there’s still too much talent in the Cubs lineup to keep hitting at a clip close to the Mendoza line. Notably, Ian Happ (.139) was hovering around .260 the two seasons prior & much has been made of Javy Baez’s slow start (.234/.272/.494). But Happ received MVP votes last season & Baez is still just 28 and he’s closer to the hitter he was in ‘18 & ‘19 when he made two NL All-Star appearances. Another important player to note is Anthony Rizzo. He’s slashing .221/.340/.455 on the season, but I expect Rizzo to bump those numbers up, as his name, along with Baez & Bryant, has been linked to trade rumors and he’ll be a free agent at the end of the season, as he’ll want to maximize his potential value.
Bryant, Rizzo, Baez & Wilson Contreras have been a part of the Cubs main core for some years now. And all have been instrumental in the ability to be a playoff team almost every year in recent memory. But, for Chicago to have a shot at the postseason this year, Bryant will have to be the star hitter he’s been when healthy.
Through his first 88 plate appearances this year he’s slashed .289/.375/.618, to go along with six homers and 16 RBI’s. That’s right around what he averaged for his first five seasons, .284/.385/.516. He averaged around 28 HR & 80 RBI’s during that span, and this year he’s on pace to hit over 45 home runs and drive in 125 runs. Both would be career highs.
According to Baseball Reference, in each season that Bryant has at least played 145 games, he has placed either first or second on his team in WAR (Wins Above Replacement), including a career high 7.3 WAR in 2016 when Bryant won MVP honors and helped Chicago win their first World Series title in 108 years. When he’s had a WAR of five or higher, the Cubs have at least made the NLCS. When Bryant has had a WAR below five, given the injuries, the Cubs have not made it past Wild Card Weekend.
Especially considering they’re playing in the NL Central. A division where the St. Louis Cardinals were named the favorite because of their acquisition of superstar third baseman, Nolan Arenado, during the winter. Not to mention the Brewers have had one of the best rotations in baseball, with breakout star Corbin Burnes posting video game numbers to start the year. And though the Reds have cooled off a bit (11-12) since their 6-1 start, they’ve shown they have a talented offense, led by veterans Nick Castellanos & Eugenio Suarez. It’s a sneaky tough division.
Kris Bryant is on pace to have a great offensive year for the Cubs, but the key will be his health. Cubs manager David Ross said Bryant was fully healthy back in spring training, and he’s looked to be just that through the first month of the season. Hopefully he can avoid injuries & keep the strong start going, because the Cubs will need it.