Nolan Jones and Kris Bryant Have Traded Places on the Colorado Rockies

Two years ago, it would have been a huge long shot to predict Kris Bryant and Nolan Jones would trade places. How did they reach this point?

Kris Bryant #23 and Nolan Jones #22 of the Colorado Rockies look on against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on September 22, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois.
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - SEPTEMBER 22: Kris Bryant #23 and Nolan Jones #22 of the Colorado Rockies look on against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on September 22, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

When Kris Bryant signed a seven-year, $182 million deal with the Colorado Rockies in March of 2022, Nolan Jones was still a 23-year-old minor leaguer with the Cleveland Guardians.

Jones was in Goodyear, Ariz. preparing to earn a spot on the Guardians’ Opening Day roster and avoid another season with the Triple-A Columbus Clippers. Bryant, 40 miles east in Scottsdale, was with agent Scott Boras and Rockies owner Dick Monfort to announce the largest free agent contract ever handed out by the franchise.

One man was a former National League Rookie of the Year, NL MVP, four-time All-Star and World Series hero. The other had a mix of hope and hype surrounding him and, ultimately, had proven nothing in the majors.

It would have been a long shot in every capacity to have predicted that just two years later, Bryant and Jones would have traded places.

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How Did Nolan Jones Get Here?

Jones was a second-round selection out of Holy Ghost Prep by Cleveland in the 2016 MLB Draft. An ice hockey prospect who also starred at shortstop, Jones’ skills were better suited for third base once he entered the professional ranks.

From 2019-21, the 6-foot-4 Jones was considered a top-100 prospect by Baseball America and MLB Pipeline. Despite his prospect pedigree, the presence of perennial MVP candidate José Ramírez forced Jones off the hot corner and into the outfield during the 2021 campaign. 

An RBI double in his first big league at-bat made for a nice debut in the summer of 2022 with the Guardians. Jones went 7-for-13 (.539) in his first four games and managed six multi-hit performances and 13 RBI over his first month in the Majors. However, pitchers made adjustments to him and Jones struggled to adapt. After slashing .192/.244/.274 from July 12 to Aug. 19, he was sent back to Triple-A Columbus for the remainder of the year.

Colorado wanted to add a left-handed bat to their lineup for the 2023 season. They acquired Jones for prospect Juan Brito on Nov. 15 as a placeholder and continued to search for more veteran options as spring training approached. The Rockies didn’t find that match before players reported to the complex at Salt River Fields, so Jones had a clear path to the Opening Day roster.

Unfortunately, his Cactus League numbers were too similar to his run in Cleveland with even more strikeouts against inferior pitching.

“I think that getting traded over, I wanted to show people what I can do,” Jones said this past weekend at Rockies Fest. “And that’s where a lot of my internal pressure came from.”

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Mike Moustakas was eventually brought in to fill the left-handed hitting role left open for Jones, who was optioned to Triple-A Albuquerque with over a week remaining on the spring slate. The Pacific Coast League and its 5.70 ERA were kind to him to start the season. Yet, a promotion on April 12 was inexplicably greeted with zero playing time over the next three games before he was optioned back to ABQ.

Eventually, Jones became undeniable. He was batting .356 with a 1.193 OPS on May 25 with the Isotopes and his strikeouts were no longer the problem they presented over the past year.

It wouldn’t be until his second game in purple pinstripes on May 27 that Jones would notch his first base knock with the big league club. He recorded an RBI single against Justin Verlander in his first at-bat, followed by an RBI double in his next. Jones simply would not let go of his spot in the lineup from there on.

In 106 games with Colorado last season, Jones slashed .297/.389/.542 with 22 doubles, four triples, 20 home runs, 20 stolen bases and 62 RBI. He became the first Rockies rookie to go 20-20 and only the 16th rookie to ever accomplish the feat in the history of the game. Jones also set a new franchise record with 19 outfield assists. In the process, he became the first player since Hall of Famer Chick Hafey in 1927 to record at least 19 outfield assists in fewer than 100 games in the outfield.

“I could have never dreamed of last year going the way that it went for me,” Jones told Denver media.

For the first time in baseball history, a rookie displayed the triple threat abilities of power, speed and defense to go 20-20-19.

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How Did Kris Bryant Get Here?

Slightly more than a year after the Rockies jettisoned Nolan Arenado, their greatest homegrown player since Hall of Famer Todd Helton, owner Dick Monfort and general manager Bill Schmidt were ready to lock up another superstar for big money. Though Kris Bryant started his career at the same position as Arenado, he was no longer a third baseman in the eyes of the Rockies.

Despite losing Trevor Story and Jon Gray to free agency following the 2021 season, Colorado did their best to fill that void with the additions of Bryant and Randal Grichuk in the outfield and several pitchers on one-year deals. The extensions handed out to Ryan McMahon, Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela, C.J. Cron and Elias Díaz between October 2021 and April 2022 totaling a whopping $214 million created a growing sense of intrigue for the fan base.

Bryant’s tenure with the Rockies started in a fairly normal way. He played left field and hit second or third in the lineup for a club that began 10-6, good for the fourth-best record in the Senior Circuit.

Spraying the ball to all fields in the early going of 2022, Bryant hit safely in 10 of his first 11 games and batted .349 in the process. The power, however, was not there. He went on the injured list twice before swatting his first home run of the season on July 5. A third and final trip to the IL for plantar fasciitis ended his season on Aug. 1 after only 42 games.

The 2023 season wasn’t much better. There were only two injury stints this time, and he managed to appear in 82 games. Still, Bryant wouldn’t hit his first home run at Coors Field until April 17 in his second year with the club. His slugging went from .475 in 2022 — below his career .504 SLG — down to .367 in 2023. All told, Bryant has played 122 games with the Rockies and has been worth -0.6 fWAR over his first two campaigns with Colorado.

Big Brother/Little Brother

Bryant’s second trip to the IL in 2023 was unrelated to the lower back or feet issues that sidelined him in 2022. He had been hit by a pitch in three consecutive games to tie a franchise record. The last one, on July 22, caught him on the left hand and fractured his index finger. The 31-year-old missed 45 games before returning to the lineup on Sept. 11. Over those final 15 games, his impact was minimal in the box score (.158/.200/.316) but monumental to the upstart Jones.

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Beginning on Sept. 13 when manager Bud Black inserted Jones as the leadoff hitter to get him more plate appearances, no player in MLB accrued more Wins Above Replacement (1.5 fWAR) than Jones to close out the season. (Read that again. The best player in the game over the final 19 days of the regular season was Nolan Jones.)

Before Bryant’s return, Jones was frequently hitting fifth in the order with the likes of Brendan Rodgers, fresh off a shoulder surgery that shelved him for the first 105 games of the year, and fellow rookie Hunter Goodman batting behind him. With the strong resume of Bryant protecting him in the lineup, Jones took off.

Another contributing factor was the gauntlet placed in front of the rookie by the elder statesman: reach 20 home runs, 20 stolen bases or 60 RBI, and Bryant would gift Jones a Rolex watch.

Jones received yet another boost during the final road series of the season in Chicago. Bryant, back in action on the North Side for the first time since 2021, received a standing ovation from the Wrigley Field faithful. Jones watched from one of the best vantage points in the building on first base.

“It was super cool. Obviously, KB’s every bit of that. He’s been nothing but a great mentor and friend to me,” Jones said. “It’s something you dream about to have a city and the fan base love you like that.”

When the team got back to Coors Field, Jones added homer number 19 and stolen base number 18 against the Los Angeles Dodgers. More importantly, his five runs batted in against the NL West’s best brought him to the 60-RBI milestone.

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“I’m super proud of him,” Bryant said of his protégé. “Hopefully, when we’re successful down the line and he sees a rookie that reminds him of himself, he’ll do the same thing.”

The Switch and The Secret

Two years after Bryant signed his mega-contract and Jones set out to be more prospect than suspect, the two have traded places in terms of their star power.

While Bryant may no longer be considered an MVP-caliber player, his presence both on and off the field can still aid Jones in becoming one. Jones has also helped himself by focusing on mental strength development.

Before a game at a new ballpark last season, he’d often walk out to the field, sometimes still wearing workout shorts and sandals. He’d step into the batter’s box and envision his success. After the game, Jones would sit down to reflect on his day of work and enter those thoughts in a journal.

“I just kind of wanted to reflect and sit down and write down my thoughts, my feelings,” Jones said. “Baseball is a game where I come in and I go 4-for-4 and it’s like, ‘This is the best I’ve ever felt.’ And then the next day I’m in the batting cage, and it’s like, ‘I don’t even know what I’m holding in my hands. It feels like a foreign object.’ So I think that writing down my thoughts and my feelings helped me get back to the 4-for-4-day feelings and thoughts quicker.”

Colorado is coming off the first 100-loss season in the 31-year history of the franchise. Somehow, the club still managed an average of more than 32,000 fans per game at home. That’s more than seven of the 12 postseason clubs in 2023, including both World Series combatants. In spite of this show of support, Bryant’s effect on the fan base has been minimal.

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“The biggest thing is you just look at the back of someone’s baseball card, right?” Bryant said during Rockies Fest. “I know that’s the type of player I am. I’ve played for a long time. I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs, but (I have) the desire in me to perform and be a good baseball player and do big things on the field to help the team win.”

Bryant is set to make $28 million in 2024, the 21st-highest salary in MLB. Nevertheless, a total of 265 players have hit more home runs since the start of 2022 than his 15 in purple pinstripes.

Still, his influence has been felt in the win-loss column, believe it or not. When he has started for the Rockies, the team has played .455 (55-66) baseball. When he has not been in the lineup, Colorado is a full 100 points lower at .355 (72-131). Over the course of a full season, that makes for a 105-loss campaign without the Rockies’ new first baseman, even worse than the 103 losses suffered in 2023.

Hearing Jones speak about his rookie season, the youngster may have to remind Bryant of his value.

“We fail so much in baseball. It’s so easy to beat yourself up, get down on yourself,” Jones shared. “And I think that I did a good job last year of finding small wins.”

For 32-year-old Bryant, those little victories in 2024 will come with keeping his body healthy and batting in the middle of a lineup lacking depth. One feather in his cap will come when he reaches his 162nd game played with Colorado, something he can accomplish as early as May 11. By avoiding multiple IL stints, he should be able to reach 100 games played for the first time since 2021. 

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Bryant once helped end the 108-year World Series drought for the Chicago Cubs. If there’s any chance he helps the Rockies win the first Fall Classic in franchise history, it won’t be until the end of his contract; for now, the club will aim to avoid 100 losses for the second year in a row. For that to happen, Bryant will need to stay healthy and Jones will need to continue his upward trajectory.