What Kris Bryant Would Bring to the Twins
Image courtesy of © Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAYBryant, 29, is not to be confused with his past self. The phenom who won two Collegiate Player of the Year awards in 2013, was drafted second overall that June, won the Arizona Fall League MVP that November, was Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year in 2014, edged out Byron Buxton as the same publication’s top prospect for 2015, won the NL Rookie of the Year award that year, and was the NL MVP in 2016 (after which his team won their first World Series in 108 years) is no more.
That’s not a knock on Bryant, though. That smooth, rapid ascent, from the edge of pro baseball to its apotheosis, was essentially unprecedented, and it would have been almost impossible to sustain. Still, over the last few years, Bryant has fallen short of even moderated expectations of a would-be superstar. Those struggles have stemmed in large part from injuries, but there are also elements of his mechanical style and his skill set that have contributed to the stall-out. Understanding those things is essential to a Twins fan intrigued by the possibility of dealing for him.
Coached to hit for power from a very young age, by his ex-pro father, Bryant arrived in pro baseball with a swing unlike almost anything else the game has seen. From a stance with a deep knee bend but an upright spine, Bryant would smoothly, steeply steer his bat from behind his ear, down low, then up through the hitting zone at an angle few other hitters have ever achieved so consistently, while still making contact at a reasonable rate. He had good bat speed, but never generated screaming line drives of the kind Miguel Sanó or Josh Donaldson hit so consistently. Rather, he became an elite power hitter in a league that hadn’t accommodated that type of player especially well over the prior few seasons, primarily by pulling the ball in the air as regularly as anyone in baseball.
That unique swing allowed Bryant to hit 65 home runs over his first two big-league seasons, and that wasn’t all. With that swing, even ground balls leave his bat at a higher average launch angle than other guys’ ground balls, which tends to lead to more hits on them. With an excellent approach and plenty of power to scare pitchers out of the strike zone, Bryant draws plenty of walks. That part of his game has held up well, even as other aspects of it have declined.
However, that decline in other areas is real, and it matters. Part of the problem is that pretty, unorthodox swing itself. In its original form, the swing finished high and one-handed, with more energy being absorbed by Bryant’s front shoulder than was ever all that wise. As Bryant has filled out, he’s modified and moderated that, and he’s also adjusted his swing itself, to improve his contact rate and better handle pitches up in the zone. Those adjustments have shielded him from catastrophic injury to the shoulder, but because of a couple of fielding and baserunning plays, he’s still hurt that same shoulder, and he’s also had to deal with wrist and foot issues.
It’s pretty clear that Bryant’s power is permanently diminished, both because it depended on a stance, swing, and actions that are inherently difficult to perform as one fills out and ages, and because of the injuries that have robbed him of some explosiveness. That said, he’s still a well-rounded hitter, and the Cubs have both been bad at this element of player development and been forced to rotate hitting coaches frequently over the last few years. The Twins, who specialize in coaching players to lift the ball to the pull field, could probably get some of that power back for him, even if it doesn’t yield 40 home runs.
More importantly, Bryant is a good fit for many of the things the Twins need. He would be an acquisition in place of re-signing Nelson Cruz, and the fit is compelling. He’s moved around the field during his career, and is a perfectly solid defensive left fielder—better than Eddie Rosario or Brent Rooker, for sure, and probably even better than a younger Alex Kirilloff will be. He could play third base whenever Donaldson is hurt, take over the designated hitter role when Donaldson is able to go, spell Sanó at first base, and play either left or right field against left-handed pitchers.
Agent Scott Boras is still hopeful of selling Bryant as a superstar when he hits free agency this fall, so the Twins would almost certainly be acquiring him for just one season. He’s due to make $19.5 million, which is a hefty price tag, and getting him would not quench the team’s desire to improve their depth at the middle infield spots. However, when the Cubs traded Yu Darvish (a player whose recent performance better justifies his salary) last month, they sent $3 million to the Padres in the deal. They might eat that much, or even more, if they could get anything of value in return for Bryant. Unlike other trade targets of this caliber, though, Bryant won’t cost the Twins any true top prospect, even if they do ask Chicago to absorb some salary.
I think Bryant only fits if Minnesota is willing to spend somewhere north of $125 million in 2021, and ideally if they’re willing to go up to $135 million. Assuming that, they could dramatically sweeten their offer to Chicago in an effort to add Kyle Hendricks to the trade (a structure Chicago has reportedly discussed with the Blue Jays), or they could take on the eight-figure salary and high-octane bullpen support of Craig Kimbrel, and end up sending almost no talent at all to the Cubs. In either case, they’d be left with a fearsome lineup and a terrific pitching staff, and could still afford to sign Marcus Semien or Didi Gregorius. If they did only acquire Bryant, they’d still be able to add a solid late-game free-agent reliever or two, and make the same upgrade at shortstop.
If the budget is more limited, Bryant and the Twins are a poor match. In that case, though, the Twins have fewer options in the first place, and need to get serious soon, because (while time never truly runs out on the offseason player market) talent is starting to grow scarce, and costs aren’t coming down as quickly as the club might have hoped.
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