In part because we are in a lockout that has frozen all player movement around the league, leaving us in a period of stasis with nothing to talk about, and in part because the Boston Red Sox set themselves up right before the transaction freeze went into place with a situation that provides them many different paths to take, they’ve been connected in speculation or otherwise to nearly every top free agent remaining. From Seiya Suzuki to Kyle Scwharber to Nick Castellanos, and even to Trevor Story, nearly every significant name remaining has some sort of potential fit with the Red Sox. A little surprisingly, however, the one name who has not really had a ton of connection is Kris Bryant.
Considering how big of a name Bryant is as a former MVP while playing with the Chicago Cubs, one of the game’s marquee franchises, one would think the Red Sox would be connected if for no other reason than an agent trying to boost their client’s contract. This winter, however, that connection hasn’t been there. I’ve mentioned a few times that Suzuki would be my top target in the outfield, so this isn’t necessarily a case that Bryant should absolutely be a target for the Red Sox, but I do think it at least warrants some consideration.
There’s a reason Bryant is one of the bigger names in the sport, and it’s not as though he hasn’t lived up to the billing. He’s probably not in the very upper echelon of hitters around the league, but he’s also not too far off. After being selected second overall by the Cubs, he famously had his service time manipulated and came up in 2015. Over those first six years of his career, he was at least 25 percent better than the league-average hitter (as measured by wRC+) in all but one of those seasons, with the lone exception being in a 34-game sample in the strange 2020 season.
And in 2021 — the season of control the Cubs gained by manipulating the service time — Bryant did indeed bounce back both with Chicago and then with the San Francisco Giants following a midseason trade. Granted, he was at the bottom rung of production compared to his pre-2020 career norms, but his 123 wRC+ still put him very safely better than average. The now-29-year-old (2022 will be his age-30 season) finished 2021 hitting .265/.353/.481. After a spike in strikeouts in that small-sample 2020, he got this strikeout rate back down to league-average with an above-average walk rate and plus power. Bryant finished with a .216 Isolated Power (SLG - AVG), and remember that comes with a little over a third of his plate appearances with the Giants, who play in probably the worst park for power hitters in baseball.
Offensively, Bryant fits exactly what the Red Sox are looking for as a right-handed power bat. The power was more modest in San Francisco, where he had a .186 ISO. At Fenway, one would think his pull-heavy, ground ball-scarce approach would play extremely well and he’d be able to take advantage of the short left field on a regular basis. He would fit right in the core of the lineup, forming an incredibly intimidating middle of the order alongside Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, and J.D. Martinez.
Defensively, the fit is a little less appealing, though that’s the case for basically all of the non-Suzuki free agent options. Bryant does come with some versatility, having spent most of his career at third base. However, he’s transitioned some to the corner outfield and could slot into left field pretty safely at Fenway Park. He’s graded out solidly at that position, and has even been passable in right field, though I’m not sure I’d be thrilled about going that route too often at Fenway. Even as far as third base goes, Bryant’s graded out anywhere from a bit above-average to solidly below-average. It probably wouldn’t be Plan A, but in the event Devers had to move off the position in the short-term, Bryant would be a potential internal solution.
But really, the addition would be about the offense more than anything else, which again would be the case for either Schwarber or Castellanos as well. With Bryant, I would at least be confident in him being able to stay in left field if/when Martinez leaves after the season, whereas the other two would certainly slide into the DH spot for 2023 in that hypothetical. That, in turn, theoretically leaves the DH spot open either for another slugger to come, Devers, or a potential rotation to keep players fresh and healthy.
All of this really comes down to the contract, though, where Bryant is likely to command big dollars. Due to that aforementioned midseason trade last summer, he could not be extended a qualifying offer and therefore comes without draft pick compensation attached to his free agency. That’s a good thing for the Red Sox, but it’s also a good thing for any other potentially interested team, which of course drives that price up. MLB Trade Rumors projected a six-year, $160 million deal. That’s not a small deal, but a shade under $27 million is not a prohibitive luxury tax hit, especially with the anticipation of that threshold rising in the new CBA.
My biggest concern would be how other teams are viewing him as part of their future plans and whether or not that will cause them to significantly speed up the bidding process. Depending on how teams see him at third base, they could see Bryant as their future at the hot corner, and it goes without saying that a team will pay more for a long-term infielder than a long-term left fielder. There are enough other options that the Red Sox wouldn’t have to keep up in that bidding process and instead pivot to more “true” outfielders.
All that said, among the free agents available Bryant would probably be my second favorite after Suzuki, largely coming down to my relative confidence in him staying in left field as compared to players like Schwarber and Castellanos. The price tag is significant, but we’re also talking about a player who has consistently produced at an All-Star level in all non-pandemic seasons in his career. That kind of relative certainty is hard to find, and when it becomes available without having to give up a draft pick, it’s not a scenario that should be dismissed out of hand.