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.”