Can the Kris Bryant Contract Pay Dividends for the Rockies?
What role will the former NL MVP play over the next six years of his mega-contract with the Colorado Rockies?
The Colorado Rockies stunned much of the baseball world when the details of Kris Bryant’s seven-year, $182 million contract were revealed. The signing even surprised those on the team:
Various “What exactly are the Rockies doing?” questions thrummed through baseball media. (This Jay Jaffe piece provides a nice overview of the central issues.)
Emma Baccellieri had, hands down, the funniest take:
Incredulity and laughing aside, is the Kris Bryant contract paying off for the Rockies?
Given that Bryant, now 31, is only in the second year of his deal; it’s still too early to determine if the move was, in fact, sound. But it’s not too soon for some preliminary analysis. Any examination of the Bryant contract should consider two possible value streams: Bryant’s on-field play and his role as the face of the franchise.
How Has Kris Bryant Performed on the Field?
Because Bryant only appeared in 42 games last season, the sample size is tiny. (First back issues and then plantar fasciitis limited his playing time.) But when he did play for the Rockies, Bryant improved the team, slashing .306/.376/.475 with a wRC+ of 125 and an fWAR of 0.6. In 181 plate appearances, Bryant hit five home runs (none of them at Coors Field) in addition to 32 singles and 12 doubles with 14 RBI. That’s the kind of hitting profile that will play at elevation.
Although there were concerns this spring that perhaps the back issues had returned, Bryant is off to a solid start in 2023. So far, he is slashing .298/.372/.452 with a wRC+ of 116 in 94 plate appearances. He’s also hit three home runs, one of them at Coors Field:
“Honestly, I’d rather hit them on the road because you don’t get any credit when you hit them at home,” Bryant told Danielle Allentuck. “It’s a good feeling.”
Besides the homers, Bryant has 18 singles, 4 doubles, and 6 RBI. He also began the season by reaching base safely in 17 of the first 18 games. With Kris Bryant, the Rockies hoped to get a hitter who could make the most of Coors Field’s vast acreage. That appears to be the case — when he’s healthy.
When it comes to defense, the Rockies always made it clear that they would move Bryant to the outfield. He spent 2022 in left field, accumulating 252 innings with a DRS of -5. In 2023, he moved to right field in an attempt to reduce physical wear and tear. Also, during the previous season, he learned that Coors Field is big — as in cemetery big.
This year, he has spent 138 innings in right field with -4 DRS. The move may help Bryant stay healthy, but it has not improved the Rockies’ defensive statistics.
Then again, the Rockies signed Bryant for his bat. When Charlie Blackmon retires (presumably at the end of this season), Bryant will probably spend most of his time as the designated hitter with occasional outfield stints.
That is a long way of saying that Bryant’s offensive potential is real, but his ability to stay healthy remains less certain.
So How’s the Face-of-the-Franchise Stuff Working?
That’s more complicated, but let’s break it into two parts: being the face of the Colorado Rockies and being a role model for younger players.
Obviously, the Rockies signed Kris Bryant in large part to fill the vacuum left after the Nolan Arenado trade. They wanted someone — a legitimate star — to erase Arenado’s memory. Bryant seemed like a good fit, especially since the Rockies had initially planned to draft him in 2013. The Cubs, though, beat them to it.
After the signing, the Rockies’ public relations office set out to make clear to fans that Bryant was their guy.
“Kris Bryant: Colorado Rockie” was destined to be, as shown in a photo from Jess Bryant’s Instagram. A much younger KB eats fries while waiting for a call from the Rockies that never came:
Underscoring that point — that this was Kris Bryant’s team now — was the hype video aired on Opening Day in 2022. (I took this from the stands, so apologies for the video quality.)
The city of Denver; Coors Field; a close-up of Kris Bryant as he looks at the camera. The message is not subtle: This is our guy now.
Whether the strategy is working remains unclear. After all, the face of the franchise needs to appear in more than 42 games a year. After his injuries, Bryant was largely absent from the public eye in 2022. (A running online joke went like this: “Wait. Kris Bryant is a Rockie?”)
In addition, Nolan Arenado was dear to Rockies fans because of his talent and because they had watched him grow up. In other words, there was an emotional investment in Arenado that they simply did not have with Kris Bryant, a.k.a. “Mr. Chicago Cub.”
At this point, it’s unclear whether Bryant can ever truly become the face of the franchise. If the Rockies get hot and if he absolutely rakes at Coors Field, it could happen. Early in the season, however, there are no indications this will be the case.
Perhaps his more important job, however, will come in mentoring younger players. The Rockies are about to bring up a crop of prospects — the arrival of Ezequiel Tovar signals the beginning of that wave. Clearly, the next most notable names are Zac Veen, Adael Amador, and Drew Romo.
Those young players are going to need a role model. Who better than a former Rookie of the Year, MVP, four-time All-Star, and the face of the team that broke the Chicago Cubs’ World Series curse?
Kris Bryant provides an ideal for those young Rockies: He did this, and you can, too — and you can bring that first World Series championship home to Colorado.
That’s the long-term investment, but it may prove to be the most important part of the Bryant contract. Whether it pays off will remain unknown for a while.
But if it does, Kris Bryant and the Colorado Rockies will have the last laugh.