Cubs

Believe it: Kris Bryant kept Cubs in contention with another MVP-level season

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USA TODAY

Believe it: Kris Bryant kept Cubs in contention with another MVP-level season

ST. LOUIS – Kris Bryant doesn’t drink, but even he felt the World Series hangover, admitting there were times this season where he felt “completely beat” mentally and physically after playing into early November last year and handling face-of-the-franchise responsibilities as the National League’s reigning MVP.

But by the final week of September, the Cubs are where they thought they would be, still on the verge of celebrating their second division title after Tuesday night’s 8-7 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. And Bryant is a money player who’s quietly moved to the top of the NL leaderboard for Wins Above Replacement (6.8) on FanGraphs.

If Bryant’s 2015 Rookie of the Year campaign proved he could live up to the hype, and 2016 became all about the quest to end the World Series drought in Wrigleyville, then 2017 again showed his internal drive, ability to adjust and unbelievable consistency.     

“Performing when the team needs you most down the stretch when you could be sluggish,” Bryant said, “or sometimes it’s hard to wake up and come to the field every day for a 1:20 game when you just had a night game, I take pride in those things.

“I just want to show up for my teammates when they need me most. That’s what I’m most proud of.”

Where everything sped up on Kyle Schwarber to the point where he needed a Triple-A Iowa reset, and Addison Russell dealt with a series of injuries and off-the-field issues, Bryant remained steady, hitting almost .300, blasting 29 homers, getting on base 41 percent of the time and putting up a .954 OPS that’s 15 points higher than where he finished his MVP season.

The next five NL position players on that FanGraphs leaderboard: Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon (6.7), Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto (6.5), Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton (6.4), Colorado Rockies center fielder Charlie Blackmon (6.3) and Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (5.7).

WAR, what is it good for?

“I hear about it every day on TV,” Bryant said. “You can’t get away from it because of all these crazy numbers. I guess when you look at that on the surface, RBI is a really nice stat. It’s just been there for 100 (years) and however long this game has been played. But I guess when you look at the advanced stuff, it maybe doesn’t mean as much.”

Bryant hasn’t generated much buzz as an MVP candidate, probably because the Cubs underachieved during the first half of the season and Anthony Rizzo should get votes after putting together another 30-homer, 100-RBI season with Gold Glove-caliber defense.

Bryant’s RBI total (73) also won’t stand out to the old-school voters, though his evolving approach dramatically dropped his strikeout percentage – from 30.6 in 2015 to 18.9 this season – without draining power or losing patience.   

“I take pride in just being a complete player and doing everything that I can,” Bryant said. “Base running, defense, taking the extra base, I think all that encompasses into all these new numbers that are coming out. I guess it’s just a byproduct of me wanting to be that complete player.”

That all-around game will help push the Cubs into October for the third straight year. Where Hall of Famers like Ernie Banks and Ron Santo never played in a postseason game during 33 seasons combined with the Cubs, Bryant has played 454 regular-season games for this franchise and not once has his team been eliminated from playoff contention.     

“I was just sitting there thinking about it,” Bryant said. “People go their whole career and never make the playoffs.

“Definitely got to take advantage of the opportunities where you do have a team that can make the playoffs – and go far in the playoffs. Not to be taken for granted at all.”

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

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USA TODAY

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: