The long con goes like this: Tell the fans you’re going to build this the right way, but never put a timeline on it. Talk vaguely about the future while sweet-talking the prospect gurus and spinning the local media. Promise the money will be there for the right free agents, but only when the team is finally ready to win.
If not, keep cashing those TV checks, collecting shared revenues from Major League Baseball, sell as many tickets and as much beer as you can and watch the franchise value skyrocket.
Other teams can try to tank and copy The Cubs Way. But it took patience from the Ricketts family’s ownership group and a massive payroll infusion. Theo Epstein’s baseball-operations department had the built-in credibility from their World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox to sell it – and also needed the scouting acumen and poker faces to execute a series of shrewd trades. Good luck finding a better manager than Joe Maddon, who still delegates so many of the day-to-day responsibilities to a strong coaching staff.
And no one else can have Kris Bryant until after the 2021 season.
Bryant transformed this franchise, helping the Cubs win 200 games combined across the last two years, following up his National League Rookie of the Year campaign with something close to a unanimous MVP season.
Even that required the Houston Astros giving the Cubs an assist, passing on the University of San Diego slugger with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft and instead taking a different Scott Boras client (Stanford University pitcher Mark Appel).
Even then rookies are supposed to start hot, get exposed by the BATS video system, maybe go back to the minors to work through issues and then become distracted off the field, especially in a city like Chicago that caters to athletes.
When 40,000 fans jam into Wrigley Field on Friday night – and a national TV audience tunes in for Game 1 of this playoff run against the San Francisco Giants – they will be watching a 24-year-old superstar who follows his own script.
“A lot of people in the industry think that you’ll just get better because you’re younger,” outfielder Chris Coghlan said. “As you get older, you get better – it doesn’t work like that.
“There’s no guarantee just because you’re young, you’re going to keep getting better. That’s not true. You have to be able to adapt and adjust and have the aptitude. Really, the greatest quality is self-awareness to really analyze yourself and go: ‘OK, where can I get better? Where do I need to make an adjustment?’ And then make the right one.
“Even if you (realize you) need to make an adjustment, it doesn’t mean you’re going to make the right adjustment. You can go down a whole path of doing something that actually made you worse.
“For ‘KB’ to do that in such a short span – and put up the monster numbers that he has – is unbelievable.”
[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
Coghlan speaks as someone who became a Rookie of the Year with the Florida Marlins in 2009, a non-tendered player four years later and a Triple-A Iowa outfielder on Opening Day 2014.
Assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske became the American League’s Rookie of the Year in 2002 with a 24-homer, 84-RBI season, but a hand injury led to 12 homers and an 80-point OPS drop the next year with the Toronto Blue Jays, the beginning of a 12-year career that saw him win World Series rings with the Red Sox and New York Yankees.
“Everyone talks about the sophomore slump,” Hinske said. “Well, it’s hard when you’re a Rookie of the Year (and) you get a lot of media attention. I broke my hamate bone, so I struggled with my swing and didn’t live up to the first year. It’s just about being consistent.”
That’s Bryant, who’s been covered nonstop since draft day, in an industry obsessed with prospects, and at a time when his minor-league stats propped up a big-market franchise and kept Cubs fans interested on social media.
“Kris trusts his swing,” Hinske said. “It just comes with experience, honestly. When you first get in the game, your eyes are wide open. You’re like: ‘OK, now I’m good enough to be here.’ (You start) having success and you get hungry. You’re like: ‘Man, I can do this.’
“He’s becoming more professional. He knows what he needs to do to succeed every day. He puts himself in a good position to drive the baseball at all times. He knows there’s going to be ups and downs, but he does a really good job at not getting excited about anything, whether he’s doing well or doing bad.”
Bryant is a two-time All-Star third baseman who can shift defensively all over the infield and play any spot in the outfield – and will still be driven to win a Gold Glove. Finishing with 99 RBI last season bothered Bryant enough – even if that number could have been written off as service-time manipulation – that he responded with a 39-homer, 102-RBI MVP statement.
Whether or not Cubs fans will finally see their team win the World Series this year, they’ve actually seen a Cubs prospect who’s even better than advertised – and just getting started.
“For me, it’s never going to be good enough,” Bryant said. “I’m so stubborn. I’m so hard on myself. There’s always going to be ways for me to look at my game and say: ‘I can do this better.’”