Cubs

Cubs expecting Kris Bryant to fuel power surge

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Cubs expecting Kris Bryant to fuel power surge

ST. LOUIS — The Cubs built their team around power hitters at a time when the game is tilting toward power pitching. 

Kris Bryant — a 6-foot-5 slugger, the second overall pick in the 2013 draft and Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect heading into this season — became a huge part of that against-the-grain philosophy. 

Despite generating only 20 home runs through 24 games — with no three-run shots or grand slams — the Cubs still woke up on Cinco de Mayo with a decent chance of making the playoffs. Baseball Prospectus set the odds at 52.9 percent, while FanGraphs crunched the numbers and came up with 47.2 percent.

[SHOP: Get a Kris Bryant jersey here]

The Cubs believe Bryant — who still hasn’t homered in his first 17 games in The Show — will fuel that power surge this summer.

“There’s more to the game than just hitting home runs,” Bryant said. “Especially nowadays, a lot is being said about getting on base and on-base percentage. I just try to be the complete player and help the team win in any way possible. If I’m on base, then I’m giving my team a chance.”

Bryant showed that again during Tuesday’s 7-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. He produced an RBI single in the fifth inning and then hustled to score from second base when the Cardinals couldn’t complete a double play. He also struck out twice and committed a fielding error at third base.

The night before, the Cardinals walked Bryant four times, a sign of respect for someone who blasted 43 homers in the minors last season. He’s hitting .283 with 16 walks, 12 RBI and an .808 OPS since his much-publicized promotion from Triple-A Iowa.

“For a young player, having your reputation precede you is incredible,” manager Joe Maddon said. “With the way data is collected and videos are processed and put out there, that information probably would have taken at least three weeks to a month a couple years ago to get all that stuff out there. But it’s out there like immediately, so everybody’s been playing the same game.”

It will be like this for all the young hitters the Cubs are trying to incorporate at once. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein watched his team strike out 37 times in the last series against the Milwaukee Brewers.

“Joe said it well: They’re not all going to be oil paintings,” Epstein said. “I think we had a couple moments this weekend that were Pollocks.”

[MORE: Kyle Hendricks searching for answers after Cardinals expose Cubs]

Jackson Pollock could probably put together an interesting heat map.

“It’s part of the growth process,” Epstein said. “There are going to be these reminders of how raw we are in certain aspects. And then the league will adjust to young players and then young players have to adjust back.

“They’re still figuring out who they are as players and still getting their foundation underneath them as big-league players. Yet they have to adjust to very targeted attacks from the other team. That’s what makes it fun. We’re young and talented and embracing the struggle.”

That’s not to say Bryant is actually struggling.

“If he keeps on-basing .450, I’ll be pretty happy,” general manager Jed Hoyer. “He’s done an unbelievable job of staying patient (and) it shows a lot of maturity. I think most 23-year-olds would be frustrated, swinging to try to get that monkey off their back. He hasn’t done that. I’m not worried at all. He’s too big and too strong and too good of a hitter to not hit a lot of homers.”

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: