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What Can We Realistically Expect From Kris Bryant?

Happy Kris Bryant Day, everyone. Reports buzzed around the social media last night that Bryant was indeed on his way to Chicago for the Cubs’ Friday afternoon game against the Padres. And not a moment too soon, either, as the Cubs deal with injuries to just about every natural third baseman on the roster. They’ve stayed true to the time-line for calling up their top prospect, even with the temptation to have him there sooner.

A lot of fans and media have tried to have a debate over the problem of leaving Bryant at Triple-A to start the season. Most baseball followers are familiar with the story by now; because of the way the collective bargaining agreement works, leaving Bryant in the minors for 12 whole days (eight games in the season, as it happens) keeps him away from free agency for an extra year.

MLB: MAR 14 Spring Training - Cubs v A's

And, considering that Bryant’s agent is Scott Boras, who practically refuses to negotiate extensions for his pre-free agency clients, many agree that this is indeed a smart move. But not everyone does. Take for instance Rick Morrissey, writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, who tried to make the case for the Cubs to call up Bryant before Opening Day:

“For the sake of discussion, let’s say the Cubs finish one game out of the playoffs in 2015. And, because we’re cruel, let’s say one personnel decision is the difference between a seat on the postseason sidelines and the franchise’s first World Series championship since 1908.

In our scenario, the Cubs wait a few weeks to bring up their phenom, Kris Bryant, who goes on to be the runaway National League Rookie of the Year. They really could have used his .320 average and power in the first two weeks of April, when they started so slowly. He could have won them a couple of games on his own. It costs the franchise a title.”

I don’t want to belabor the point, because this whole argument is so last month. But it does bring up a serious question: what can the Cubs expect out of Bryant? We only know so much about what we think Bryant will be as a Major League player, and we can only make projections based on that information. Let’s look at some Wins Above Replacement (WAR) numbers from Fangraphs.com. First, the MLB leader in WAR for each of the last five years:

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This isn’t my attempt at saying that Bryant is going to be the best player in the game this year, or even to give us a baseline on what his WAR could be. This is to show how many WAR the very best player is commonly worth, and remind you that Bryant is merely a rookie. It’s hard to say that the wins you could attribute to Bryant would be so drastically above the players he replaces, such as Mike Olt and Tommy La Stella. However, we do know that Cubs third basemen have hit .152/.200/.242 with one home run in 35 plate appearances so far, totaling -0.1 WAR.

Here’s a look at the Steamer projection for Bryant for 2015, complete with projected WAR.

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MiLB: APR 13 Iowa Cubs at New Orleans Zephyrs

Let’s consider that, since there are only eight games gone in the season, Bryant makes it into more than 116 contests for the Cubs. Since there are 154 games remaining as of today, let’s go ahead and say he plays in 145, factoring in a handful of days off for rest or nagging injuries. Adding the extra stats places his projected counting stats at around 33 home runs, 79 RBI, and 4.5 WAR (or roughly 0.03 wins per game). According to Steamer’s projected 2015 WAR for third basemen, this would make Bryant the fourth best guy at his position, only trailing Miguel Cabrera, Josh Donaldson, and Evan Longoria.

If you were to look for the closest comparison for Kris Bryant’s projected output, you’d find the Reds’ Todd Frazier. In 2014, Frazier hit .273/.336/.459 with a 8.0 percent walk rate, 21.1 percent K rate, 29 homers and 88 RBI in 660 plate appearances. His 4.8 WAR placed him sixth in MLB at his position. If Bryant were to put up a year like that, you’d take that all day.

But I would make the argument that the likelihood of that happening is low. Kris Bryant struck out 28.6 percent of the time in his 297 plate appearances at Triple-A last season, and made contact at a rate just under 70 percent. While he was able to crush everything he did make contact with in the minors, the story could be different in the Majors. Only six qualified players had a contact percentage lower than 70 percent in 2014; Giancarlo Stanton, Adam Dunn, B.J. Upton, Ryan Howard, Chris Davis, and Chris Carter.

MLB: MAR 13 Spring Training - Cubs v A's

Stanton being on the list is interesting, considering the low quality of the rest of the group. He put up a 26.6 percent K rate last year while the rest of them were around or well over 30 percent. Could Bryant make contact more than 70 percent of the time and put up a big season? I won’t tell you the answer is no, but it’s no sure thing. Remember, he struck out 28.6 percent of the time last year at Triple-A. His career minor league K rate is 26.6. Those numbers are high, and they figure to get even higher as he faces better pitching.

So what can we expect from Kris Bryant this year? Excitement. The guy has a smile that could light up the massive jumbotron in left-field. He’s tall, can crush baseballs to all fields, and has a beautiful swing (even if he doesn’t make contact with it at a high rate). He’s another in a long line of Cubs hitting prospects to get to Wrigley Field, and he won’t be the last.

I guess the people that complained about Bryant missing these eight games worried for no reason at all, considering they’ll be in first place when he arrives on Friday. At least we can put one argument to bed.

*All stats from Fangraphs.com.

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