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Rumor has it that Chicago Cubs superstar Kris Bryant had the opportunity to become at least $200 million richer.
The same rumor also has it that he said “nah.”
This is according to Chicago radio host David Kaplan during a Wednesday segment on ESPN 1000. As summarized by Brett Taylor of Bleacher Nation, the Cubs reportedly approached Bryant and agent Scott Boras about a “‘massive extension’ worth ‘well north of $200 million'” in the last several months. They reportedly turned it down.
Although MLB.com’s Daniel Kramer confirmed Kaplan’s report, neither the agent nor the club has commented. So, it has to be taken with a grain of salt.
It is, however, plausible that Bryant and Boras turned down $200 million. If they did, one struggles to think of reasons not to second-guess their decision.
There have been regular reports during Bryant’s four-year career about the Cubs approaching him to discuss a long-term contract extension. Each time, the gist has been that Bryant and Boras would rather play for free agency.
As Bryant himself put it to Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times in April 2017:
“I guess it’s a little early. I still feel super young. I’m still getting used to all of this playing at this level. I’ll listen to whatever they have to say, but I just think that it might be in my best interest to just play it out and see where things go.”
It’s less early now, as free agency is just three years away for the 26-year-old. Assuming they did indeed make the offer, this helps explain why the Cubs might be feeling urgent about locking up Bryant.
It’s not hard to discern why neither Bryant nor Boras seems willing to agree to an extension at any price. The slugger set a record by getting $10.85 million in his first arbitration payout. He’s due three more of those (and, thus, plenty more life-changing money) before hitting the open market after 2021.
By then, megadeals for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado after this season and, potentially, Nolan Arenado after 2019 and Mike Trout after 2020 will have reset the bar for big-money free-agent contracts. If Bryant continues playing at an elite level through 2021, a megadeal of his own might be worth twice the Cubs’ reported offer.
Still, a lot can happen in three years. And in the meantime, the magnitude of the money Bryant may have rejected must not be understated.
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This isn’t the Boston Red Sox lowballing Jon Lester with a $70 million offer back in 2014. There have been only a dozen $200 million contracts in Major League Baseball history. Only four of those were contract extensions, and three of them went to players (Joey Votto, Miguel Cabrera and Clayton Kershaw) who were more accomplished than Bryant is now.
The one exception is Giancarlo Stanton, whose 13-year, $325 million deal in 2014 with the Miami Marlins still stands as the largest in MLB history. He owned 21.3 career wins above replacement through five seasons at the time. Bryant owns 21.6 career WAR through one fewer season. This is not to mention his National League Rookie of the Year Award, NL MVP or World Series ring.
Ah, but the catch: Whereas Stanton was coming off his age-24 season and a career year, Bryant is 26 and coming off a career-worst season.
The numbers tell half the story. Bryant played in only 102 games and set new career lows in batting average (.272), slugging percentage (.460), OPS (.834), home runs (13) and WAR (1.9).
The other half of the story is couched in Bryant’s trouble with the injury bug. His left shoulder started bothering him relatively early in the season and put him on the disabled list June 26. He played in only 10 games between then and Sept. 1, when he was finally back for good.
The left is Bryant’s lead shoulder when he’s in the batter’s box. Such injuries are known to sap power from sluggers. Bryant proved to be no exception, as his isolated power (extra bases per at-bat) took a huge hit in the latter half of his season:
It’s possible that the Cubs made their $200 million offer before Bryant’s shoulder fell to pieces and that he therefore had no idea that his sky-high value was about to take a hit. If so, there’s no scolding him in retrospect.
On the chance Bryant said no to their offer after his shoulder woes began, his and Boras’ insistence on waiting for free agency looks all the more risky.
According to Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune, Bryant took his shoulder injury as an excuse to alter a practice routine that may have been overtaxing his body. That could resuscitate his power. Or, the cure may be worse than disease. After all, whatever he was doing before coincided with him slamming 94 home runs between 2015 and 2017.
If Bryant’s shoulder saga doesn’t precipitate a lasting power decline, the natural order of things might. Although power ages well relative to other skills, FanGraphs’ Jeff Zimmerman found in 2014 that modern power hitters peak early and then start declining in their late 20s.
With his 27th birthday on January 4, 2019, Bryant will be there soon. He’ll be 29 when he reaches free agency and looking to sell his age-30 season and beyond. At that age, any and all red flags are going to be heavily scrutinized. Perhaps enough to leave him well short of the contract he and Boras have in mind now.
Of course, this is the sky-is-falling take on all this. Reports of an extension offer may not be true. If it is, maybe Bryant has alternative reasons for turning down the offer—e.g., waiting to see if the Cubs sign his good buddy Bryce Harper or for some resolution with the service-time grievance he filed in 2015. And either way, things may go swimmingly for him in his final three seasons under Cub control.
But if a guy is going to say no to $200 million, he’d better have every assurance that he can do better in the near future. Bryant doesn’t.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.