Cubs

How Kris Bryant handled the hype, earned respect in Cubs clubhouse

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How Kris Bryant handled the hype, earned respect in Cubs clubhouse

MILWAUKEE — The Cubs turning their clubhouse into a momentary mosh pit during the middle of the game shows how much they’ve welcomed Kris Bryant to The Show.

That’s how the Cubs responded to Bryant’s first career home run on Saturday night at Miller Park, emptying the dugout, giving him the silent treatment and making him take a few extra steps up the tunnel to celebrate with teammates.  

The party didn’t last long during a 12-4 blowout loss to the Milwaukee Brewers. But it’s telling how a team responds to a rookie who comes in with so much hype — and how he handles all the attention and the daily failure.  

[MORE: Respect 90: Kris Bryant will lead Cubs by example]

“You just try and make the kid’s transition as easy as possible, especially with all of the expectations and the outside noise surrounding him,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said Sunday. “We try and kind of dumb all that stuff down in the clubhouse, because to us, it really doesn’t mean that much. We all know how good he is. We know what he’s capable of.

“Those are the kind of things where I think Javy Baez got into a little bit of that and maybe it messed with him some. And that’s what we don’t want to have happen. We want guys to come up here, whether it’s 'Addie' (Addison Russell) or Bryant, and just blend in and be one of the guys.

“Once you can get over that transition, then it’s just a baseball game. It’s nine innings, just like it was anywhere else.”

Bryant brought some of this on himself. He put a smile on his face and a target on his back while authorizing super-agent Scott Boras to rip Cubs ownership during the service-time saga in spring training. 

[RELATED: WATCH: Cubs' Kris Bryant hits first career HR, returns to empty dugout]

Baseball has an old-school code, too many unwritten rules and enough problems trying to attract casual fans and the younger generation. Anyone who gets his own adidas billboard across the street from the Wrigley Field marquee before his major-league debut — and shoots a Red Bull commercial with a goat while at Triple-A Iowa — will be under the microscope.

“I really just want to be another guy in the locker room,” Bryant said. “I’m just trying to help the team win. I don’t want to be bigger than anybody else here. I’m just here trying to help them out.”

Bryant found other ways to help the team during a home-run drought that stretched into his 21st game in a Cubs uniform, seeing 4.34 pitches per plate appearance, getting on base more than 40 percent of the time, making plays at third base and showing surprising speed on the bases.

“I never mentioned anything to him,” Anthony Rizzo said. “I’ve kind of been in those shoes before, so I’m sure he’s heard it from mom, dad, girlfriend, friends, brother, cousins. He’s hearing it from a thousand different angles. It’s good to get it out of the way.”

[NBC SHOP: Buy a Kris Bryant jersey]

Manager Joe Maddon thought Rizzo organized the walkout stunt. It certainly sounded like something Rizzo would do, but the All-Star first baseman gave credit to bench coach Dave Martinez. Arrieta called it his production, along with veteran catcher David Ross.   

Bryant isn’t a diva or a me-first guy. He’s a baseball gym rat. Teammates notice that.

“This is a great clubhouse,” Rizzo said. “You got guys like ‘Rossy’ who allow him to come in, (Jon) Lester. There’s no egos in here. (Bryant’s) one of the guys. He’s one of our friends now. And hopefully we play together for a long time.

“Some guys come in and get different treatment, but we have help in this clubhouse. We just want you to be you.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com'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, MLB.com 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 MLB.com).

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 MLB.com'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 MLB.com 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.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.