Cubs

All-Star or not, Cubs expect Kris Bryant to be their Derek Jeter in second-half push to October and beyond

All-Star or not, Cubs expect Kris Bryant to be their Derek Jeter in second-half push to October and beyond

Derek Jeter is the headliner trying to corral enough heavy hitters to close a billion-dollar deal for the Miami Marlins, the sale of a dysfunctional franchise hanging over the All-Star Game this week in South Florida.

Kris Bryant is the National League’s reigning MVP, not invited to Major League Baseball’s showcase event, an awkward symbol for an underachieving Cubs team that won’t have a single player from last year’s World Series winner there on Tuesday night at Marlins Park.

But the glass-half-full look at the rest of this season begins with Bryant, whose relative downturn includes 18 homers, a .928 OPS that’s only 11 points from where he finished his MVP campaign and a WAR rating that still makes him a top-15 player in the NL.

Bryant also possesses the inner drive, natural calm and sense of responsibility that draws comparisons to Jeter, a player he publicly patterned himself after while being anointed as the franchise savior, trying to deflect credit and attention and defuse controversy.

“I think there’s a lot of similarities there between KB and Derek,” catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello said on this week’s Cubs Talk Podcast, remembering his time as a Yankee staffer on championship teams in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000. “Derek’s focus, No. 1, was on the score. You never really heard about any personal achievements with him.

“It was about coming here to beat the other team, day in and day out, whether it be with a great play or a bunt or a smart base-running play. He was always looking for some way to change the game in a positive manner for our team.

“That’s the mark of a winner. They have to find some part of their game that’s going to effect the score in a positive way, whether it is defense or base running. Obviously, when (KB’s) swinging the bat, he’s a game-changer. But when those guys aren’t swinging the bat as well as they want, or getting the hits, they find a way to still effect the game and help the team win.

“I see KB that way. When KB’s hot, he’s hot, great. But what about when you’re not? And how does that affect you mentally? You watch Kris and he may be the best base runner on our team and his decision-making is always on point.”

Jeter is a far more complicated figure behind the scenes, but his brand became synonymous with winning, a baseball shorthand for how to handle yourself in the media spotlight, in the corporate world and in October.    

For Joe Maddon, it starts with the manager’s only rule about running hard to first base. As much as anyone, Bryant represents an idealized version of The Cubs Way, one of their best hopes that this 43-45 start is a fixable glitch and not a system-wide breakdown of a one-and-done team.     

“It’s hard to throw him out on a routine groundball,” Maddon said. “How about his effort to first base? I mean, he’s a Rookie of the Year, MVP, (25 years old). Um, I don’t want to say he doesn’t have to do that. But he doesn’t have to do that.

“He does it, every day, and he sets a wonderful example for this entire organization. Not just this club. I’m talking like everybody in A-ball, Double-A, Triple-A. When they tune in the game and they see KB turning a routine groundball to shortstop into a bang-bang play, what does that mean?

“So when you go to spring training or guys come up and you talk about ‘Respecting 90,’ here’s the poster child right here, man. He does it as well as anybody. I always thought that about Derek Jeter. I see (Mike) Trout do that a lot. I’ve seen Jeter in the past hurt – bad foot, bad ankle – do that. And then he’d limp out to shortstop. The real guys do that kind of stuff and he sets a great example.”

Bryant obviously has years and years to go before coming anywhere close to matching Jeter’s five World Series rings, 3,465 hits, 14 All-Star selections and no-doubt Hall of Fame credentials. But Bryant already understands his role as an ambassador, saying “yes” over and over again to media requests and signing autographs in a mostly empty complex around 5 p.m. on the day pitchers and catchers reported to spring training in Arizona.

“What you’re talking about is franchise players have instincts,” super-agent Scott Boras said. “There are few of them. And certainly it’s not something Kris tries to do. It’s something that Kris instinctively knows to do.”

Where Jeter dated models and actresses and enjoyed the New York nightlife, Bryant married his girlfriend from high school and likes to order in food and watch Netflix at home. Where this season already dented Kyle Schwarber’s legendary status and Addison Russell’s off-the-field reputation, Bryant is hitting .213 with runners in scoring position.

Bryant’s ability to ride the waves without crashing is exactly what the Cubs need now if they are going to make up those 5.5 games, catch the Milwaukee Brewers and chase that kind of Yankee dynasty.   

“I just feel very determined,” Bryant said. “When things aren’t going my way, there’s just a switch in me that makes me want it even more. And sometimes when you want it even more, you end up going the opposite way, so it’s a fine line there.

“But it’s just a matter of showing up and competing. You are the player who you are and things usually work out in the end. I think that goes for everybody in this clubhouse.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Not enough coronavirus testing for the Cubs

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Not enough coronavirus testing for the Cubs

David Kaplan, Gordon Wittenmyer and Maddie Lee discuss MLB's testing issue and what could it mean for the season. They also dive into the Cubs starting pitching with Jose Quintana being sidelined, and they make predictions on how many games the Cubs will win in the shortened season.

1:26) - How is baseball going to happen if there aren't enough tests for the players

(6:40) - Do the Cubs have enough on the roster to win this year

Click to download the MyTeams App for the latest Cubs news and analysis.

(12:45) - The pitching staff for the Cubs is light if Quintana can't play

(17:46) - How many games will the Cubs win this year?

(23:42) - Will Kris Bryant sign an extension with the Cubs?

Listen here or below.

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Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

The day after Kris Bryant suggested that first-time fatherhood and the dramatic reality of world events have changed how he looks at his future with the Cubs, general manager Jed Hoyer outlined why it might be all but moot.

Setting aside the fact that the Cubs aren’t focusing on contract extensions with anyone at this time of health and economic turmoil, the volatility and unpredictability of a raging COVID-19 pandemic in this country and its economic fallout have thrown even mid-range and long-term roster plans into chaos.

“This is without question the most difficult time we’ve ever had as far as projecting those things,” Hoyer said. “All season in projecting this year, you weren’t sure how many games we were going to get in. Projecting next season obviously has challenges, and who knows where the country’s going to be and the economy’s going to be.”

Bryant, a three-time All-Star and former MVP, is eligible for free agency after next season. He and the club have not engaged in extension talks for three years. And those gained little traction while it has looked increasingly likely since then that Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, would eventually take his star client to market — making Bryant a widely circulated name in trade talks all winter.

MORE: Scott Boras: Why Kris Bryant's free agency won't be impacted by economic crisis

The Cubs instead focused last winter on talks with All-Star shortstop Javy Báez, making “good” or little progress depending on which side you talked to on a given day — until the pandemic shut down everything in March.

Báez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber are both also eligible for free agency after next season, with All-Star catcher Willson Contreras right behind them a year later.

Click to download the MyTeams App for the latest Cubs news and analysis.

None has a multiyear contract, and exactly what the Cubs are willing to do about that even if MLB pulls off its 60-game plan this year is hard for even the team’s front office executives to know without knowing how hard the pandemic will continue to hammer America’s health and financial well-being into the winter and next year.

Even with a vaccine and treatments by then, what will job markets look like? The economy at large? The economy of sports? Will anyone want to gather with 40,000 others in a stadium to watch a game anytime soon?

And even if anyone could answer all those questions, who can be sure how the domino effect will impact salary markets for athletes?

“There’s no doubt that forecasting going forward is now much more challenging from a financial standpoint,” Hoyer said. “But that’s league-wide. Anyone that says they have a feel for where the nation’s economy and where the pandemic is come next April is lying.”

The Cubs front office already was in a tenuous place financially, its payroll budget stretched past its limit and a threat to exceed MLB’s luxury tax threshold for a second consecutive season.

And after a quick playoff exit in 2018 followed by the disappointment of missing the playoffs in 2019, every player on the roster was in play for a possible trade over the winter — and even more so at this season’s trade deadline without a strong start to the season.

Now what?

For starters, forget about dumping short-term assets or big contracts for anything of value from somebody’s farm system. Even if baseball can get to this year’s Aug. 31 trade deadline with a league intact and playing, nobody is predicting more than small level trades at that point — certainly not anything close to a blockbuster.

After that, it may not get any clearer for the sport in general, much less the Cubs with their roster and contract dilemmas.

“We have a lot of conversations about it internally, both within the baseball side and then with the business side as well,” Hoyer said. “But it’s going to take a long time and probably some sort of macro things happening for us to really have a good feel for where we’re going to be in ’21 and beyond.”

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