How Kris Bryant creates immeasurable value for Cubs

How Kris Bryant creates immeasurable value for Cubs

Kris Bryant destroyed a Julio Urias curveball on Thursday afternoon at Wrigley Field, slamming it off the Binny’s advertisement on the left-field video board and showing the hard-to-find power the Cubs always envisioned. 

That made it back-to-back homers from Jason Heyward and Bryant off Urias – one of the game’s brightest pitching prospects – in the fifth inning of a 7-2 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers. But that highlight-reel moment still doesn’t even begin to explain Bryant’s value, which couldn’t be missed while the Cubs won this four-game series between two big-market teams with great expectations for October.

Bryant played some shortstop at Bonanza High School in Las Vegas and had enough arm action to create 90-mph velocity as an amateur pitcher. There were still questions about his ultimate defensive fit when the Cubs drafted him No. 2 overall out of the University of San Diego in 2013, whether or not he would become a third baseman (think Troy Glaus) or a corner outfielder (like Jayson Werth).

Don’t stop there? The lack of definition almost made it seem like Bryant would be all about offense and wouldn’t develop into a lockdown defender, a perception that was completely wrong. Just look at how manager Joe Maddon finally got the 6-foot-5, 230-pound slugger an inning at shortstop during Tuesday’s 5-0 loss to Los Angeles.

“I walked into the dugout and ‘Rossy’ called me Cal Ripken Jr.,” Bryant said.

David Ross also joked about how Bryant’s versatility should help him get paid through the arbitration system. There’s no doubt that super-agent Scott Boras has already thought about what that could mean when his client becomes a free agent after the 2021 season, how a super-utility franchise player could be shopped at multiple positions, depending on teams’ needs.

The next night, Bryant blasted the two-run homer that provided the offense in Jon Lester’s 2-1 complete-game victory over the Dodgers. By Thursday morning, Bryant ranked tied for eighth in WAR (2.5) among all position players in the majors, according to FanGraphs, alongside old/new Boston Red Sox (David Ortiz and Mookie Betts) and a Seattle Mariners star with a $240 million contract (Robinson Cano).

“It does give us tremendous flexibility,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It probably doesn’t get enough attention. This is an exceptionally talented player that’s willing to move all over the field for the team. I can’t think of a similar situation with a guy who’s (been) minor league player or the year, Rookie of the Year (and) so willing to do whatever it takes to help win the game.

“He comes into the ballpark every day not sure if he’s going to play left or play third. It’s pretty special. There’s no doubt that our manager likes to do that and Kris embraces it. But I do think it says a lot about Kris’ character and how much he just likes to win.”

Bryant also leads the team in homers (13) and RBI (40). Maybe it’s all the hype that surrounded his big-league debut last April, or his uncommon maturity at the age of 24, but it does feel like what we’re seeing now almost gets taken for granted.

“We knew he was athletic,” said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development. “But at the same time, he’s doing it in the major leagues, under the bright lights, under the spotlight of a team that’s pushing for a World Series.

“For him to be able to move out to left, move out to right, play center, play third, go to first, it just speaks to him as a baseball player. And the lack of ego. I know he’s a young guy, but he’s just (like): ‘Absolutely, I’ll do whatever you want me to do.’ And he’ll do it with a smile. Kris just wants to win.

“When we evaluated him as an amateur player, it (became): OK, if he outgrows the position at third, we all felt he could go to right. We knew he could run first to third. We knew the arm strength was there.

“But to see him move around as much as he already has this (early) in his career – for a big guy like that (when) you would expect more of a Javy Baez-type person to do that – it just speaks volumes about Kris’ mentality.”

An All-Star third baseman easily could have shut down these experiments, sending a message through his agent or the media and giving a subtle hint to the coaching staff about his preferences or how the defensive uncertainty might impact his offensive production.

“I’m never been the type of person to voice my opinion that way to say I’m only a third baseman or I only hit third in the lineup,” Bryant said. “I don’t like people who play the game that way. I don’t think we should, because Joe Maddon’s one of the best managers in the league. I trust his judgment. I’m here to help the team.”

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?


Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”'s Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

USA TODAY's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.