Monday's Wall Street Journal had an article from Michael Salfino on Kris Bryant's spring training home run binge--he has nine through Tuesday with an otherworldly slash line of .464/.531/1.500/2.031. Yes, that's correct, an OPS of 2.031, something he probably won't be able to maintain when he reaches the majors.
And when that occurs is a multi-million dollar question. He has two factors, actually three if the fact Scott Boras is his agent is taken into consideration. The first is when he becomes eligible for free agency--if he were to open the season with the Cubs, he would be eligible to reach free agency for the first time after his sixth season. If they were to wait to bring him up after two weeks, they would gain another year of control and he couldn't declare free agency until after his seventh season. In addition, he's a Super Two player, and if the Cubs bring him up prior to June, he could gain an additional year of arbitration (four as opposed to three). This excellent article by Barry Rozner of the Daily Herald explains these factors in detail.
Last summer, Beyond the Box Score Managing Editor Bryan Grosnick tweeted out asking if people would trade Kris Bryant for Matt Harvey. Think back to what was known about Bryant at that time, particularly by people who were not ardent Cubs fans. He was the #2 pick in the 2013 draft, so it's not like he was some unknown bursting on the scene, but there were (and are) legitimate questions regarding what position he'll play in the majors. He's defensively challenged at third base, with 21 errors at two minor league stops in 2014, and speculation is that the Cubs, especially with their glut of young infield talent like Addison Russell, Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara and Starlin Castro, might move him to left field, where they do have a need. Quick joke:
What time is it when Chris Coghlan is your left fielder? Time to get a new left fielder (click here).
I was intrigued by Bryan's notion, and it's the age-old question of the bird in the hand or the two in the bush. Consider what Kris Bryant was then--a highly touted prospect with no stumbles at whatever level of minor league ball he'd been at. Contrast this with Matt Harvey, a very talented Mets pitcher who underwent Tommy John Surgery and missed all of 2014. He's having a very good spring so far, a 1.26 ERA in four starts. This chart shows 2015 projections for both players:
To add some perspective, an .850 OPS would have ranked 26th out of the 264 players with at least 300 PA, or in the top ten percent--that's a pretty heady projection for a player who hasn't even received a September call-up to date. Likewise, Harvey's 3.10 FIP would have ranked 25th of the 131 pitchers with at least 20 starts, so these are two players with very high expectations. The primary difference is Matt Harvey has produced at the big-league level, and Kris Bryant hasn't.
Matt Harvey seems poised to pick up his career where he left it off if his spring training numbers are to be believed. I'm no expert, but I still get leery when any pitcher's arm goes under the knife, and even with the medical advances that have been made, I'm still a skeptic. That gaudy ERA Harvey has so far this spring is in just over 14 innings, and it remains to be seen how well he'll respond to the increased workload.
Which is more difficult to find, quality pitching or quality hitting? The dearth of offense since 2007 suggests offense may be waning, but it could also be a matter of pitching getting better as well, and it's probably a question that can never be answered fully anyway. So, is it more valuable to keep those hitters when they appear to be found, as in Bryant's case, or turn him into a deal for even better pitching?
When Bryan first posed the question last summer, I would have been in favor of trading Bryant for Harvey, even knowing the tremendous upside Bryant had and no true guarantees on Harvey going forward. With the Cubs' acquisitions of Jon Lester and Jason Hammel, along with Jake Arrieta, the need for starting pitching doesn't appear as stark as it did last July. The Cubs farm system is brimming with young position players but is rather bereft of pitching, but that's a problem that can be addressed in free agency. Young talented hitting seems much rarer these days, Mike Trout notwithstanding.
One last comment that wouldn't have been part of any discussion even as recently as twenty years ago--as mentioned, Kris Bryant is a Scott Boras client, who can be expected to attempt to wring every dollar possible for his client. The Cubs likely won't be able to sign Bryant to a contract that would give up his first couple years of free agency like they did with Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo. Nothing is impossible, but if Bryant turns into the big star he's projected to be, he'll make Max Scherzer's contract (another Boras client) look like a bargain, and Scherzer didn't take any deals prior to free agency.
What price would I accept for Kris Bryant? Clayton Kershaw--no, too expensive and currently at his peak. Having written that, I'll probably be wrong for years to come. Jose Fernandez--tempting, but also coming off surgery. Tempting nonetheless. Chris Sale--no, too many weird injuries, but he's something to watch pitch. Garrett Richards--no. Jacob deGrom--no, not straight up, but maybe if you threw Matt Harvey in as well...
Finally, a last unrelated cheap shot on Brandon Phillips. He stated earlier this week:
"I remember back in the day you hit .230, you suck. Nowadays, you hit .230, with a .400 on-base percentage, you're one of the best players in the game. That's amazing. I've never seen (stuff) like that. Times have changed. It's totally different now."
Here's the long list of players with .230 or lower batting averages and .400+ OBPs in a season (min 300 PA):
Adapted from data accessed using the Baseball-Reference Play Index feature
Yep, Brandon, you hit the nail on the head, identifying a problem so prevalent in baseball it's happened four times in approximately 90,000 seasons, and last occurred over sixty years ago. I'd worry more about your .194 spring training average--I think you know where that puts you.
Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.