For all the hot-take debates and service-time drama in spring training, both sides can now claim to be right: The Cubs are feeling The Kris Bryant Effect.
At 21-16, the Cubs are good enough to where one game could make the difference between making the playoffs and going golfing/hunting/fishing in early October.
And almost seven full seasons of Bryant (1.1 WAR so far) is still greater than six, because, as advertised, he’s a middle-of-the-order force with face-of-the-franchise star power.
For Bryant, it will be a homecoming of sorts when the Cubs open a three-game series against James Shields and the San Diego Padres on Tuesday night at Petco Park.
Bryant found the right balance at the University of San Diego, where he excelled athletically and academically, winning the Golden Spikes Award, college baseball’s Heisman Trophy, and turning down the chance to pursue a Rhodes Scholarship.
Three years after sending out vibes he would want first-round money coming out of Bonanza High School in Las Vegas – and getting taken by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 18th round – Bryant developed into the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft.
The Cubs are expected to shake up their roster again before Tuesday's game, with lefty reliever Phil Coke getting designated for assignment and right-hander Brian Schlitter going down to Triple-A Iowa while Tsuyoshi Wada joins the rotation and Junior Lake becomes part of the outfield mix again. But Bryant has been a quick study during his first month in The Show:
• The Cubs went 5-3 while keeping Bryant down at Iowa and pushing back his free-agency clock to after the 2021 season. Bryant’s big-league debut on April 17 became a hold-up-your-iPhone moment at Wrigley Field, even with Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts against Shields during a 5-4 loss to the Padres.
“I felt more comfortable after the first day, just to get all the hoopla out of the way,” Bryant said. “It’s definitely a whole lot more comfortable seeing some guys for the second time and seeing how they’re pitching me. It’s still kind of the little cat-and-mouse game that they’re trying to figure me out and I’m trying to figure them out. I think it will be that way the whole season.”
• Bryant led the National League on Monday by seeing 4.46 pitches per plate appearance. He also ranked tied for fourth in walks (24) and showed up as a top-10 RBI producer (24) despite playing in only 29 games after almost missing the first two weeks of the season. His presence clearly brings another dimension to an emerging team.
“It’s been an issue for us over the years,” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “If you add a few veterans that do a nice job of controlling the zone, and a couple kids come up who are good at it, (then) all of a sudden we have a lineup that’s not fun for a starting pitcher to go through three or four times.”
• After so much buildup, Bryant didn’t homer during his first 91 plate appearances, which set off an empty-the-dugout, silent-treatment, in-game celebration inside Miller Park’s visiting clubhouse. That shot against the Milwaukee Brewers began a four-homers-in-seven-days barrage.
“He’ll be pretty relaxed now,” Hall of Famer Billy Williams said. “He wanted to get that out of the way, because just before he came up here, there was a lot of talk about him hitting the ball out of the ballpark, and I think he could have been pressing a little bit.
“Plus the fact you got major-league pitchers up here pitching him tough. This is what happens when a young kid comes up. You got scouts sitting back there and all of a sudden they see what you can hit and they start pitching to things that you can’t hit.”
Williams – who first joined the organization in 1956 and now works as a senior advisor – smiled before a recent game at Wrigley Field.
“He’s going to be the perfect hitter for this ballpark,” Williams said. “The perfect hitter. He’ll hit the ball to right field. He’ll hit the ball to left field. He’ll hit it to any part (of the ballpark).
“He’s a big, right-handed lowball hitter. He’s a flyball hitter. And pitchers like to throw the ball down. So things will come together.”
• Bryant didn’t ignore the other parts of his game while putting up a .902 OPS. At 6-foot-5, and with a habit of patting the ball in his glove before throwing, there will be questions about whether or not he can stick at third base. But right now, that probably says more about the organization’s stash of position players and potential flexibility than some glaring defensive weakness.
“I’ve been very impressed with how KB’s been playing over at third,” pitcher Jon Lester said. “(With) that big frame, (you kind of) wonder from the outside looking in. But he’s done a great job.”
Bryant’s surprising speed, aggressive instincts and risk-taking on the bases prompted one pro scout to give him this nickname: “The Untaggable Man.”
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This shows up in subtle ways. Bryant’s hustle on a routine groundball to third base earned him an infield single during Noah Syndergaard’s big-league debut last week. The Cubs didn’t score during that two-outs, third-inning sequence, but it forced the New York Mets phenom to throw 18 extra pitches during an eventual 6-1 loss.
“Any time you can startle a team – and they don’t expect (something like) that – it sets them off their rhythm,” Bryant said. “I try to do everything I can to shake up the rhythm of a pitcher.
“He was pitching really well up to that point, making us look pretty bad up there. I definitely think that made him throw more pitches.”
• For all the hype generated by adidas, Red Bull, Boras Corp., the Chicago media, the national writers, Epstein’s front office and the business/marketing wings at the team’s Clark Street headquarters, Bryant hasn’t really let it all go to his head, showing wise-beyond-his-years maturity at the age of 23.
“He’s a mild-mannered kid,” Williams said. “He’s stayed pretty comfortable in his skin. That’s a good thing. He’s not going to be a guy that brags and all that bull----. He’s a guy just going out there and doing his job.”