Cubs: Joe Maddon will manage the great expectations for Kris Bryant


Cubs: Joe Maddon will manage the great expectations for Kris Bryant

There are times where it feels like Kris Bryant would be a great stand-in for an updated version of the old “Superfans” sketches on “Saturday Night Live.”

Instead of obsessing over Mike Ditka and “Da Bears,” we’d get the boys riffing about Bryant hitting 100 homers this year once the Cubs take care of “Da Service Time.”

There’s a don’t-rule-it-out feeling around the team about Bryant making his big-league debut on Friday afternoon against the San Diego Padres at Wrigley Field.

But everyone’s guilty of building up Bryant to the point where you wonder if Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect will ever be able to live up to these unbelievable expectations.

It’s the national writers, the beat reporters, the prospect gurus, the bloggers and pretty much anyone holding a microphone at Clark and Addison.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

It’s Theo Epstein’s front office selling The Plan and the business/marketing wing putting on those dog-and-pony shows for the media and season-ticket holders.

It’s Boras Corp. and the Major League Baseball Players Association using the Bryant case and posturing for the next rounds of collective bargaining.

It’s coming soon since Thursday marks the 12 days the Cubs needed to keep Bryant in the minors in order to set his free-agency clock to after the 2021 season.

“I’ve been around prodigies before,” manager Joe Maddon said. “The thing I like to do with young players like that is to really just try to emphasize you’re just one of the group.

“That would be the rhetoric from within. The rhetoric from outside’s going to be glamorous, glorious, hyperbole, whatever you want to call it. But from within, it’s got to be real.

“If it’s a Kris Bryant or if it’s eventually an Addison Russell or a Javy Baez – we have a lot of these guys – when they eventually get up here I really try to disarm that whole thing conversationally.

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“(You) try to reduce (everything to) my expectations are that you play hard, you do your work and you care.”

By all accounts, Bryant already checks those boxes at the age of 23. The Cubs loved his sense of purpose and professionalism coming out of the University of San Diego, where the 6-foot-5 third baseman/outfielder developed into a Rhodes Scholarship candidate and the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft.

Bryant led the minors with 43 home runs last year and crushed Cactus League pitching (1.652 OPS) this spring. He hasn’t moped around at Triple-A Iowa, going 8-for-24 (.333) with two homers and seven RBI through six games.

Is it fair to expect that Bryant will have to go through some struggles and adjustments once he gets here?

“My experience has been sometimes when they come up, they don’t,” Maddon said. “Only because they haven’t had a chance to process the whole thing. You just come up here and you almost have blinders on, in a good way.

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“You just go play like you’ve always been playing. Then maybe, eventually, the blinders become extended and more light’s being let in. And all of a sudden you notice things you hadn’t noticed before. And that’s where the struggle can occur.”

The Cubs wanted Maddon around this group because they saw the way he nurtured a talented core for the Tampa Bay Rays, creatively deflecting the attention, trying to reduce the pressure, boosting clubhouse confidence and pushing their development to the next level.  

“I really believe oftentimes when a young guy comes up, there’s that naiveté about it that permits you to perform like you always have performed,” Maddon said. “I love when the guy’s able to maintain that level of naïve-ness. Because once you start to get too sophisticated, you start overanalyzing the thing. That’s what can possibly become a problem.

“But whenever these dudes show up, I really believe that they’ll all come up here and contribute very quickly.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.