Kris Bryant’s raw power got him drafted No. 2 overall in 2013 and put him on the fast track toward Wrigley Field. But the rookie third baseman doesn’t want to be viewed as a one-dimensional slugger.
The Cubs can always shift Bryant to the outfield, depending on their long-term needs and which players step forward. He got time in the outfield at the University of San Diego and has already played 12 innings combined in center and left for a Cubs team that is trying to stress versatility.
There are legitimate questions about whether Bryant’s 6-foot-5-inch frame will eventually push him away from the hot corner. But he’s shown enough potential within his first month in the big leagues that it’s not an open-and-shut case.
“As he gets more comfortable over there, you’re going to see him do some really good things at third base,” manager Joe Maddon said before Wednesday’s 2-1 win over the New York Mets. “He’s quick. He’s got good range. He’s long. He can lean out there and just pick up some stuff other guys can’t get to.”
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Even while acknowledging the metrics can be flawed and/or misleading – and the Cubs are sacrificing defense and experience for offense – Bryant has committed four errors. His .934 fielding percentage ranked 10th among the 12 qualified third basemen in the National League. He hasn’t scored well so far in terms of defensive WAR (-0.3) and Ultimate Zone Rating (-1.0).
“He’s also learning positioning, depths,” Maddon said. “When he goes to throw the baseball, I think you’re going to see him get even cleaner with that. Meaning he still wants to pat the ball a little bit in his glove, which causes that extra step.”
Think of the way shortstop Starlin Castro mimicked Bryant during that bizarre synchronized throwing program last week against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.
How do you break that habit?
“What I like to do there is you hit him groundballs and he has a ball in his bare hand,” Maddon said. “That forces you to catch the ball one-handed. And then if you move your feet properly, you’ll just throw it. I just like the one-handed drill.”
As an amateur player, Bryant used to throw 90-plus mph as an occasional pitcher, so you know he has a strong right arm to go along with a strong work ethic.
One American League scout who called Bryant “the real deal” did spot a hitch in that throwing motion, a kind of floppiness to his arm action. He’s typically been more comfortable going to his backhand instead of making plays on his forehand side.
“I like really when an infielder does not take the ball back into his glove,” Maddon said. “Watch – a lot of them do it. I like it cleanly picked up, and then you just throw it with your right footwork.
“His feet are getting better. His stroke’s getting better. His understanding of the whole thing’s getting better. It’s a one-handed game. He’s catching the ball one-handed, which I like. I’m constantly seeing improvement.”
It won’t happen overnight, but Bryant is a baseball gym rat who will do whatever it takes to stick at third base.
“I’m going to try to be a complete player,” Bryant said. “I think I’ve improved a lot defensively just working on that every day. I’m pleased with the all-around game now. And I think I can get even better.”