Kris Bryant’s Rookie of the Year season is just the beginning for Cubs


Kris Bryant’s Rookie of the Year season is just the beginning for Cubs

MILWAUKEE – Kris Bryant is too polite and media savvy to say he deserves to be the National League Rookie of the Year.   

A rare unfiltered moment might have come on Thursday afternoon, when Bryant walked out of Great American Ball Park’s visiting clubhouse after the Cubs beat the Cincinnati Reds again.

Dressed up as a character from Disney’s “Frozen” in a blond wig and a tight teal dress, Bryant stuck out his tongue and gave the thumbs-down sign to the reporters trying to take photos with their phones.

Rookie hazing aside, it’s hard to picture where the Cubs would be without Bryant.

Bryant grew up playing with and against Bryce Harper in Las Vegas, but he is a polar-opposite personality from the Washington Nationals superstar/MVP frontrunner. The Cubs have a franchise player who has handled the nonstop attention and said all the right things since getting drafted No. 2 overall in 2013.

[MORE: Cubs ready for October with Jake Arrieta possibly clinching Cy Young Award]

The Cubs had to lose 101 games in 2012 – the first season for the Theo Epstein administration – to be in position to select Bryant out of the University of San Diego and make the 6-foot-5 slugger a building block.

The Cubs lost 96 games in 2013 and could win 97 this year. It doesn’t happen without Bryant’s accelerated development.

“It’s hard to turn around a team that quick,” Bryant said. “But credit to the front office and all those guys. They’ve been doing a great job. They found good players – not just myself – (drafting) Kyle (Schwarber) and (making) some trades and signing Jon (Lester) was huge.

“Usually, if you pick high in the draft, it takes awhile to get back down from there. But to think that was two years ago – it has turned around pretty quick.”

This should be a slam-dunk decision for the Baseball Writers’ Association of America voters: Bryant entered the season’s final weekend leading all major-league rookies in home runs (26), RBI (99), on-base percentage (.369), slugging percentage (.495) and runs scored (86).

[RELATED: Maddon’s playoff message to Cubs and Schwarber's role in wild-card game] 

“I think there’s a lot of good rookies out there, especially on this team, too,” Bryant said. “All of them are very deserving. We all do things very differently, but I still don’t even really know how that works in terms of voting or any of that. So it’s good for me to be kind of naïve about that.

“But I definitely think my first year has been a pretty good one and I’ve had a lot of fun with it. So if I’m fortunate enough to get that award, then it would be pretty cool.”

Bryant has also stolen 13 bases (and done enough damage to justify striking out almost 200 times). He has moved around unselfishly, playing third base and all three outfield positions (plus a six-inning cameo at first base).

Bryant embraces the endorsement opportunities and seems to enjoy shooting the commercials, but he’s not a me-first guy. His aggressiveness on the bases and all-around hustle will become part of this team’s identity in the future.

“He plays like that every day,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We have a lot of good players here. But when one of your best players – who everybody knows is going to be here for a long time – plays that way, the impact it has on the rest of the organization is incredible.

“So when a young player comes up, and you want him to play that way, and if they’re giving you any kind of resistance, look at KB. That’s it.”

[NBC SHOP: Get your Cubs postseason gear right here]  

Maddon told the same story he brought up when the Cubs reported to camp in Arizona almost eight months ago.   

“A couple years ago, we’re playing the Pirates in spring training with the Rays and it was 10 o’clock at night,” Maddon said. “(Andrew) McCutchen hit a routine groundball to shortstop – I mean, absolutely routine – and beat it out.

“When the game was over, I walked up to him and said, ‘Man, that is so impressive. That’s gonna set the tone for your entire team.’ We have those guys now.” 

Playing those service-time games in April means Bryant can’t become a free agent until after the 2021 season, making this Rookie of the Year campaign simply the beginning of what the Cubs hope will be a run of sustained dominance.    

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”

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.