How Kris Bryant became the face of the never-panic Cubs

How Kris Bryant became the face of the never-panic Cubs

SAN DIEGO – Kris Bryant stood in the middle of Dodger Stadium’s visiting clubhouse late Sunday afternoon, almost the exact same spot where he faced the waves and waves of reporters coming at his locker last October.

Bryant answered every last question after the Cubs fell behind 2-1 in the National League Championship Series (and, really, throughout the playoffs). He had managed the only two hits off Rich Hill that night – knocking two curveballs for singles – and gave a death stare when asked if any sense of panic was creeping into the room after back-to-back shutouts. 

“Nope,” Bryant said, pausing four seconds and turning to his right with a next-question look. “I’m not concerned at all.”

So you can imagine Bryant’s alert level when a reporter mentioned some of the reactions on Twitter and back home in Chicago after a lost weekend where the Cubs got swept out of Dodger Stadium. 

“Sweet,” Bryant said, looking completely relaxed in a gray Hurley T-shirt, darker gray jeans and spotless white Adidas sneakers.

This attitude helps explain why Bryant became the antidote to generations of negativity around the Cubs. It goes beyond the numbers on the back of his baseball card, a sophisticated approach to hitting and the surprising combination of high-level speed and athleticism for a 6-foot-5 slugger.   

“Um, I mean, we’re not panicking,” Bryant said. “Everybody has their own thoughts. And I guess it’s just natural as humans. Even baseball players, when something bad happens, sometimes we speed it up and it ends up just piling onto things and it gets even worse. There’s none of that here. But I don’t see any reason to worry. Especially given what we did last year.”

If super-agent Scott Boras has ever seen Bryant flip out, well, that’s going to remain sealed under attorney-client privilege. Except for Rose Donuts here in San Diego or the NL MVP’s wedding reception in Las Vegas.   

“When Kris and I eat donuts together, I see that moment of absolute anticipation,” Boras said. “That’s the greatest anxiety, right before we get to that donut. His dad getting ready to sing a song that he didn’t know about at his wedding – cool, calm and collected.

“So I would say that Kris has a rare skill, because intellectually, emotionally, he is a guy that is very, very competitive and wants to be better every day. But he’s not a guy that in any way reflects any kind of (stress). It’s just so buried in him, what kind of competitor he is.

“He really is ultra-competitive. He is one driven guy. He does it not through the exhibition of his emotions. He does it through thought. It’s a true, quiet intensity.

“He’s that classic neurosurgeon personality. To get better with the scalpel, you have to be lighter with it. That’s kind of how he is, that touch.” 

That became clear during the run-up to the 2013 draft, when Cubs executives Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod sat down with the University of San Diego junior in a hotel lobby in Stockton, California, during the West Coast Conference tournament.

“I’m sure things make him boil at times,” McLeod said. “But he’s just got this way about him. Thinking back to that time when we met with him, it was like: ‘Gosh, if there’s a guy who can handle Chicago as a second overall pick, it’s this guy, just because of the way he’s wired.’

“His preparation pregame, his in-game ABs, he understands that strikeouts are going to be part of the game. And they are part of the game for him. I don’t think he lets himself get too down when that happens. Of course, he doesn’t like it. But he’s just like: ‘OK, I’m on to the next at-bat.’ Or: ‘I’m going to go back out on the field and play the best defense I can.’ Just one of the more level-headed guys I’ve ever been around.”     

Bryant whiffed three times in his big-league debut – and almost led the majors with 199 strikeouts that season – and didn’t homer until his 21st game and still became the NL’s 2015 Rookie of the Year.

Bryant started this season 0-for-14 – and his .939 Memorial Day OPS is still 50-plus points higher than it had been at this time last year during his MVP campaign.

Against some of the best pitching in the world, Bryant has a career .843 OPS in 26 playoff games. So far, pitcher, catcher and second base are the only defensive positions he hasn’t played for the Cubs.

Bryant spent part of Monday morning hunched over a laptop inside Petco Park’s visiting clubhouse, watching video of Jarred Cosart and how the Padres right-hander approached him and Diamondbacks slugger Paul Goldschmidt.

Instead of breaking a bat over his knee or slamming his glove to the ground in frustration or pressing the panic button for a .500-ish team, Bryant will go back to work.

“You can’t really take anything for granted, I guess,” Bryant said. “(But) I don’t understand. There’s no need to worry. You’re going to have your good starts, your bad starts. This obviously is a pretty average start. It’s not a terrible start. But sometimes it happens.

“We’ve spoiled ourselves with last year and that start. But I guess it’s a good thing to have those expectations, because we all do, too.”

Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

As the Cubs look to fill out their starting rotation, it’s extremely unlikely Gerrit Cole will be joining the North Siders via free agency.

Or Stephen Strasburg.

Or Madison Bumgarner.

As the top starters available, Cole, Strasburg and Bumgarner are set to receive lucrative contracts out of the Cubs’ price range. But if Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to acquire a top-of-the-rotation arm, left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu is a much more affordable option.

Ryu was one of the best starters in baseball last season, winning the National League ERA title (2.32) en route to being named a Cy Young Award finalist. He made 29 starts and tossed 182 2/3 innings, the second-best totals of his career.

The question with Ryu isn’t whether he’ll pitch well; he holds a career 2.98 ERA and 1.164 WHIP in 126 games (125 starts). The question each season is whether he’ll stay healthy.

Ryu missed all of 2015 after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He returned in July 2016, making a single start before hitting the shelf with left elbow tendinitis. He underwent a debridement procedure — like Yu Darvish last offseason — in September 2016.

Granted, Ryu has largely remained healthy since 2017. He made 24 starts that season, missing a little time with contusions in his left hip and left foot. A right groin strain kept him out for two months in 2018, though he posted a dazzling 1.97 ERA in 15 starts.

Nonetheless, teams will be wary of what they offer Ryu this offseason. The last thing you want is to sign a pitcher in his mid-30s to a long-term deal, only for him to go down with a serious arm issue. Ryu hasn't had any serious arm issues since 2016, but any injury concern is valid for the soon-to-be 33-year-old.

All negatives aside, there’s a lot to like about Ryu. He excels at inducing soft contact and ranked in the top four percent in baseball last season in average exit velocity-against (85.3 mph). Ryu doesn’t walk many batters (3.3 percent walk rate in 2019; 5.4 percent career) and strikes out a solid number (22.5 percent rate in 2019; 22 percent career).

Signing Ryu would give the Cubs three lefty starters, but that’s been the case since mid-2018, when they acquired Cole Hamels (who recently signed with the Braves). The rotation would have more certainty moving forward, too, as Jose Quintana will hit free agency next offseason. Jon Lester could as well, though he has a vesting option for 2022 if he tosses 200 innings next season.

The Cubs hope young arms Adbert Alzolay and top prospect Brailyn Marquez will contribute in the rotation for years to come. Alzolay may be on an innings limit next season and Marquez is at least a season away from making his MLB debut.

The Cubs have a rotation opening now and need to bridge the gap to their young arms for the next few seasons. Every free agent comes with question marks, and Ryu is no exception, but he is a frontline starter when healthy. He’d be a solid addition to the Cubs staff, and it won't take as big of a deal to sign him as others.

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Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

The Cubs are looking for bullpen help this offseason. Enter Astros free agent right-hander Will Harris.

Harris has quietly been one of the game’s best relievers since 2015. In 309 games (297 innings), the 35-year-old holds a 2.36 ERA and 0.987 WHIP. Over that same period, his ERA ranks third among relievers with at least 250 innings pitched, trailing Zack Britton (1.89) and Aroldis Chapman (2.16).

2019 was one of Harris' finest seasons yet, as he posted a pristine 1.50 ERA and 0.933 WHIP in 68 appearances. Of the 60 innings he pitched last season, 49 2/3 of them came in innings 7-9, an area the Cubs bullpen needs the most help.

Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA last season (No. 8 in MLB), but that number is deceiving. The bullpen was OK in low and medium-leverage spots — as defined by FanGraphs — posting a 3.19 ERA (tied for No. 2 in MLB). But in high leverage spots, they sported a woeful 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB) and a 15.4 percent walk rate (tied for last in MLB).

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor — we had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined 1 and 2-run games.

"Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for."

Those walks often spelled doom for the Cubs. Fans remember all too well the three-straight free passes Steve Cishek handed out on Sept. 10 against the Padres, the final of which was a walk-off (literally). David Phelps and Cishek combined to walk three-straight Cardinals on Sept. 20, two of whom came around to score. The Cubs lost that game 2-1; there are plenty more similar instances.

Harris, meanwhile, walked 14 batters (6.1 percent walk rate) in 2019 — 15 if you count the one he allowed in 12 postseason appearances. His career walk rate is 6.2 percent.

Four Cubs late-inning relievers are free agent this winter in Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop. Cishek and Kintzler had solid 2019 seasons, while Strop had his worst season as a Cub. Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 2018, but he and the Cubs are working on a minor league deal, according to WSCR’s Bruce Levine. Strop has expressed his desire to return next season.

Harris regressing in 2020 is a concern. Relievers are the most volatile players in baseball, and Harris could see his performance sag in 2020 after pitching an extra month last season. Teams will have to trust his track record and assume a regression isn't forthcoming.

But assuming Cishek, Kintzler, Morrow and Strop all won’t return in 2020, the Cubs have a couple late-inning relief vacancies. Harris is one of the better available options, and he’d help the Cubs cut down on the walks dished out by their bullpen.

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