Cubs

How Kris Bryant handled the hype, earned respect in Cubs clubhouse

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How Kris Bryant handled the hype, earned respect in Cubs clubhouse

MILWAUKEE — The Cubs turning their clubhouse into a momentary mosh pit during the middle of the game shows how much they’ve welcomed Kris Bryant to The Show.

That’s how the Cubs responded to Bryant’s first career home run on Saturday night at Miller Park, emptying the dugout, giving him the silent treatment and making him take a few extra steps up the tunnel to celebrate with teammates.  

The party didn’t last long during a 12-4 blowout loss to the Milwaukee Brewers. But it’s telling how a team responds to a rookie who comes in with so much hype — and how he handles all the attention and the daily failure.  

[MORE: Respect 90: Kris Bryant will lead Cubs by example]

“You just try and make the kid’s transition as easy as possible, especially with all of the expectations and the outside noise surrounding him,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said Sunday. “We try and kind of dumb all that stuff down in the clubhouse, because to us, it really doesn’t mean that much. We all know how good he is. We know what he’s capable of.

“Those are the kind of things where I think Javy Baez got into a little bit of that and maybe it messed with him some. And that’s what we don’t want to have happen. We want guys to come up here, whether it’s 'Addie' (Addison Russell) or Bryant, and just blend in and be one of the guys.

“Once you can get over that transition, then it’s just a baseball game. It’s nine innings, just like it was anywhere else.”

Bryant brought some of this on himself. He put a smile on his face and a target on his back while authorizing super-agent Scott Boras to rip Cubs ownership during the service-time saga in spring training. 

[RELATED: WATCH: Cubs' Kris Bryant hits first career HR, returns to empty dugout]

Baseball has an old-school code, too many unwritten rules and enough problems trying to attract casual fans and the younger generation. Anyone who gets his own adidas billboard across the street from the Wrigley Field marquee before his major-league debut — and shoots a Red Bull commercial with a goat while at Triple-A Iowa — will be under the microscope.

“I really just want to be another guy in the locker room,” Bryant said. “I’m just trying to help the team win. I don’t want to be bigger than anybody else here. I’m just here trying to help them out.”

Bryant found other ways to help the team during a home-run drought that stretched into his 21st game in a Cubs uniform, seeing 4.34 pitches per plate appearance, getting on base more than 40 percent of the time, making plays at third base and showing surprising speed on the bases.

“I never mentioned anything to him,” Anthony Rizzo said. “I’ve kind of been in those shoes before, so I’m sure he’s heard it from mom, dad, girlfriend, friends, brother, cousins. He’s hearing it from a thousand different angles. It’s good to get it out of the way.”

[NBC SHOP: Buy a Kris Bryant jersey]

Manager Joe Maddon thought Rizzo organized the walkout stunt. It certainly sounded like something Rizzo would do, but the All-Star first baseman gave credit to bench coach Dave Martinez. Arrieta called it his production, along with veteran catcher David Ross.   

Bryant isn’t a diva or a me-first guy. He’s a baseball gym rat. Teammates notice that.

“This is a great clubhouse,” Rizzo said. “You got guys like ‘Rossy’ who allow him to come in, (Jon) Lester. There’s no egos in here. (Bryant’s) one of the guys. He’s one of our friends now. And hopefully we play together for a long time.

“Some guys come in and get different treatment, but we have help in this clubhouse. We just want you to be you.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

Did Manny Machado’s value take a hit at all after he openly admitted hustling isn’t his “cup of tea”? Our Cubs team (David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Tony Andracki, Jeff Nelson) debate that, plus the potential fit of Machado or Bryce Harper for the 2019 Cubs and beyond.

The crew also runs down the top items on the Cubs’ offseason wish list – ranging from bullpen help to infield depth to a set leadoff hitter – in what may be the most impactful winter in Theo Epstein’s tenure in Chicago.

Listen to the podcast here or via the embedded player below:

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.