With potential opening in CF, Kris Bryant’s versatility creates options for Cubs


With potential opening in CF, Kris Bryant’s versatility creates options for Cubs

Super-agent Scott Boras will highlight the versatility if – when? – Kris Bryant becomes a free agent after the 2021 season, marketing him as the franchise player who can play almost anywhere. 

The Cubs gave Anthony Rizzo the night off and started Bryant at first base on Monday, moving him to center field, right field and third base across the 11 innings it took to beat the Kansas City Royals 1-0 at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs have a manager who values matchups and flexibility (Joe Maddon), multiple players who can play multiple positions and an obvious need for pitching. If Theo Epstein’s front office trades bats for arms this winter, Bryant’s versatility could be an X-factor. 

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Bryant will be right in the middle of that 2016 lineup, but even Maddon doesn’t know if the Cubs should build it out with him as the Opening Day third baseman.

“I think KB could do a lot of different things,” Maddon said. “I just feel good about him playing defense. He’s a good baseball player. He’s the best baserunner on the team, purely with instincts and speed.

“Defensively, I’m comfortable with him anywhere. I wanted to see him at first base. I just think that adds to his resume moving down the road. 

“I have no doubt that he could play shortstop. I don’t think I’d want to see him at second base – vulnerable to a guy sliding into him – but I would bet he could play shortstop, too. He’s done a great job everywhere.”

Bryant got exposure to the outfield at the University of San Diego, where he emerged as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft. Moving around hasn’t hurt the numbers – 26 homers, 99 RBI, .874 OPS – that will probably make him the National League’s Rookie of the Year.

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“It does not bother his offense whatsoever,” Maddon said. 

There’s probably too much long-term risk in permanently moving a potential 40-homer guy to center field. But what about as a short-term fix? 

The Cubs will give Dexter Fowler a qualifying offer and probably sink their resources into the rotation, creating an opening in center until a young outfielder like Albert Almora develops or an interesting trade presents itself.  

“I feel comfortable with (KB) anywhere,” Maddon said. “I could see him as a starting third baseman. (He can start at) any outfield position. And you would feel covered above-average defensively – and that you could win with this guy.” 

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.”