Is Bryant still a target for Giants as he hits free agency?


SAN FRANCISCO -- Early next month, Kris Bryant officially will become a free agent, something that has been discussed more with the longtime Chicago Cub than just about any player in the history of the game. 

The manipulation of Bryant's service time was a big story before he even made his big league debut, and Bryant later filed a grievance -- which he lost -- to try and became a free agent a year earlier. In his final years in Chicago, as his free agency approached, Bryant was the constant subject of trade rumors. After all that, there won't be any stories about the Cubs possibly retaining Bryant. 

The former MVP hits free agency as a Giant, having played two months for them, plus a five-game National League Division Series. While both sides have at times expressed interest in a long-term pact, president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi made it clear last week that the Bryant trade was mostly made with 2021 in mind. 

"For us, the move at the deadline was really about pushing chips in with this team, which we thought was a really special team and had a chance to do some special things and did," Zaidi said at his end-of-season press conference. "But we recognize that he's a superstar talent and it's going to be a really competitive market for his services. I'm sure we'll have conversations there, but he's going to have a long line of suitors, so we'll just have to see how that develops."

If that sounds like an executive who doesn't intend to wait around all winter, that's because it is. Bryant is a Scott Boras client, and the playbook in recent seasons has been generally the same. Boras will wait the market out until he feels his client is getting the right deal, and to be fair to Boras, he usually ends up winning. But the Giants have too many other holes to fill to wait too long. 

Zaidi and Scott Harris must rebuild just about an entire rotation, and that's their No. 1 priority of the offseason. A close second might be bringing Brandon Belt back. The Giants are not going to put other business on hold to see where the Bryant bidding ends up. On the other hand, they're surely never going to fold their hand, either. 

This is a front office that keeps all options open, as evidenced by Zaidi hopping into the Bryce Harper sweepstakes late in the process two years ago. Harper was also a Las Vegas native who was a Boras client and former MVP, and just as the Giants liked a ton in his profile, they see all the reasons why Bryant would be such an attractive long-term centerpiece at Oracle Park.

Those skills were particularly on display in the NLDS against the Los Angeles Dodgers. During a series in which the biggest talents -- Mookie Betts, Buster Posey, Max Scherzer and young Logan Webb, among others  -- led the way, Bryant was right at home. He reached base in half of his 18 plate appearances, hit a homer and started at four different positions. Bryant started twice in center field, allowing Gabe Kapler to get Darin Ruf's bat in the lineup against Julio Urias. That provided the only Giants run of Game 5.

At that press conference last week, Kapler recalled a conversation he had with Bryant in the hours after the deadline deal. Bryant was adamant that he would play anywhere or hit anywhere in the lineup

"And then he did all of those things," Kapler said. "I really appreciate that he was true to his word on that front. He's a superstar talent coming in and doing everything he possibly could to fit in with a new team and his talent was evident at every turn. His pregame work was awesome. He's a fast baserunner, he has big power to all fields, his preparation was excellent. I have really good feelings about what Kris brought to us."

Bryant's versatility and unselfishness fit right in, but it was a mixed bag between the lines. Defensively, while he's capable of moving around, it's clear that he's not an ideal fit everywhere. Bryant struggled with right field at Oracle Park and his arm was a surprise issue at third base. He turns 30 in January, so nobody will be counting on him to roam center field through a long-term deal.

At the plate, Bryant had a .788 OPS and hit seven homers in 51 games with the Giants. Overall, he had a .835 OPS and 25 homers for the season. By wRC+, Bryant was 23 percent above league-average as a hitter in 2021, and even though the numbers in San Francisco were down, he still was 13 percent above league-average.

Bryant showed good plate discipline and wasn't bothered by Oracle Park's dimensions, and he clearly lengthened the lineup. He is a good fit in a lot of ways, but as he hits free agency, the Giants will have to decide how much they value that fit. There were members of the staff who felt Ruf was the better option during that intense finishing stretch, as Bryant hit .179 with no homers over the final two weeks of the season. His playing time became a question the final days of the season, but he recovered by helping to lead the way in the NLDS. 

The Giants will have to weigh all of that as Bryant finally hits free agency. They got a two-month test run, and now must decide if a long-term relationship is what they truly want. As he prepared for the offseason, Zaidi sounded like someone who likes the player, but also knows he will have a lot of options to build the roster in other ways as Bryant surveys the market. 

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"Looking at his stretch with us, I know there was a lot of talk on how he got off to a good start -- the homer his first game -- and then his numbers weren't quite at the same level in September, but that's just the reality of a really small sample when you get traded at the deadline," Zaidi said. "You've got two months with a team, 50-60 games, every player is going to have hot and cold spells -- that's just the reality of the sport. I think for someone like him it gets under a greater microscope. 

"To his credit, he was the same guy all along, continued to move around the field, and was really, I thought, an impact player for us in the (NLDS). That's what we got him for."

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