Cubs

One year later, Kris Bryant reflects on big-league debut

One year later, Kris Bryant reflects on big-league debut

It's hard to believe it's been just one year since Kris Bryant made his big-league debut.

Thanks to a mature personality and a polished game on the field, Bryant seems more like a seasoned veteran than a second-year player.

Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of Bryant's overhyped arrival to Major League Baseball, but the Cubs insist they didn't utilize the new Wrigley Field party room to celebrate the occasion (prior to the series finale against the Colorado Rockies, at least).

Bryant said he realized on Friday that his "big-league birthday" was coming up and admitted it often feels like he's been in the majors for more than a year though at the same time, the days are flying by.

"It's been a good year for me," he said. "I learned a lot along the way. I'm far from where I want to be, but I can look back and be pleased with what has happened."

It's been a roller coaster 12 months for Bryant - waiting almost a month before his first big-league homer and then cruising to an All-Star nod, a trip through the Home Run Derby, a wild pennant race, a thrilling one-game victory over the Pirates to kick off the playoffs and then the euphoria of beating the Cardinals in the NLDS before getting swept out of the NLCS by the Mets.

Bryant capped it all off by braving a winter storm to accept his National League Rookie of the Year Award in New York. 

Bryant was also honored prior to Sunday's game with the Players Choice Award for 2015 NL Outstanding Rookie.

Somehow, through it all, Bryant is able to tune out the hype - even while appearing on billboards and in commercials while becoming one of the faces of baseball.

"They're all just words," Bryant said of the hype that surrounds him. "You've gotta do it on the field. I've always been about action and doing it on the field. I'm not worried about what people are saying about me or any of that, because I know deep down, I want to do better than what they're saying about me.

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't have that type of mentality and desire to just continue to learn and be better and become an all-around baseball player. It's just what pushes me."

Bryant has turned into an all-around force on the diamond. From his prolific baserunning to silencing doubters about his ability to play quality defense at third base, the 24-year-old has proven he's more than just a slugger.

"He's just different," Joe Maddon said. "No preteniousness about him whatsoever. He's a baseball player. He loves to play. Comes ready. He doesn't whine. He doesn't complain. And it's just been one year."

Over his first 162 career games, Bryant has posted an .853 OPS on a .274/.367/.486 slash line, hitting 28 homers and driving in 104 runs, good for a 6.7 WAR (by FanGraphs' metric). 

Bryant has also surprised some with 13 stolen bases and while he's struck out a whopping 209 times in his big-league career, he's also walked 83 times and has already cut down on his strikeout rate in 2016 (only 10 whiffs during his first 50 plate appearances).

In spring training, he said he felt like this season was just a continuation of 2015, only with a three-month break mixed in. 

Bryant has helped stay grounded by reminding himself that no matter what level, it's still the same game. There are just more people watching and paying attention in the big leagues.

"He's very mature," Maddon said. "The way he goes about his business, it's beyond his years. That's the best way I could tell you, man.

"He's subject to moments - like we all are - when things aren't going well, but he's pretty good at putting down yesterday and playing today. He's pretty good at putting down the previous at-bat or making a mistake on defense and coming back.

"I have a lot of faith in his ability to move on to the next moment. You gotta be that kind of guy."

Bryant said he couldn't point to one particular moment when he truly felt like a big-leaguer, but he had plenty of memories that will stick with him forever.

"There's really too many good ones and plenty of bad ones," he said. "You tend to remember the good ones. All of them. From my first game all the way until my last game [in 2015], even though we lost the last one. It was just a lot of fun.

"Walk-off home runs. Those are always fun. And then obviously making the postseason for the first time in a long time. 

"A lot of stuff to reflect on and learn from. I'm very grateful for it."

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.