Cubs

Kris Bryant lives up to hype, wins NL Rookie of the Year Award

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Kris Bryant lives up to hype, wins NL Rookie of the Year Award

Kris Bryant left no doubt about who should be the National League’s Rookie of the Year, unanimously winning the award after proving he’s a franchise player for the Cubs.

Bryant went 30-for-30 in first-place votes from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, which unveiled the results on Monday night, the beginning of a week that could also see Joe Maddon and Jake Arrieta win Manager of the Year and Cy Young awards as part of the franchise’s resurgence.

The buzz kept building as the Cubs won 97 games and finished with the third-best record in baseball. Bryant played a huge part in turning around what had been a last-place team in 2014, putting up 26 homers, 99 RBIs and an .858 OPS during an unforgettable All-Star season.

“There is a way to top this year,” Bryant said on a BBWAA conference call. “And that’s to win a World Series.”

Bryant won this in a landslide, finishing with 150 points to beat out two worthy finalists: San Francisco Giants third baseman Matt Duffy (70) and Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang (28).

Bryant became the first Cub to win the award since Geovany Soto in 2008. The other Cubs: Kerry Wood (1998), Jerome Walton (1989), Ken Hubbs (1962) and Hall of Famer Billy Williams (1961).

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As Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect heading into the season, Bryant did all this with a huge target on his back.

The Cubs put it there when they drafted Bryant out of the University of San Diego with the second overall pick in 2013, right in the middle of a long-term rebuild for Theo Epstein’s front office and the Ricketts family that would focus on scouting and player development.

But Bryant magnified it by authorizing super-agent Scott Boras to fight his service-time battle in the media, getting his own adidas “WORTH THE WAIT” billboard across the street from the Wrigley Field marquee and shooting a down-on-the-farm advertisement with a goat for Red Bull.

Whether or not Bryant becomes a huge crossover star and cashes in on all that marketing potential, he definitely proved that he could play at this level, even with only 181 minor-league games on his resume.

“I don’t think there was any pressure for myself, just because you’re surrounded by (other young players),” Bryant said. “The only expectations that really matter are the ones that you put on yourself. And I certainly exceeded my expectations this year.”

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Bryant did his live shot for the MLB Network award show with a Boras Corp. logo in the background. The third baseman obviously didn’t need those seven extra games at Triple-A Iowa to get into a “defensive rhythm” in April. The Cubs used the system to delay free agency until after the 2021 season.

“Honestly, I haven’t really thought about that much lately,” Bryant said. “I said what needed to be said earlier in the year. And right now, it’s really just enjoying the award that I won and the season that we had as a team.

“Things happen for a reason. I said it before: I think I played with a little chip on my shoulder this year. And it’s good to play that way sometimes. You really want to help your team win in any way possible. And sometimes when you have something to play for, you play even better.”

For a 6-foot-5 slugger with smash-the-video-board power and a swing that generated 199 strikeouts, Bryant still found different ways to contribute to a playoff team.

A better-than-advertised third baseman, Bryant also played all three outfield positions and even made a six-inning cameo at first base, demonstrating his versatility, athleticism and unselfish attitude.

Bryant also stole 13 bases and showed such surprising speed, aggressiveness and instincts that a major-league evaluator nicknamed him “The Untaggable Man.”

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

Bryce Harper — a Rookie of the Year in 2012 and a likely MVP winner for the Washington Nationals this season — grew up in Las Vegas playing with and against Bryant and tweeted a message, hashtagging a childhood nickname for his smooth game: “Nobody deserves it more than you brotha #Silk."

Bryant became the 20th overall player to unanimously win this award, joining a list that includes Frank Robinson, Mark McGwire, Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, Mike Trout and Jose Abreu.

Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa — a player the Cubs once worked out at Wrigley Field and thought might fall to them at the sixth pick if things broke a certain way in the 2012 draft — won the American League Rookie of the Year hardware. Correa went No. 1 overall to Houston, but the Astros did the Cubs a favor the next year by passing on Bryant and taking pitcher Mark Appel.

The BBWAA voting closed before the playoffs began and the Cubs advanced to the NL Championship Series. Maddon — a two-time AL Manager of the Year with the Tampa Bay Rays — is a finalist along with Terry Collins (New York Mets) and Mike Matheny (St. Louis Cardinals). Arrieta is going up against a pair of aces for the Los Angeles Dodgers — Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw.

Those trophies would be nice, but after a breakthrough season, the Cubs feel so much closer to their ultimate goal and that World Series ring.

“Twenty years from now,” Bryant said, “you’re not going to remember your batting average or how many home runs you hit in a certain season. It’s going to be the championship that you won.”

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.”