Cubs

Cubs expecting Kris Bryant to fuel power surge

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Cubs expecting Kris Bryant to fuel power surge

ST. LOUIS — The Cubs built their team around power hitters at a time when the game is tilting toward power pitching. 

Kris Bryant — a 6-foot-5 slugger, the second overall pick in the 2013 draft and Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect heading into this season — became a huge part of that against-the-grain philosophy. 

Despite generating only 20 home runs through 24 games — with no three-run shots or grand slams — the Cubs still woke up on Cinco de Mayo with a decent chance of making the playoffs. Baseball Prospectus set the odds at 52.9 percent, while FanGraphs crunched the numbers and came up with 47.2 percent.

[SHOP: Get a Kris Bryant jersey here]

The Cubs believe Bryant — who still hasn’t homered in his first 17 games in The Show — will fuel that power surge this summer.

“There’s more to the game than just hitting home runs,” Bryant said. “Especially nowadays, a lot is being said about getting on base and on-base percentage. I just try to be the complete player and help the team win in any way possible. If I’m on base, then I’m giving my team a chance.”

Bryant showed that again during Tuesday’s 7-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. He produced an RBI single in the fifth inning and then hustled to score from second base when the Cardinals couldn’t complete a double play. He also struck out twice and committed a fielding error at third base.

The night before, the Cardinals walked Bryant four times, a sign of respect for someone who blasted 43 homers in the minors last season. He’s hitting .283 with 16 walks, 12 RBI and an .808 OPS since his much-publicized promotion from Triple-A Iowa.

“For a young player, having your reputation precede you is incredible,” manager Joe Maddon said. “With the way data is collected and videos are processed and put out there, that information probably would have taken at least three weeks to a month a couple years ago to get all that stuff out there. But it’s out there like immediately, so everybody’s been playing the same game.”

It will be like this for all the young hitters the Cubs are trying to incorporate at once. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein watched his team strike out 37 times in the last series against the Milwaukee Brewers.

“Joe said it well: They’re not all going to be oil paintings,” Epstein said. “I think we had a couple moments this weekend that were Pollocks.”

[MORE: Kyle Hendricks searching for answers after Cardinals expose Cubs]

Jackson Pollock could probably put together an interesting heat map.

“It’s part of the growth process,” Epstein said. “There are going to be these reminders of how raw we are in certain aspects. And then the league will adjust to young players and then young players have to adjust back.

“They’re still figuring out who they are as players and still getting their foundation underneath them as big-league players. Yet they have to adjust to very targeted attacks from the other team. That’s what makes it fun. We’re young and talented and embracing the struggle.”

That’s not to say Bryant is actually struggling.

“If he keeps on-basing .450, I’ll be pretty happy,” general manager Jed Hoyer. “He’s done an unbelievable job of staying patient (and) it shows a lot of maturity. I think most 23-year-olds would be frustrated, swinging to try to get that monkey off their back. He hasn’t done that. I’m not worried at all. He’s too big and too strong and too good of a hitter to not hit a lot of homers.”

Kyle Ryan's emergence is coming at exactly the right time for Cubs

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AP

Kyle Ryan's emergence is coming at exactly the right time for Cubs

With the MLB trade deadline two weeks away, bullpen help figures to be on the Cubs' wish list.

But thanks in part to Kyle Ryan's emergence, the Cubs don't absolutely need that reliever to be left-handed (though it would probably be ideal).

The Cubs began the week with three southpaws in their bullpen, but at some point this weekend, Ryan may be the lone lefty remaining. Mike Montgomery was traded to the Royals late Monday night and with Carl Edwards Jr. progressing in his rehab (he threw again Tuesday), he might take Randy Rosario's spot in a couple days. 

The Cubs like Edwards against lefties and they also feel confident in Pedro Strop against either handed hitter when he's on. But Ryan has worked his way into Joe Maddon's Circle of Trust and is currently the only lefty residing there.

That's not to say the Cubs don't need another reliable southpaw in the 'pen, but Ryan looks like he's going to get some big outs for this team down the stretch.

"He's done a great job for us since he's been here," Jon Lester said of Ryan last month. "I don't think he gets enough credit for what he's been able to do."

Ryan impressed the Cubs with his work as a multi-inning reliever in Triple-A last season and turned heads again in camp this spring. Still, Rosario made the Opening Day roster over him, though Ryan got called up on the team's season-opening road trip and made his first appearance on April 6.

Since then, he's been a mainstay while Montgomery battled injury and ineffectiveness, Rosario and Tim Collins have bounced between Triple-A Iowa and Chicago and veteran Xavier Cedeno's time off the injured list was short-lived.

Ryan looked to be finding his way throughout his first month in the bullpen, but after his infamous "freeze" moment against the Marlins, he endured some struggles (7 runs allowed on 12 hits in 7 innings from May 8 through June 1).

He's righted the ship since then, permitting only 1 run over his last 17 appearances (14 innings) and lowering his season ERA to 3.21 to go along with a 1.31 WHIP and 33 strikeouts in 33.2 innings.

A big part of that recent success can be tied to Ryan's increased improvement against left-handed hitters. 

Lefties hit .344 with a .405 on-base percentage off Ryan through June 5. But since then, Ryan has surrendered only 3 hits — all singles — and zero walks to the 19 left-handed hitters he's faced (.158 AVG).

He credits part of that turnaround to working on a changeup, which he thinks has helped lock in the "feel" of all his other pitches as well as his mechanics. 

As he works to add a new pitch to his repertoire, Ryan has leaned on Cubs bullpen coach Lester Strode and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy for assistance, while also picking the brains of veterans like Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks and Brad Brach who have all thrown changeups for quite a while.

But even with all that work, he still hasn't resorted to using the changeup much in games. The pitch is so foreign that it's still being picked up as a sinker, including on the Wrigley Field video board Sunday when he threw one in his inning of work.

"Eventually, I'm gonna find the changeup and it's gonna be a comfortable, confident pitch," Ryan said. "But I do think it's gotten me behind all the rest of my pitches and it's maybe a little bit better feel for everything. It's gonna stay where it is for a while. I'm gonna keep trying."

Ryan said one of the things he likes about the changeup is that it can eventually be a nice weapon because it "goes in the opposite direction" of all his other pitches.

We'll see if the new pitch can ever become a factor for the 27-year-old. But if it's helped lock in his other pitches, that's great news for the Cubs, especially as they look to fortify their bullpen this month.

Cubs Talk Podcast: The Yu Darvish 1st Wrigley win and post-ASG hot start podcast

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: The Yu Darvish 1st Wrigley win and post-ASG hot start podcast

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki discuss Yu Darvish's 1st win at Wrigley, Cole Hamel's status, and Kris Bryant playing better than he did in his MVP season.

01:00     Darvish picking up 1st win at Wrigley

03:30     Cole Hamels injury update

05:00     Starting rotation after the All-Star break

06:00     Cubs defense looking sharp

07:30     How the Cubs will approach the weekend and the expected heat

09:30     Kris Bryant playing above his MVP level

12:00     How the NL Central stacks up

14:00     Upcoming road trip to San Francisco, Milwaukee and Saint Louis

16:00     Addition to Martin Maldonado

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

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