Cubs

Cubs can’t expect Kris Bryant to carry the team on his shoulders

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Cubs can’t expect Kris Bryant to carry the team on his shoulders

Kris Bryant has always been a baseball gym rat, and he’s living out his dream here, but even he admits this can be completely draining.

“Each and every day is a mental grind,” Bryant said. “At the end of the day, it’s just like you’re brain-dead almost.”

Just imagine how fried Bryant would feel if he disappointed Cubs fans everywhere and didn’t live up to all the hype that made him a huge story in spring training. 

Bryant headed to the All-Star Game after Sunday’s 3-1 win over the White Sox at Wrigley Field. Good luck decompressing in Cincinnati, where he will have so many media/marketing/family obligations, in addition to competing against teammate Anthony Rizzo in Monday night’s Home Run Derby.

Beyond the rookie wall, the bigger issue might be how much Bryant has been forced to carry the load offensively, stepping into the middle of a lineup that hasn’t gotten the expected production from veterans like Dexter Fowler, Starlin Castro and Miguel Montero (with each one hitting between .230 and .247).

[MORE: Cubs: All-Star or not, Jake Arrieta already knows he’s elite]

“I really want to see us spread it out,” manager Joe Maddon said. “KB’s not going to be there every night. You got to spread it out, man. The whole thing about a different bus driver every night — I kind of love that — a different guy driving the bus.

“When a team’s going really well, you always talk about (how) every night there’s a different hero. That’s the kind of stuff you’re looking for, because you don’t want to just lay it on one guy, especially (someone) that inexperienced.”

Bryant missed eight games while doing his service-time penance at Triple-A Iowa, yet still leads the team with 51 RBI and only trails Rizzo with 12 homers. His average has dipped to .269, but he’s getting on base almost 38 percent of the time. His .848 OPS ranks fifth among big-league third basemen.

Once again, Bryant found a way to make an impact, even with his 100th and 101st strikeouts on Sunday afternoon, the day after looking overmatched against Chris Sale.

Bryant set the tone against Jose Quintana in the first inning by smashing a ball down the third-base line and into the left-field corner for a stand-up RBI triple. Bryant then scored on Jorge Soler’s single to make it 2-0. Those are the kind of tight games the Cubs have been playing throughout this 47-40 start, leaving almost no time for cruise control.

[RELATED: Cubs keeping Kyle Schwarber in the picture for second half]

“Some nights, he’s been able to make the adjustments, some days he has not,” Maddon said. “It’s something new for him to be under this kind of a microscope, and all of a sudden he’s an All-Star, so there’s a lot going on there.

“Does he look tired? Sometimes he just looks like he’s upset with himself because he expects more. That’s what I see more than anything else. He’s got a real high level of expectation. And if he’s not meeting that, he doesn’t like it.

“But I’m very much aware that’s going to happen. He’s going to have his hard times. It’s going to be difficult and he’s going to look like a first-year player on occasion. Of course he is — that’s what he is.”

That’s easy to forget since the Cubs sold Bryant as a face of the franchise almost from the moment they drafted him No. 2 overall out of the University of San Diego in 2013.

Bryant earned this All-Star selection the hard way, playing in a big market on a contending team and working at a demanding position (third base) that doesn’t always come naturally when you’re 6-foot-5.

“At least he’ll get two days off,” Maddon said. “The upside is to be involved there and understand I’m one of the best. I’ve actually been asked to come to this thing because I’m one of the best baseball players in the world. There’s that elevated confidence that can be derived from that, too.

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“I know there’s a lot of different takes on the Home Run Derby. Of course, you’d prefer guys in some ways not (participate). But then for the betterment of the game … hopefully a lot of kids are going to glom onto and want to be like Kris Bryant, want to be like Rizz.

“And then they’re going to be on center stage with this. I’ve talked about (how) the mind once stretched has a difficult time going back to its original form. This is the perfect example of that. So I’m hoping that this helps accelerate KB’s thought process.”

Fair or not, how Bryant responds in the second half will say a lot about the 2015 Cubs.

“Any at-bat in the big leagues, you have a lot of people watching you,” Bryant said. “Any at-bat out there is a mental grind. Whoever’s more mentally tough will come out on top.”

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.