Cubs

How Kris Bryant topped his MVP season with Cubs

How Kris Bryant topped his MVP season with Cubs

Kris Bryant won the National League MVP Award in his sophomore campaign, then promptly went out and got better in his third big-league season.

Bryant's career is off to one of the greatest starts in baseball history and is already one of the best players in Cubs franchise history.

And he won't turn 26 until January.

Bryant posted a .946 OPS in 2017, seven points higher than his MVP-winning 2016 OPS (.939). He didn't hit 30 homers or drive in 100 runs (in fact, he only drove in 73), but he improved in almost every other offensive category.

Bryant set new career highs in average (.295), on-base percentage (.409), walks (95) and doubles (38) while lowering his strikeout percentage for the third straight year.

He scored 111 runs, good for the fifth-highest total in the NL and eighth-highest in MLB. He led all third basemen in runs and walks while finishing third in OPS, just behind Colorado's Nolan Arenado (.959) and Cleveland's Jose Ramirez (.957).

Bryant is also the 12th Cubs player to score 100 runs in multiple seasons, becoming the first to do so since Sammy Sosa from 1998-2002.

Only Giancarlo Stanton (7.0) and Anthony Rendon (6.9) have a higher WAR (FanGraphs) in the National League and Bryant (6.8) is fifth in all of baseball, with Aaron Judge (8.2) and Jose Altuve (7.5) leading the game.

"Everybody's been critical of KB, but he quietly is one of the top WAR-mongers in the league right now," Joe Maddon said. "Everybody's like, 'What's wrong with KB?' Nothing!

"Everybody looks at the fact that his RBI total isn't what it could've been, but everything else is in play."

There are several explanations for Bryant's low RBI total. He took 74.78 percent of his at-bats in the No. 2 spot in the Cubs order, hitting behind the pitcher's spot and a revolving door of leadoff hitters who combined to get on base just 32.5 percent of the time.

Bryant also hit just .239 with runners in scoring position, but he posted a .375 on-base percentage and .462 slugging percentage in such situations, making for a darn good .837 OPS overall.

Bryant called himself a "table-setter" earlier in the season and that is exactly what he did for the Cubs offense. As the team found its groove post-All-Star Break, Bryant hit .328 with a .975 OPS in the second half while striking out only 53 times in 68 games.

He became a smarter and more consistent player in 2017, truly learning how to take it one day at a time.

"You have to look at it that way," he said. "At times, I still find myself thinking ahead to certain series and that's when I kinda lose it and things aren't going my way, because I'm thinking about something I don't need to think about.

"That's a good characteristic of a good team, I think. You just stay where you are, stay in the moment and enjoy it. Play hard, but don't really worry about the future too much."

Bryant's also been remarkably durable, becoming the first player in Cubs history to appear in 150 games in each of his first three MLB seasons. He's only the 11th player in MLB history to accomplish that feat and since 2000, only Albert Pujols, Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui have done the trick (with the latter two guys starting their professional career abroad playing in Japan).

Bryant is already tied with Dave Kingman for 25th in Cubs history with 94 career homers. He's the first player in franchise history to hit at least 25 homers in each of his first three MLB seasons.

He found himself in the MVP discussion as the season wore down, though some may devalue him based on his low traditional stats of homers and RBI in a year where baseball saw more longballs hit than ever before.

But Bryant has said in the past he models his game after Reds first baseman Joey Votto and the Cubs superstar took one step closer to that level of play in 2017.

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

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USA TODAY

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

The Cubs now apparently believe they are a stronger organization without Chris Bosio, firing a pitching coach known for his strong convictions, brutal honesty and bottom-line results in a move that doesn’t seem like an actual solution.

Hiring Jim Hickey – who has a good reputation from his years with the Tampa Bay Rays, a close friendship with Joe Maddon and what looks like a slam-dunk interview lined up for Monday – might make the manager feel more comfortable and less isolated.

But the new-voice/different-direction spin doesn’t fundamentally address the pitching issues facing a team that needs to replace 40 percent of the rotation and find an established closer and has zero expectations those answers will come from within the farm system.

This is an operation that won a seven-game World Series last year without a homegrown player throwing a single pitch.     

If the Cubs can say thanks for the memories and dump “Boz,” what about “Schwarbs?”

Advancing to the National League Championship Series in three straight seasons doesn’t happen without Bosio or Kyle Schwarber. But the fastest way for the Cubs to dramatically improve their pitching staff isn’t finding someone else who thinks it’s important to throw strikes. It could mean breaking up The Core and severing another emotional attachment.   

Theo Epstein saw Schwarber play for Indiana University and used the Fenway Park frame of reference, envisioning him as a combination of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia with his left-handed power and energizer personality.

Epstein wasn’t the only Cubs official to develop a man-crush on Schwarber, but he’s the only one with ultimate control over baseball operations. Epstein’s style isn’t pounding the table as much as the ability to frame questions in the draft room, gather as many opinions as possible before the trade deadline and at the winter meetings, trying to form a consensus.

“I will say that it’s really an organization-wide evaluation of this player, but I’m not skirting responsibility,” Epstein said. “I’ll happily endorse him as the type of player that we want to win with here at the Cubs, and have won with. I don’t know, the fact that he hit 30 bombs in a bad year is a good start.

“But power is not everything. I think he fell into this year becoming more of a slugger and less of a hitter than he really is. It’s important for him to get his identity back as a dangerous hitter. Honestly, I think we feel he has the potential to be an all-around hitter on the level of an Anthony Rizzo. When he reaches his prime, that’s what he could be.”

Where will that be? As a designated hitter in the American League? That’s obvious speculation, but Schwarber has improved as an outfield defender – his strong throw at Dodger Stadium led to another NLCS Maddon Moment where the manager compared the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax.      

A 43-45 record at the All-Star break also exposed some of the weaknesses in the clubhouse and downsides to Maddon’s methods. The Cubs flipped a switch in the second half, got hot in September and had the guts to beat the Washington Nationals in the playoffs. But that doesn’t completely wipe away the concerns about a group that at times seemed too casual and unfocused and didn’t play with enough edge. For better or worse, Schwarber approaches the game like a blitzing linebacker.

“He’s got a certain toughness and certain leadership qualities that are hard to find,” Epstein said, “and that we don’t necessarily have in surplus, in abundance, running around in this clubhouse, in this organization.

“A certain energy and grit and ability to bring people together – that’s important and we rely on it. But the biggest thing is his bat. We think he’s the type of offensive player that you build around, along with a couple other guys like him.”

Maddon would never admit it, but was the Schwarber leadoff experiment a mistake?

“I’ll judge that one based on the results and say yeah,” Epstein said. “I think we can talk about the process that went into it. Or in an alternate universe: Does it pan out? But those are just words. It didn’t work.

“Everything that went into Kyle’s really surprising and difficult first half of the season, we should look to correct, because that shouldn’t happen. He’s a way better hitter than that. What he did after coming back from Iowa proves it.”

In the same way that Maddon should own what happens with the next pitching coach, Epstein will ultimately have to decide Schwarber’s future.

Schwarber didn’t complain or pout when he got sent down to Triple-A Iowa this summer, finishing with 30 homers, a .782 OPS, a .211 batting average and a 30.9 strikeout percentage.    

Trading Schwarber would mean selling lower and take another team having the same gut instincts the Cubs did in the 2014 draft – and offering the talented, controllable starting pitcher that sometimes seems like a unicorn.

Is Schwarber still the legend from last year’s World Series? An all-or-nothing platoon guy? An intriguing trade chip? A franchise player? Eventually, the Cubs are going to find out.

“We have to look to do everything we can,” Epstein said, “and more importantly he has to look to do everything he can to get him to a point where he’s consistently the quality hitter and tough out and dangerous bat in the middle of the lineup that we know he can be.

“He wasn’t for the first half of this year – and he knows it and he feels awful about it. He worked his tail off to get back to having a pretty darn good second half and getting some big hits for us down the stretch.”

And then the offseason was only hours old by the time the Cubs showed they will be keeping an open mind about everything this winter, not afraid to make big changes.

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

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USA TODAY

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

It's become a tradition that Jake Arrieta shaves his beard after the season ends.

The 31-year-old did it again days after the Cubs were eliminated from the 2017 postseason, and it's still a sight we'll never be used to seeing.

Check it out:

Weird, right?

Here's how he looked following the Cubs' World Series win in 2016:

And again in 2015:

It's crazy how much younger he looks.