Cubs

Cubs: Is Kris Bryant the long-term answer at third base?

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Cubs: Is Kris Bryant the long-term answer at third base?

Kris Bryant’s raw power got him drafted No. 2 overall in 2013 and put him on the fast track toward Wrigley Field. But the rookie third baseman doesn’t want to be viewed as a one-dimensional slugger.

The Cubs can always shift Bryant to the outfield, depending on their long-term needs and which players step forward. He got time in the outfield at the University of San Diego and has already played 12 innings combined in center and left for a Cubs team that is trying to stress versatility.

There are legitimate questions about whether Bryant’s 6-foot-5-inch frame will eventually push him away from the hot corner. But he’s shown enough potential within his first month in the big leagues that it’s not an open-and-shut case.     

“As he gets more comfortable over there, you’re going to see him do some really good things at third base,” manager Joe Maddon said before Wednesday’s 2-1 win over the New York Mets. “He’s quick. He’s got good range. He’s long. He can lean out there and just pick up some stuff other guys can’t get to.”

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Even while acknowledging the metrics can be flawed and/or misleading – and the Cubs are sacrificing defense and experience for offense – Bryant has committed four errors. His .934 fielding percentage ranked 10th among the 12 qualified third basemen in the National League. He hasn’t scored well so far in terms of defensive WAR (-0.3) and Ultimate Zone Rating (-1.0).

“He’s also learning positioning, depths,” Maddon said. “When he goes to throw the baseball, I think you’re going to see him get even cleaner with that. Meaning he still wants to pat the ball a little bit in his glove, which causes that extra step.”

Think of the way shortstop Starlin Castro mimicked Bryant during that bizarre synchronized throwing program last week against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

How do you break that habit?

“What I like to do there is you hit him groundballs and he has a ball in his bare hand,” Maddon said. “That forces you to catch the ball one-handed. And then if you move your feet properly, you’ll just throw it. I just like the one-handed drill.”

As an amateur player, Bryant used to throw 90-plus mph as an occasional pitcher, so you know he has a strong right arm to go along with a strong work ethic.

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One American League scout who called Bryant “the real deal” did spot a hitch in that throwing motion, a kind of floppiness to his arm action. He’s typically been more comfortable going to his backhand instead of making plays on his forehand side.  

“I like really when an infielder does not take the ball back into his glove,” Maddon said. “Watch – a lot of them do it. I like it cleanly picked up, and then you just throw it with your right footwork.

“His feet are getting better. His stroke’s getting better. His understanding of the whole thing’s getting better. It’s a one-handed game. He’s catching the ball one-handed, which I like. I’m constantly seeing improvement.”

It won’t happen overnight, but Bryant is a baseball gym rat who will do whatever it takes to stick at third base.

“I’m going to try to be a complete player,” Bryant said. “I think I’ve improved a lot defensively just working on that every day. I’m pleased with the all-around game now. And I think I can get even better.”

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.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”