Kris Bryant Poised to Be MLB's Best Young Phenom in 2015

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 8, 2015

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Everybody wants Kris Bryant to be the next big thing. Well, actually, it's more like everybody and their uncle. That's a lot of pressure.

So let's talk about why he should be up to the task in 2015, and sooner rather than later.

With Bryant, just about everything screams "super prospect." Since the Chicago Cubs drafted the 6'5", 215-pound third baseman No. 2 overall in 2013, he's OPS'd 1.095 with 52 home runs in 174 minor league games. He's also coming off a 2014 season that, as the Double-A Tennessee Smokies recalled on Bryant's 23rd birthday this past Sunday, saw him win all the awards:

Tennessee Smokies @smokiesbaseball

Happy 23rd birthday to 2014 Smokies 3B Kris Bryant (@KrisBryant_23)! Year 22 was alright. http://t.co/HOx6nBQEDu

When a prospect like this exists, there will be clamoring. Naturally, so it is with Bryant.

J.J. Cooper of Baseball America wrote in September that Bryant has nothing left to prove in the minors. Scott Boras, Bryant's agent, told reporters in November that his client belongs in Chicago's 2015 Opening Day lineup. Jim Callis and Phil Rogers of MLB.com are among the many who agree.

Whether it's on Opening Day or not, however, Bryant's major league debut should indeed happen soon.

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Beyond him clearly being ready, there's how the Cubs' third-base platoon of Luis Valbuena and Mike Olt is hardly a roadblock. Then there's how the Cubs' priority should be improving as much as they possibly can, as team boss Theo Epstein told Carrie Muskat of MLB.com that contending was the plan even before he acquired Miguel Montero, Jason Hammel and Jon Lester.

As for Bryant's controllability, the Cubs are too rich to fret about him qualifying as a Super Two. And though they surely want to control him for as long as possible, Brett Taylor at Bleacher Nation noted that Bryant would only have to miss nine games for the Cubs to delay his free agency until after 2021.

Point being: There's little standing in the way of Bryant not only being promoted but of him playing basically a full season in 2015 even if he's not there on Opening Day.

As for what Bryant could do in a full rookie season, that's where we get into justifiable high hopes.

Nov 2, 2013; Surprise, AZ, USA; Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant against the West during the Fall Stars Game at Surprise Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

That Bryant has a 1.095 minor league OPS certainly makes him look like a can't-miss prospect from a statistical perspective. All the more significant is how the meat of that OPS comes from what he did at Double-A and Triple-A in 2014.

Specifically, this:

Kris Bryant's 2014 Season

Bryant wasn't as dominant at Triple-A as he was at Double-A, but that he was still really, really good is obviously encouraging. So, too, is the fact that he did it over a large sample size.

Because Bryant will be making the jump from the minors to the majors and from a notoriously hitter-friendly environment to an increasingly pitcher-friendly environment, it would be silly not to expect some sort of drop-off in his production. And yet, Bryant's projections only knock him down so many pegs.

For instance, Phil Rogers tweeted that Bill James has high hopes:

Phil Rogers @philgrogers

And Kris Bryant, you ask? Bill James has him down for 152 games, 33 homers, 105 rbis, 18 stolen bases and an .864 OPS. That's belief.

The catch here is that James' projections tend to be on the optimistic side. But even if we go to FanGraphs for the typically less optimistic Steamer projections, we still find a lot of confidence.

Here's Steamer's 600-plate-appearance projection for Bryant in 2015:

Steamer Projections for Kris Bryant

Knowing that the league-average OPS in 2014 was only .700 and that only 11 players hit as many as 30 homers, these are some big numbers.

If you're wondering where this places Bryant among his peers, that 4.5 WAR puts him:

  • No. 17 among position players.
  • No. 6 among third basemen.
  • No. 1 among all rookies.

In other words: Yes, Bryant projects to be elite right away.

If you're feeling skeptical, I don't blame you. We have a long history of disappointments that says it's dangerous to project big things for prospects right away. The ones that do big things right away are the exception, not the rule.

But if we dig a little deeper, it becomes even more apparent why Bryant is cut out to be an exception.

Though a lot of work has been put in over the years to figure out how minor league stars project as major league performers, the transition is really more about how players' skills will translate.

Fortunately, there's been work done in this regard as well.

At The Hardball Times, Chris Mitchell looked into more specific skill-related statistics that hold some significance for projecting a prospect's future. What he found is that age matters a lot, and that walk rate (BB%), strikeout rate (K%), raw power (ISO) and batting average on balls in play (BABIP) stabilize as a predictive group at Double-A and Triple-A.

Where Bryant is concerned, almost all of this is good news.

With the exception of a very brief stop at rookie ball in 2013, Baseball-Reference.com can show that Bryant has been younger than the competition at every level. And if we focus on what he did in 2014 relative to major league norms, we see his four core skills looking like this:

Kris Bryant's Four Core Skills in 2014
Bryant (AA-AAA)14.527.3.336.405
MLB Average7.620.4.135.299

Here, the one bad thing that stands out is Bryant's bad strikeout habit. But one of those can be overcome if a hitter puts together good at-bats, hits for a lot of power and finds the holes in the defense a lot. Bryant's showings in BB%, ISO and BABIP project him to be precisely that type of hitter.

And the book on him agrees.

Bryant's approach is apparently even more advanced than his walk rates let on. Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer remarked to CSN Chicago's Patrick Mooney in September that Bryant seemed to be slump-proof in 2014, and coaches who know him best told Baseball America there are good reasons for that.

Said Cubs hitting coordinator Anthony Iapoce: "The biggest thing with Kris is, he competes every pitch. He doesn't waste pitches. He's a grinder. He's mentally exhausted after each game. It's a mental at-bat every time."

And Triple-A hitting coach Brian Harper: "When you get [to] the big leagues, they'll try all different kinds of ways to get you out. Those who make quick adjustments will survive. Kris does that."

An advanced approach helps ensure a hitter swings mainly at his pitches, which helps explain Bryant's extreme ability to hit for power and find the holes in the defense. However, it also helps that he really does make as much hard contact as both his big frame and his numbers would suggest.

Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com is among many who have noted that Bryant saves his pop for games rather than showing off in batting practice. To that end, Baseball Prospectus (subscription required) puts Bryant's "elite raw power" and "ability to produce regular hard contact" at the top of his strengths.

Bryant led the minors in homers, extra-base hits and slugging in 2014.
Bryant led the minors in homers, extra-base hits and slugging in 2014.Elsa/Getty Images

Further, Cooper noted that Bryant's ability to hit the ball hard applies to all fields, as a "plot of Bryant’s home runs looks like the spray from a sprinkler." If it's comps you want, one guy who knows a bit about hitting the ball hard dropped two names that'll raise your eyebrows.

"Two months ago, I saw [Giancarlo] Stanton get beat with a fastball, and he still hit it out to right field," Manny Ramirez told Bryce Miller of USA Today. "I remember playing Frank Thomas. Sometimes he'd get in front with one hand and still hit it out.

"[Bryant] is like that."

Long story short: It's not by accident that Bryant has been and projects to continue being a monster at the plate. By all accounts, he really is just that.

Knowing that, the only thing worth worrying about is Bryant being too one-dimensional. Monster hitters are useful, sure, but somewhat less useful if they can't run the bases or play defense.

Fortunately, Bryant's outlooks in both those arenas are positive in their own right.

It's no mistake that Bryant stole 15 bases in 2014. He's billed as a solid athlete for a guy his size, with FanGraphs' Kiley McDaniel rating him as an "average to slightly above runner now." As for Bryant's defense, there's no question he has the arm for the hot corner, and he deserves props for knowing what he has to do to make up for his oversized frame.

“I definitely have to work on staying low to the ground more than the average third baseman,” Bryant told Cooper. “The backhand is a priority of mine to work on. I do have to go an extra six inches to get down to the ground to field the ball. It’s something I worked on all year.”

It's not out of the question that Bryant can be at least an average defensive third baseman. Which, as it happens, is all Steamer projects him to be. That is to say that, thanks to his very strong offensive outlook, Bryant can be one of baseball's best position players even if he's nothing special on defense.

Again, it's dangerous to expect prospects to start doing big things as soon as they arrive. You probably knew that coming in, but it bears repeating and re-repeating anyway.

But just about everything we have says that Bryant really is going to be the next big thing. It all says you can expect two things out of his first foray into the majors in 2015:

It'll happen soon, and it'll be something special.

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

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