Cubs

How Kris Bryant creates immeasurable value for Cubs

How Kris Bryant creates immeasurable value for Cubs

Kris Bryant destroyed a Julio Urias curveball on Thursday afternoon at Wrigley Field, slamming it off the Binny’s advertisement on the left-field video board and showing the hard-to-find power the Cubs always envisioned. 

That made it back-to-back homers from Jason Heyward and Bryant off Urias – one of the game’s brightest pitching prospects – in the fifth inning of a 7-2 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers. But that highlight-reel moment still doesn’t even begin to explain Bryant’s value, which couldn’t be missed while the Cubs won this four-game series between two big-market teams with great expectations for October.

Bryant played some shortstop at Bonanza High School in Las Vegas and had enough arm action to create 90-mph velocity as an amateur pitcher. There were still questions about his ultimate defensive fit when the Cubs drafted him No. 2 overall out of the University of San Diego in 2013, whether or not he would become a third baseman (think Troy Glaus) or a corner outfielder (like Jayson Werth).

Don’t stop there? The lack of definition almost made it seem like Bryant would be all about offense and wouldn’t develop into a lockdown defender, a perception that was completely wrong. Just look at how manager Joe Maddon finally got the 6-foot-5, 230-pound slugger an inning at shortstop during Tuesday’s 5-0 loss to Los Angeles.

“I walked into the dugout and ‘Rossy’ called me Cal Ripken Jr.,” Bryant said.

David Ross also joked about how Bryant’s versatility should help him get paid through the arbitration system. There’s no doubt that super-agent Scott Boras has already thought about what that could mean when his client becomes a free agent after the 2021 season, how a super-utility franchise player could be shopped at multiple positions, depending on teams’ needs.

The next night, Bryant blasted the two-run homer that provided the offense in Jon Lester’s 2-1 complete-game victory over the Dodgers. By Thursday morning, Bryant ranked tied for eighth in WAR (2.5) among all position players in the majors, according to FanGraphs, alongside old/new Boston Red Sox (David Ortiz and Mookie Betts) and a Seattle Mariners star with a $240 million contract (Robinson Cano).

“It does give us tremendous flexibility,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It probably doesn’t get enough attention. This is an exceptionally talented player that’s willing to move all over the field for the team. I can’t think of a similar situation with a guy who’s (been) minor league player or the year, Rookie of the Year (and) so willing to do whatever it takes to help win the game.

“He comes into the ballpark every day not sure if he’s going to play left or play third. It’s pretty special. There’s no doubt that our manager likes to do that and Kris embraces it. But I do think it says a lot about Kris’ character and how much he just likes to win.”

Bryant also leads the team in homers (13) and RBI (40). Maybe it’s all the hype that surrounded his big-league debut last April, or his uncommon maturity at the age of 24, but it does feel like what we’re seeing now almost gets taken for granted.

“We knew he was athletic,” said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development. “But at the same time, he’s doing it in the major leagues, under the bright lights, under the spotlight of a team that’s pushing for a World Series.

“For him to be able to move out to left, move out to right, play center, play third, go to first, it just speaks to him as a baseball player. And the lack of ego. I know he’s a young guy, but he’s just (like): ‘Absolutely, I’ll do whatever you want me to do.’ And he’ll do it with a smile. Kris just wants to win.

“When we evaluated him as an amateur player, it (became): OK, if he outgrows the position at third, we all felt he could go to right. We knew he could run first to third. We knew the arm strength was there.

“But to see him move around as much as he already has this (early) in his career – for a big guy like that (when) you would expect more of a Javy Baez-type person to do that – it just speaks volumes about Kris’ mentality.”

An All-Star third baseman easily could have shut down these experiments, sending a message through his agent or the media and giving a subtle hint to the coaching staff about his preferences or how the defensive uncertainty might impact his offensive production.

“I’m never been the type of person to voice my opinion that way to say I’m only a third baseman or I only hit third in the lineup,” Bryant said. “I don’t like people who play the game that way. I don’t think we should, because Joe Maddon’s one of the best managers in the league. I trust his judgment. I’m here to help the team.”

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 5 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Who has more fun on the diamond, Javier Baez or Yolmer Sanchez?

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USA TODAY

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Who has more fun on the diamond, Javier Baez or Yolmer Sanchez?

Ozzie Guillen and David DeJesus join Leila Rahimi on Wednesday's podcast. After Tuesday's game-winning hit and second self-inflicted Gatorade bath the guys wonder if anyone has more fun on the field than Yolmer Sanchez. Jim DeShaies joins the conversation and brings Javy Baez to the table.

Plus, Manny Mania continues to swirl in Chicago. Finally, what should be the White Sox plan for calling up their top prospects?

Listen to the full Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast right here: