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.”

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

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USA TODAY

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

A few weeks after the we (the Cubs) were eliminated from the 2003 playoffs, I got a phone call from my college professor. Since it was officially the off-season, I was in the early stages of a break from following a pocket schedule to tell me where to be every day for nearly eight months.

But this was a man I could not refuse. I chose my college major to go into his field of transportation engineering and he was calling because he needed a teaching assistant to accompany him on his trip to South Africa.

One minute I could barely move off of my couch in my Chicago apartment after losing Game 7 against the Marlins. The next minute, I would be standing within miles of the Southern most point in Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. Why not? I needed the distraction so I agreed to go.

The offseason is its own transition. Leaving the regimen of routine, of batting practice and bus times, to an open ended world that you have to re-learn again. When I finished my first full major league season in 1997, I lived in Streeterville at the Navy Pier Apartments.

That offseason, I decided to stay an extra month in Chicago only to wake up panicked for the first two weeks because I thought I was missing stretch time for a home day game. A major league schedule becomes etched in your DNA after a while.

It is also a time that you get to reflect. The regular season does not give you a moment to really get perspective on what was just accomplished, what it all means, what you would change. I always joked about the T-shirt I wanted to a sell that listed all of the things a major league player figures out during the off-season. From the perfect swing to the ex-girlfriend you need to un-break-up with next week.

It all becomes so clear when a 96 MPH fastball isn’t coming at you.

For years, I would arrange a training program to follow, but I quickly learned that I had to mix it up. There was only so much repetition I could stand in the off-season. So some years, I moved to the site of spring training and worked out early with the staff, other years I found a spot at home where I grew up or wherever I played during the season, to train.

I was single when I played, but now with a family, I have a better understanding of the challenges my teammates would express as they were re-engaging as a daily father again after this long absentee existence.

To keep it fresh and spicy, when I got older in the game, I enrolled in a dance studio and took a winter of dance lessons. Salsa, Foxtrot, Rumba, you name it. On Thursdays we had to dance for an hour straight, changing partners in the room every song change. Dancing with the Stars had nothing on me.

Of course, not every offseason is fun and games. There were years when I wasn’t sure I would have a job the next year, or I was in the throes of a trade rumor. In 1997, I was traded from the Cubs to the Phillies two days before Christmas. In 2002, my father passed away on the last game of the season, leading the offseason to be a time of mourning.

By my final season in 2005, I thought I was officially on my couch forever. I was going to fade away into oblivion like many players do. No fanfare, the phone just would stop ringing and I would just let the silence wash over me. The Yankees had called earlier in that off-season, acting like they were doing me a favor which I turned down, then they called back later with a more open tone, seeing me as a potential key piece in their outfield with Bernie Williams slowing down quite a bit at that point.

I did get off that couch for that call, only to get released the last week of camp, so I was back on the couch, with a fiancé and some extra salt in the wounds after that final meeting with Brian Cashman and Joe Torre, who boxed me into the coaches office to tell me I was released. Released? Come on. Never had that happen before.

The Cubs players will go through all of this if they have the good fortune of playing a long time. The wave of uncertainty, the meaning of age in this game spares no one. Each offseason is a time to reset, a period where you get away, seemingly adrift from the game, then as spring gets closer, the shoreline comes up in the horizon once again, magnetically drawing you to its shores for another season.

Amazingly, you don’t always know your age and what it has done to your body. 34 can’t be that old, right? I can still run, or throw 95. Then those 23-year-olds in camp are the wake up call, or maybe you are that 23-year-old and can’t believe your locker is next to Ryne Sandberg’s.

Then you blink, and you are advising Jimmy Rollins about etiquette and realize you have become that guy, the seasoned vet, preaching about locker room respect.

For the 2018 Cubs, they fell short of their goal to repeat their 2016 magic. Failed to meet their singular destination that meant success over all else. Yet, those who come back for 2019, will not be the same player, the same person, that left the locker room at the close this season. They will have grown, changed, aged, wizened up, rehabbed, hardened. All of which means that new perspective is the inevitable part of this time off, whether you like it or not.

Baseball is a game that has this unique dynamic. The highest intensity rhythm of any sport. Every day you are tested. You are pushed to the brink by sheer attrition. According to my teammate Ed Smith, who was playing third base at the time when Michael Jordan reached third, Jordan, after playing well over 100 games in a row, said to him “Man, I have never been this tired in my entire life.”

The grind.

Then it stops on a dime. Season over. Only on baseball’s terms.

But you may be granted another spring. Another crack at it. Until one day, the baseball winter never ends and its time for you to plant your own spring.

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.