Cubs

Kris Bryant embraces the Cubs hype, lives up to big expectations

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Kris Bryant embraces the Cubs hype, lives up to big expectations

PITTSBURGH — Kris Bryant had his own adidas billboard across from the iconic marquee before he played his first game at Wrigley Field. Bryant also shot a Red Bull commercial two days before he found out he would be promoted from Triple-A Iowa.

“That’s pretty solid, man,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like that anticipatory moment that he had to go through, and I thought he dealt with it extremely well. Couldn’t have dealt with it any better than he did.”

Bryant embraces the hype — and sometimes even feeds into it — while living up to the big expectations. That helps explain why there’s a completely different vibe around this Cubs team now.

Even if Wednesday’s 4-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates didn’t have the same offensive fireworks or a dramatic late-inning comeback at PNC Park. It ended with Bryant striking out swinging with the potential game-tying run on first base, but his at-bats are already becoming must-see events.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs move Kris Bryant to center field after Dexter Fowler's injury]

Win or lose, it’s not hard to make Bryant the story. He broke into his home-run trot in the first inning, mistakenly thinking he hooked a ball inside the left-field foul pole for his first big-league bomb. The 6-foot-5 third baseman also walked, doubled, scored two runs and played center field in the eighth inning.

Bryant knew super-agent Scott Boras would rip the Cubs, but he didn’t get his hands dirty during the service-time dispute in spring training. Bryant petted that goat, holding it on a leash while waiting for a bus to Chicago in that clever “Down on the Farm” spot for Red Bull.

Bryant is also hitting .409 (9-for-22) with a 1.143 OPS through his first six games in the majors, showing no signs of being in awe of his surroundings.

Bryant should have crossover appeal at a time when Major League Baseball is desperate to connect to the younger generation — and the Cubs have baseball plans directly dependent on a business model that hinges on box-office sales, a renovated Wrigley Field and the promised TV megadeal.

[MORE CUBS: Edwin Jackson earning bigger role in Cubs bullpen]

“Kris has a unique personality in addition to having a unique talent,” Boras said. “He’s the kind of guy that’s very focused on the game and what he does and how he does it.

“He’s a baseball player. He really is. All the other things, I think, are enjoyable. Like you go in and you do something like that (commercial). You take a few hours and you put on barn boots and you go try to milk a cow and the goat thing.

“To me, that brought a message about a very historical thing for the team he plays for. He did it in (his own) way and also managed all the other things that went on in spring training by staying completely out of it: ‘I’m going to go play baseball. I’m going to do my best.’

“In dealing with your questions, which are appropriate, and managing it a particular way, he just has a unique sense for it. (It’s) being able to turn that off — and turn that on — and go out and play and do all the things he did.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get a Kris Bryant jersey right here]

Bryant grew up in a stable, two-parent family and noticed the way Derek Jeter always stayed on message, keeping his reputation intact over the years and retiring as a New York Yankees icon.

Bryant could be seen signing autographs for fans throughout spring training, understanding that’s one of his responsibilities.

“Absolutely,” Bryant said. “I remember going to games when I was a kid and being the kid asking for autographs and what it was like when people would turn me down. And what it was like when people would come over and sign for me.

“I like to give people that respect. They’re here watching me play and rooting me on, so that’s a small thing that I can do for them.”

The bottom line: If this team gets hot, everyone can keep getting rich, the Cubs, Bryant, Boras Corp. Bryant’s father, Mike, loved how adidas rolled out the “WORTH THE WAIT” message on Addison Street.

“That was awesome,” Mike said. “Everybody made a big deal about it. It wasn’t. They had the billboard bought six months ago, for crying out loud. You can’t get billboard space in three days. Come on. Adidas has been really good to Kris, and they’re all about the Cubs winning, too. We want the Cubs to win.”

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.”

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.