Cubs

Cubs: Bryant, Stanton and the popularity of power prospects

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Cubs: Bryant, Stanton and the popularity of power prospects

It's hard to imagine any prospect getting more fanfare than Kris Bryant got before his MLB debut last week.

Cubs outfielder Chris Coghlan would agree, even after watching Giancarlo Stanton make his debut in 2010 as a baseball-crushing 20-year-old.

Stanton debuted with the then-Florida Marlins just 10 days before Coghlan's 25th birthday, the year after Coghlan took home the National League Rookie of the Year Award.

In Coghlan's eyes, the hype for Bryant was on another level, even though Stanton - a consensus Top 5 prospect leading into 2010 - was demolishing balls at almost the same rate as the Cubs' young slugger.

"When Stanton came up, it was a huge deal," Coghlan said. "It was like, 'Hey, this dude hit 40-something homers,' same thing as Kris.

"But when Kris came up, it was like a whole different planet. I mean, he's on ESPN and everywhere. So he has to deal with a lot of those pressures."

[RELATED: Kris Bryant embraces the hype, lives up to expectations]

The entire baseball world had been waiting on Bryant's call-up for what seemed like an eternity after the game's top prospect led all of professional baseball with 43 homers in 2014 and then again in spring training with nine longballs.

The media helped play up Bryant-mania, but there were so many other factors, from the popularity of social media to the lack of power and offense in the game today.

Stanton hit 39 homers in 2008 as an 18-year-old playing in A-ball, but the world was a different place back then. Minor-league home runs weren't broadcast on Twitter and nobody was asking the Marlins prospect to star in commercials before even taking an at-bat in the big leagues.

Bryant filmed a Red Bull commercial just days before his promotion and the 23-year-old may be a huge motivation for changing the service time quota in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.

[MORE: Early on, Kris Bryant showing off star potential]

But even with all the hoopla surrounding Bryant, Coghlan thinks it's only a matter of time before another prospect comes along and demands even more attention.

"In five years, there's gonna be some new guy that's going to be even more hyped than Kris was," Coghlan said. "Because that's just the way the game has evolved with social media and everything.

"People didn't used to be that big as prospects. Fans didn't know prospects. There was no draft on TV. The game just keeps evolving like that."

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

It’s been another quiet offseason for the Cubs.

January is almost over and the Cubs have yet to commit a single guaranteed dollar to the big-league roster. After exceeding MLB’s luxury tax threshold in 2019, Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to get under the figure in 2020 and reset penalties entering 2021.

Barring any major surprises — i.e. a core player getting dealt before Opening Day — the club will return largely the same team from last season. That group has plenty of talent, but there are some question marks, like second base and center field.

A fan made waves at Cubs Convention last Saturday, reciting the definition of insanity to team president Epstein and Jed Hoyer during a baseball operations panel. With a similar roster in hand, why should fans expect anything different from the Cubs in 2020?

For Epstein, part of the answer lies in the continued development of homegrown players like Ian Happ.

Happ was supposed to be a key cog for the Cubs in 2019, but he was sent to Triple-A Iowa at the end of spring training after striking out 14 times in 52 at-bats. This followed a 2018 season in which he sported a 36.1 percent strikeout rate.

“He was striking out 30 percent of the time and we decided to send him down, because what we were seeing with Ian Happ, in our mind, wasn’t the finished product,” Epstein said Saturday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “We believe it’s the same way with a lot of our hitters, that’s there’s tremendous talent in there, but it wasn’t manifesting in major league games — which is all that matters — the way we needed it to.”

Happ was reportedly upset with the move, but his strikeout rate dropped to 26.3 percent with Iowa. After the Cubs recalled him on July 26, he posted a 25 percent rate in 58 games (156 plate appearances), slashing .264/.333/.564. He recognizes the demotion was beneficial.

“I got a lot of at-bats. I used it as a learning process,” Happ told NBC Sports Chicago Friday of his Triple-A stint. “To be able to come back and have success, it was a good way to finish the season.

Happ ended the season on a high note, slashing .311/.348/.672 in September with six home runs. He was tremendous over the season’s final eight games: .480/.519/1.200, five homers and 12 RBIs.

“Just being more aware of the ways guys were gonna pitch me,” Happ said regarding his hot September. “There’s some tweaks. For me, it was more about handling different pitches and when to use two different swings — when to be a little bit more defensive, when to put the ball in play. It led to results.”

Cubs players have been criticized in recent seasons for a seeming unwillingness to shorten up at times to put the ball in play. Their 73.8 percent contact rate in 2019 was last in the National League, though Ben Zobrist’s personal absence contributed to the low figure.

Happ posted a 71.7 percent contact rate, up from his 63.5 percent rate in 2018.

“He went through a really difficult stretch in Iowa, making significant adjustments to his approach and his swing and as a person, growing from some failure,” Epstein said. “When he came back up towards the end of last year, his strikeout rate was under much better control, he had much more contact ability.

“He wasn’t driving the ball quite the same, and then by the end of the year, he had maintained that better contact rate, was starting to drive the ball again, and it looked pretty dynamic and pretty promising for the future.”

It’s not a coincidence Happ made strides with Iowa. He got to work on his swing in an environment where he played every day. This wouldn’t have been the case in the big leagues, especially if his struggles lingered.

Happ started each of the Cubs’ last six games; he said it's huge for his confidence knowing he'd be playing every day. 

“It’s huge, it’s huge. I think that’s what everyone’s striving for in this league, is be able to [play every day],” he said. “For me, after that stretch and being able to finish strong and look back on a solid year, that’s big moving forward.”

The Cubs roster may look the same, but there’s plenty of room for internal improvement. Pitchers will continue adjusting to Happ, but he’s a better player for what he went through last season. He can take what he learned and carry it into 2020.

“So now, same player on the roster — and I understand the definition of insanity — but to expect Ian Happ to grow from what he’s gone through and benefit from the coaching that he’s gotten,” Epstein said, “and the lessons that he’s learned and the adversity that he’s gone through, and go out and be a productive player for us next year in a certain role, I don’t think is insane.”

“It’s just about sticking with the process, understanding that that’s what worked and that’s what you want to do,” Happ said. “It’s not always easy at the beginning of the year at Wrigley. It’s cold, it’s windy. The results don’t always show up. But if you’re true to the process and you keep going, by the end of the year you’ll be at a good spot.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

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Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

After the Cubs Convention, fans left still uncertain about the team headed into the 2020 season. Host David Kaplan and NBC Sports Chicago Cubs writer Tim Stebbins discuss what they took from Cubs Con, the culture change that is coming to the organization and a realistic possibility that the Cubs are looking into disgruntled star Nolan Arenado.

Listen to the episode here or in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

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