Better than advertised: How Kris Bryant transformed the Cubs franchise

Better than advertised: How Kris Bryant transformed the Cubs franchise

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.’”

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

If every Major League Baseball player was thrown into a draft pool in a fantasy-type format, Willson Contreras may be the first catcher taken.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs certainly wouldn't take anybody else over "Willy."

The Cubs skipper said as much in late-May, placing Contreras' value above guys like Buster Posey, Gary Sanchez and Yadier Molina based on age, athleticism, arm, blocking, intelligence, energy and offensive prowess.
Contreras strikes out more, doesn't hit for as high of an average and doesn't yet have the leadership ability of Posey, but he's also 5 years younger than the Giants catcher. Molina is possibly destined for the Hall of Fame, but he's also 35 and the twilight of his career is emerging. Sanchez is a better hitter with more power currently than Contreras, but a worse fielder.

Remember, Contreras has been in the big leagues for barely 2 years total — the anniversary of his first at-bat came earlier this week:

All that being said, the Cubs are still waiting for Contreras to display that type of complete player in 2018.

He's thrown out 11-of-32 would-be basestealers and the Cubs love the way he's improved behind the plate at calling the game, blocking balls in the dirt and working with the pitcher. They still see some room for improvement with pitch-framing, but that's not suprising given he's only been catching full-time since 2013.

Offensively, Contreras woke up Saturday morning with a .262 batting average and .354 on-base percentage (which are both in line with his career .274/.356 line), but his slugging (.412) is way down compared to his career .472 mark.

He already has 14 doubles (career high in a season was 21 last year) and a career-best 4 triples, but also only 4 homers — 3 of which came in a 2-game stretch against the White Sox on May 11-12.

So where's the power?

"He's just not been hitting the ball as hard," Maddon said. "It's there, he's gonna be fine. Might be just getting a little bit long with his swing. I think that's what I'm seeing more than anything.

"But I have so much faith in him. It was more to the middle of last year that he really took off. That just might be his DNA — slower start, finish fast.

"Without getting hurt last year, I thought he was gonna get his 100 RBIs. So I'm not worried about him. It will come. He's always hit, he can hit, he's strong, he's healthy, he's well, so it's just a patience situation."

The hot streak Maddon is talking about from last season actually began on June 16 and extended to Aug. 9, the date Contreras pulled his hamstring and went to the disabled list for the next month.

In that 45-game span (40 starts) in the middle of 2017, Contreras hit .313/.381/.669 (1.050 OPS) with 16 homers and 45 RBI.

It looked like the 26-year-old catcher may be getting on one of those hot streaks back in mid-May when he clobbered the Marlins, White Sox and Braves pitching staffs to the tune of a .500 average, 1.780 OPS, 3 homers and 11 RBI in a week's worth of action.

But in the month since, Contreras has only 3 extra-base hits and no homers, driving in just 4 runs in 29 games (26 starts) while spending most of his time hitting behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

What's been the difference?

"I think it's honestly just the playing baseball part of the game," Contreras said. "You're gonna go through your ups and downs, but I definitely do feel like I've been putting in the work and about ready to take off to be able to help the team."

Contreras admitted he's been focused more on his work behind the plate this season, trying to manage the pitching staff, consume all the scouting reports and work on calling the game. He's still trying to figure out how to perfectly separate that area of his game with his at-bats.

"With my defense and calling games, that's one way that I'm able to help the team right now," Contreras said. "And as soon as my bat heats up, we're gonna be able to take off even more."

On the latest round of National League All-Star voting, Contreras was behind Posey among catchers. The Cubs backstop said he would be honored to go to Washington D.C. next month, but also understands he needs to show more of what he's capable of at the plate.

"If I go, I go," he said. "Honestly, it's not something that I'm really focusing on right now. ... I do think I've been pretty consistent in terms of my average and on-base percentage and helping create situations and keep the line moving, at least.

"But right now, I know my bat hasn't been super consistent so far. It would be a great opportunity and I'd thank the fans."

As a whole, the Cubs have been hitting fewer home runs this season compared to last year. Under new hitting coach Chili Davis, they're prioritizing contact and using the whole field over power and pulling the ball.

Contreras has a 19.3 percent strikeout rate — the lowest of his brief big-league career — while still holding a 9.6 percent walk rate, in line with his career mark (9.9 percent).

Thanks to improved defense, Contreras still boasts a 1.6 WAR (FanGraphs) despite the low power output to this point. Posey (1.7 WAR) is the only catcher in baseball more valuable to his team.

Just wait until his power shows up.

"He hasn't even taken off yet," Maddon said. "He's gonna really take off. Remember last year how hot he got in the second half? That's gonna happen again. You see the pickoffs, what he does behind the plate, how he controls the running game — he's a different cat.

"And he's gonna keep getting better. He's not even at that level of consistency that I think you're gonna get out of him. Great athlete, runs well, does a lot of things well, but it does not surprise me that he's [second in NL All-Star voting at catcher] with Posey."

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."