Kris Bryant, a self-motivated, process-oriented student with an overall resume that made him a Rhodes Scholar candidate, still likes to write down his goals as a daily reminder, even during a dream season that might make him the National League’s MVP.
Bryant reached almost all of those statistical benchmarks during his junior year at the University of San Diego, leading the nation in homers (31), walks (66), runs scored (80) and slugging percentage (.820), earning national player of the year awards from USA Baseball, Baseball America and Louisville Slugger.
But Bryant never put this down on paper: Become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft.
That, ultimately, would be out of Bryant’s control, so he would not focus on it or stress about a decision that forever changed the course of franchise history, maybe making this The Year the Cubs finally win their first World Series since 1908.
The Houston Astros will get an up-close look at the face-of-the-franchise player they could have had in the middle of their lineup during this weekend’s series at Minute Maid Park, where only the Cubs come in as the team living up to the 2017 World Series hype Sports Illustrated once predicted, only a year ahead of schedule.
“Not to take anything away from the Astros,” Bryant said, following the Derek Jeter playbook for media interviews. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. But, yeah, who wouldn’t want to play here? Especially now, with everything that’s going on, the (Wrigley) renovations and the city of Chicago – there’s just so much going for it that it’s the perfect spot to play.”
To be fair, even the Cubs didn’t have a unanimous opinion within their draft room as Theo Epstein’s front office discussed what to do with the second pick in the 2013 draft, even after the Astros grabbed Stanford University pitcher Mark Appel.
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But this much is clear: The Cubs have repeatedly chosen hitters over pitchers, making offense their priority in the draft, in trades and on the free-agent market, viewing that as a much safer and stronger investment than the inherent risk that comes with throwing a baseball 95 mph over and over again.
The Cubs also wondered about Appel’s ceiling and competitive streak, not sure how he would perform outside the Palo Alto bubble, concerns that have played out in professional baseball.
Houston packaged Appel in a December trade with the Philadelphia Phillies for hard-throwing reliever Ken Giles. Appel – who has a 5.04 career ERA in the minors – made eight starts for Philadelphia’s Triple-A affiliate before undergoing season-ending surgery on his right elbow.
“Honestly, I don’t remember having any conversations with the Astros or sitting down with them,” Bryant said. “I feel like they had their mind made up way in advance.”
While the Astros are known as a secretive, unconventional organization, Bryant had inside information, because he and Appel share the same agent: Scott Boras.
Boras Corp. almost operates as a 31st franchise, a full-service agency with legal, marketing, scouting and training operations. Clients are programmed to say whatever enhances their leverage – how happy you would be just to get an opportunity to play baseball for a living – and pretend that every team is equal.
Bryant met with Cubs executives Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod in a hotel lobby in Stockton, California, during the West Coast Conference tournament. Bryant believed he wouldn’t drop past the Colorado Rockies at No. 3. Imagine Bryant’s numbers – .302 average and 36 homers and 91 RBI already this season – if he played half his games at Coors Field. The Rockies wound up with Jon Gray, a University of Oklahoma flamethrower the Cubs also scouted heavily and considered taking at No. 2.
“I was a little biased towards the Cubs, just because I grew up watching WGN,” Bryant said. “I watched Cubs games and you see Wrigley Field and the history. It’s the fact that you could come here and win a World Series. All that stuff is very attractive. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?
“Of course, going through the draft process, you got to say the same thing to every team and that type of thing. But, I mean, playing here (and) wearing the pinstripes – you can’t go wrong with that.”
Bryant has also capitalized on the platform he never would have gotten in a football-crazy state like Texas. Walk around a mall in San Diego or suburban Chicago and you see his face on advertisements for Express and adidas.
“I never expected that stuff,” Bryant said. “I remember having conversations with my mom – one of my friends got drafted and they’re like giving him free clothes and stuff. I’m like: ‘Mom, that would be so cool if I could get free clothes.’ And now it’s like you have to do photo shoots and (then) get the free clothes.
“No, I never expected that. It’s awesome opportunities for myself. And, obviously, Chicago has a huge role in that, (along with) the Cubs and the fans and the whole city, so it’s hard for me not to be grateful for that.
“But like I said (before), I enjoy it. It’s fun. I couldn’t be in a better spot for that type of stuff. Nothing against any other city out there – I just think (with) Chicago, people want to go there. People want to be there.”
The Astros still won a wild-card game at Yankee Stadium last year and find themselves back in a crowded American League playoff race this season. Houston nailed the No. 1 overall selection in the 2012 draft – reigning AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa – but wasted the same pick two years later, failing to sign high school pitcher Brady Aiken.
Whatever resentment general manager Jeff Luhnow ignited during the extreme rebuild – with his Ivy League/MBA background and all-access pass that landed the Astros on a 2014 Sports Illustrated cover as “Your 2017 World Series Champs” – has to be flickering now after the St. Louis Cardinals committed white-collar crime and hacked into the “Ground Control” database.
But in passing on Bryant, the Astros handed the Cubs a superstar already on a Hall of Fame trajectory at the age of 24.
“Looking back on it, I wouldn’t change a thing that has happened,” Bryant said. “I’m in the perfect situation here. Nothing against the Astros or anything – they’re a great team and they’re fun to watch. But playing for the Cubs is something special.”