What Kris Bryant’s off-the-charts versatility means for Cubs

What Kris Bryant’s off-the-charts versatility means for Cubs

SAN FRANCISCO – So much hype surrounded Kris Bryant from the moment the Cubs drafted him No. 2 overall in 2013 that it felt like everyone assumed he would inevitably become one of the best players in the game.

The hot-button debate went national and the free-agent payday looked so automatic that when the Cubs assigned Bryant to minor-league camp last year – gaining control through the 2021 season – the Major League Baseball Players Association released a statement saying: “Today is a bad day for baseball.”

Before his 24th birthday, Bryant had earned an All-Star selection, helped transform the Cubs into a 97-win team and become the National League’s Rookie of the Year.    

You almost take it for granted because Bryant does all this in a way that highlights the nickname Washington Nationals superstar Bryce Harper remembered from when they were growing up as baseball prodigies in Las Vegas: “Silk.” 

So when Jason Heyward makes a highlight-reel catch on Friday and crashes into the wall at AT&T Park, Bryant moves from third base to right field in the first inning. And then hits a home run off Jake Peavy in the second inning, helping beat the San Francisco Giants with a four-RBI night.  

Or when the Cubs need to get through 13 innings – like they did in outlasting the Milwaukee Brewers last week at Miller Park – manager Joe Maddon has the freedom to move Bryant from left field to either side of the infield.  

“It’s really phenomenal to have somebody that young and that versatile,” Maddon said. “When I first met him, I didn’t realize all of that. I didn’t know. I didn’t know enough about him. The thing that’s really interesting about him is that last year when we talked to him about playing the outfield, he didn’t blanch. Like: ‘Yes, I’m fine.’

“He’s kind of like Zobrist. ‘Zo’ was exactly the same way, never really hesitated at all.”

Except Ben Zobrist had been an under-the-radar sixth-round pick of the Houston Astros who spent parts of three years on the Triple-A level and didn’t establish himself as an everyday player until his age-28 season with the Tampa Bay Rays. 

Zobrist didn’t have Bryant’s status as Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect or a marketing machine working behind him. These seamless transitions say a lot about Bryant, a super-utility franchise player. 

“I’m really just embracing it,” Bryant said. “Wherever they need me, I’m going to give it my all. But some guys are swinging the bats at certain positions – and forcing me to move around a little bit – and I’m OK with it.”

Remember when the Cubs kept Bryant off the 2015 Opening Day roster and said they wanted him to get into a defensive rhythm at Triple-A Iowa? 

In the end, those seven games didn’t really matter in terms of player development. Just look at how Bryant charged in from third base and made a barehanded play to throw out Brandon Belt at first and end the first inning on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball.”  

“Listen, I have so much confidence putting a position after his name anywhere,” Maddon said. “Put him in center field. I’ve told you before, I think he can play shortstop. This guy is really that good of an athlete. 

“You’ve noticed how much his throwing’s improved from the beginning of the season last year until right now. The accuracy of his throwing has really gotten better, because his feet have gotten better. 

“I really have no hesitation putting him anywhere.”

Looking beyond Maddon’s lineup creativity and in-game magic and taking a wide-angle view of this six-year window for the Cubs, that off-the-charts versatility becomes such a valuable insurance policy against injuries, underperformance and prospects who aren’t as polished as, well, Bryant. 

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.”