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.”

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

With Anthony Rendon officially joining the Angels, the Nationals have a vacancy at third base.

Washington has options to replace Rendon; Josh Donaldson is still available in free agency, and Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant could potentially be had via trade.

The Nationals have reportedly inquired with the Cubs about Bryant, and while they “love” the 27-year-old, their focus is on Donaldson, according to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. The Cubs would likely seek center fielder Victor Robles in a deal, a holdup on Washington's end, Heyman said.

From the Cubs perspective, it would make all the sense in the world to ask for Robles. He’s 22 years old, plays excellent defense (22 DRS in 2019, No. 1 in MLB by center fielders) and is only scratching the surface as a big-leaguer. Robles is projected to be a star, but Bryant already is one. If the Nationals want Bryant badly enough, they’ll have to sacrifice talent in a deal.

On the other hand, it’s easy to understand why Washington would be unwilling to trade Robles, who's under team control through 2024. Bryant will hit free agency after 2021, but if he wins his ongoing grievance case, he'll hit the open market after next season.

Nonetheless, if the Nationals do engage in Bryant trade talks, you can bet the Cubs will at least ask for Robles in return. A trade could be worked out without him, but for a Cubs team searching for better center field production, you've got to wonder who could be more enticing than Robles.

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Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

It didn’t take long for Willson Contreras to introduce himself to Major League Baseball. On the first pitch he saw as a big-leaguer, the Cubs catcher cranked a two-run home run to center field — on Sunday Night Baseball, nonetheless.

That moment was a sign of things to come for Contreras, who has since established himself as one of the best catchers in baseball. The 27-year-old holds a career .267/.350/.470 line with a 117 wRC+ and 67 home runs in four seasons. He’s started back-to-back All-Star Games, the first Cubs catcher to do so since Gabby Hartnett (1937-38).

Contreras offers so much to the Cubs besides his bat. His cannon of an arm and athleticism behind the plate are integral to the Cubs controlling opposing run games. His pitch framing is a work in progress, and admittedly, he could improve in this area by throwing behind runners less, ensuring he gets strikes called.

However, back-picking is part of Contreras’ value. He may lose some strike calls by not sticking a frame, but there've been plenty of occasions where Contreras' arm has provided the Cubs with a spark. His boundless energy is unmeasurable, but its importance to the Cubs — who feed off of it — cannot be overstated.

There are areas where Contreras can improve, and that's a scary thought. But he's already is one of the best backstops in baseball and has earned the starting catcher spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Welington Castillo, Miguel Montero, David Ross, Geovany Soto