Is a simple solution any less noble than a complex one?
The Seattle Mariners said goodbye to their long-time Hawt Corner stalwart this fall, marking the end of the Pax Seagera (not to be confused with the far shorter and more turbulent Pax Segura). The best free agent with significant experience at third base is Kris Bryant. Still two months shy of his 30th birthday, Bryant is deservedly to be considered a MLB veteran, but by free agent standards he’s pleasantly precocious. All Bryant will cost Seattle is money, and as a relative West Coast kid, the M’s may have a better shot with the University of San Diego product than several other top free agent targets. While Bryant has been one of the most recognizable stars in MLB for years, his path to free agency and potentially taking up the mantle of Kyle Seager is a fascinating one.
The 2nd overall pick from the 2013 draft starred for the Chicago Cubs for nearly seven years, winning Rookie of the Year in 2015, NL MVP in 2016, and helping break their infamous curse. His final season in Chi Town ended prematurely, however, being shipped at the 2021 trade deadline to the San Francisco Giants. Bryant became the poster child for service time manipulation in 2015, as the Cubs kept him in the minors for roughly two weeks to ensure he missed the deadline for a full season by just one day, though the move backfired in the short and long term, as the Cubs narrowly missed the NL Central title and were unceremoniously bounced out of the NLCS in 2015, and ultimately were unable or unwilling to meet Bryant’s cost for an extension. That meant trading all the remaining stars from their championship club, leaving Bryant and his future employer to benefit from the lack of qualifying offer attached to his first free agency. If Seattle (or any club) signs Bryant this winter, they get the added bonus of avoiding forfeiting a draft pick, a penalty attached to several of the other top targets. The bigger question is what the next five years of Bryant look like.
Through his first three seasons, Bryant played like a possible Hall of Famer. Buoyed by a rosy BABIP and a knack for clobbering sinkers, Bryant’s early prime was pinched and prodded from superstardom to mere All-Stardom by injuries and a dip in effectiveness. Dropping a tier four years prior, along with a brief, injury-warped 2020, conspire to make Bryant a tricky player to project forward. In many ways, 2021 was Bryant’s best season at the plate since 2017, with his Barrel%, HardHit%, and average exit velocity all reentering his early career norms, while his strikeout rate dropped back to career averages as well. Though his wRC+ of 123 was lower than any other full season, a 123 wRC+ would have ranked second for the 2021 Seattle Mariners behind only 1B Ty France, a 24 point upgrade over Seager’s 99 wRC+.
Predominantly an average third baseman, KB has by and large been acceptable more than exceptional. What Bryant brings to a roster that outpaces his measured value, however, is positional versatility. Seattle has heavily emphasized multi-positionality in their development, but Seager’s steadiness ensured third base was set it and forget it for the past decade. Bringing Bryant into the fold, Seattle would ask Bryant to work on the dirt primarily, however with Abraham Toro on the roster already, the M’s at present can afford to shuffle their defense from night to night to create extra rest and DH days for Kyle Lewis, Mitch Haniger, Ty France, and co. Such a strategy could also help keep Bryant healthy, as the 6’5 slugger has played 140+ games in all but one full season since 2015, but was rested frequently to mitigate smaller injuries. The troubling (non-throwing) shoulder issues he faced in 2018 appear to have been quelled, and for a player his size he has always moved smoothly.
If Seattle values such a thing, Bryant is among the most well-heeled men on the market in terms of playoff experience, with 44 postseason games in his back catalogue, more than the entire current Mariners roster, and in fact more than the Seattle Mariners franchise in their history. Players tend to lionize the value of veteran leadership, of course. But even the most analytically-inclined front offices have recognized the importance of high-profile players who buy in to the organization’s philosophies and coaching principles as a pathway to improving player development. For Bryant, who has his World Series ring and has made more money already in his career as a Super Two player than most first time free agents, Seattle’s combination of a West Coast locale, clear starting role, ascendent young roster, deep pockets, and college buddy reunion would easily make for a comfortable fit. Much like the signing of Robinson Canó, adding Bryant brings both productivity and credibility to the Mariners, but Seattle must not make the mistake of solely adding Bryant as they did with Canó. Add Kris Bryant, keep adding, profit. And win.