Breathe easy: Bryant's fine -- and he thinks he has another gear

March 17th, 2023

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- On March 16, 2022, news broke that shocked the baseball world: had reached a seven-year, $182 million deal with the Rockies. The former National League Most Valuable Player would become the centerpiece of a team searching for a new identity following three consecutive losing seasons and the departures of star sluggers Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story.

Exactly one year later -- and after Colorado finished 68-94, with Bryant appearing in only 42 games -- neither he nor the Rockies can look back on his first season in purple pinstripes with much fondness.

Nagging back and foot problems sidelined Bryant for most of the 2022 campaign. But he entered Spring Training this year healthy, and he got off to a great start at the plate, launching three home runs in his first eight Cactus League games.

Then he woke up Monday morning with back stiffness. And Rockies fans suddenly found their blood pressure rising. After all, back injuries -- and plantar fasciitis, for that matter -- can cause problems for years.

But in the Rockies’ clubhouse, Bryant knew what this was.

“I think every person in here has back stiffness sometimes, just playing baseball,” Bryant said after going 2-for-3 with a pair of singles in his return to the lineup Thursday as the Rockies lost to the Padres, 7-1, at Salt River Fields. “And that’s really all it was. Last year, it was more like playing through back problems, and then you just keep making it worse and worse. And then it takes longer to recover from it.”

When Bryant signed his massive contract 365 days ago, projections of what kind of numbers he might put up now that he had Coors Field as his home ballpark were inevitable. And where would the Rockies be in one year? In three? In five?

Fast-forward to the present, and Robert Burns’ proverb about the best-laid plans of mice and men had reared its ugly head once again. But if there is any player who possesses the right disposition to cope with what has happened to Bryant over the past 12 months, it’s Bryant.

Say what you will about his seemingly charmed baseball life -- he made the defensive play that clinched the Cubs’ first World Series title in 108 years after an MVP campaign during his second Major League season -- but it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing since.

In fact, you could say we’ve never truly gotten to see the best of Kris Bryant. Over his first three MLB seasons, he posted a .939 OPS with 94 homers and 18.3 bWAR. In the five seasons since, his OPS is nearly 100 points lower, and he has produced just shy of 11 WAR. That’s what a slew of injuries, not to mention a once-in-a-century pandemic, will do.

Does Bryant have a truly special season in him, one that leaves his great 2016 in the dust?

“You could look back at like Barry Bonds, maybe. He had like every stat one year was like the best it could possibly be,” Bryant said. “But I feel like as baseball players here, I don’t know if anybody’s actually put together a season where it’s like, ‘Oooh, look at this stat sheet -- I did everything unbelievably well.’ Even in my best years, there were areas where I’m like, ‘Man, I really wish I did this better.’”

Still, he thinks there’s a monster year in him.

“Oh, definitely,” Bryant said. “It’s important to have that desire and that will. And I know I still have it because even in Spring Training games, when things aren’t going my way, I’m frustrated. It’s when you lose that fire and that desire that you probably shouldn’t be playing baseball anymore.”

Sometimes it’s dangerous to look ahead a year or three. But sometimes it’s OK to muse about, say, seven? As he and several of his Rockies teammates prepare to fly to his hometown of Las Vegas for this weekend’s two-game series against the Royals, one could forgive Bryant for wondering what it would be like if there were a Major League franchise there someday.

“They’ll probably get a team just in time for when I retire,” he joked before someone brought up the prospect of him and fellow Las Vegan Bryce Harper joining forces for one last run at the end of their careers.

“That would be cool,” Bryant said. “I don’t know if I’d want to, but maybe my kids will force me to.”

There are the best-laid plans. And then there are projections that actually do work out. Only time will tell.