Welcome to this edition of the Cubs’ positional year in review series. On Tuesday, we discussed the shortstops, where Addison Russell is likely still the starter, despite a somewhat disappointing 2017 season. One player who did not have a disappointing season is Kris Bryant. Though he’s no longer the reigning MVP, Bryant was again one of the best players in the NL, and he headlines this rundown of the North-Siders’ third basemen.
Since the start of 2015, only Mike Trout has totaled more fWAR than Kris Bryant. For three consecutive seasons, Bryant has been among the elite of the elite by any conceivable metric. He was rewarded for his performance in 2016 with the MVP, but his 2017 campaign was hardly a step back for the young superstar. As a hitter, Bryant actually improved in several ways.
The University of San Diego product saw his OPS tick up from .939 to .946 and he continued to improve his contact skills. In his rookie season, Bryant made contact on just 66.3 percent of his swings, the lowest rate of any of the 141 players who qualified for the batting title that year. Two years later, Bryant made contact on 77.7 percent of his swings, close to league-average and a remarkable improvement in just two years. For good measure, his walk rate ballooned from 10.7 percent in 2016 to 14.3 percent as he swung at fewer pitches outside the strike zone.
As I broke down here, Bryant’s production was up slightly. Although, he produced in a different way than he had in the past. Even though he made more contact, he still managed 29 homers and scored 111 runs. He was particularly good in the season’s final months, putting up a .325/.433/.562 line from Aug. 1 through the end of the season.
Where Bryant went from being an MVP to being a “merely” great player in 2017 came on defense. The 6-foot-5 Bryant was fifth among all third basemen in 2016 with 11 runs saved above average, per Fangraphs’ DEF metric. This season, he slipped from just below the top tier of defensive third basemen to the middle of the pack (12th overall), saving just 2.3 runs above average. Much of the drop was due to a curiously high number of off-the-mark throws from third, rather than any kind of diminishing range. Thankfully, it seems like a fixable problem and Bryant was better in the second half of the season.
Javier Baez is capable of playing third base, and likely would if Bryant were lost for any extended period of time. A good portion of Baez’s value comes from his ability to play any of the four infield positions (yes, even first base), and he certainly has the fast-twitch muscles necessary to play a competent hot corner.
Behind utility man Baez, Tommy La Stella provides additional depth at third. La Stella had the best season of his career in 2017, slashing .288/.389/.472. The 28-year-old has proven time and again that he is more than capable of hitting major-league pitching. With Bryant at third though, it’s tough to get him regular at-bats. It’s nice to have him in reserve as one of the league’s best pinch-hitters (.488 OBP in 44 plate appearances), but ultimately he might end up as trade fodder, as Jeimer Candelario did.
Thanks to the Cubs keeping Bryant in the minor leagues for the first two weeks of the 2015 season, the former No. 2 overall pick doesn’t hit free agency until after the 2021 campaign. That means the Cubs have at least four more years of Bryant manning third, a decidedly positive set of circumstances, despite his disastrous performance in the 2017 playoffs (.555 OPS, 34.1 percent strikeout rate). There’s reason to believe that Bryant will only get better as he enters his prime, a scary thought for NL pitchers.
Since Bryant seems unlikely to cede third anytime soon, La Stella might be better off playing elsewhere. The Cubs were able to get a solid backup catcher and an (at the time) elite reliever for Candelario, who also found his path to big-league playing time blocked by Bryant. La Stella would start for a good portion of teams at either second or third, so he could potentially bring back some valuable pieces, especially with three years until he hits free agency. With a bullpen sorely needing a revamp, that might be an avenue the Cubs take this offseason.