Cubs

Kris Bryant lives up to hype, wins NL Rookie of the Year Award

kris-bryant-1116.png

Kris Bryant lives up to hype, wins NL Rookie of the Year Award

Kris Bryant left no doubt about who should be the National League’s Rookie of the Year, unanimously winning the award after proving he’s a franchise player for the Cubs.

Bryant went 30-for-30 in first-place votes from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, which unveiled the results on Monday night, the beginning of a week that could also see Joe Maddon and Jake Arrieta win Manager of the Year and Cy Young awards as part of the franchise’s resurgence.

The buzz kept building as the Cubs won 97 games and finished with the third-best record in baseball. Bryant played a huge part in turning around what had been a last-place team in 2014, putting up 26 homers, 99 RBIs and an .858 OPS during an unforgettable All-Star season.

“There is a way to top this year,” Bryant said on a BBWAA conference call. “And that’s to win a World Series.”

Bryant won this in a landslide, finishing with 150 points to beat out two worthy finalists: San Francisco Giants third baseman Matt Duffy (70) and Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang (28).

Bryant became the first Cub to win the award since Geovany Soto in 2008. The other Cubs: Kerry Wood (1998), Jerome Walton (1989), Ken Hubbs (1962) and Hall of Famer Billy Williams (1961).

[MORE CUBS: Cubs looking at CF options with Dexter Fowler declining qualifying offer]

As Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect heading into the season, Bryant did all this with a huge target on his back.

The Cubs put it there when they drafted Bryant out of the University of San Diego with the second overall pick in 2013, right in the middle of a long-term rebuild for Theo Epstein’s front office and the Ricketts family that would focus on scouting and player development.

But Bryant magnified it by authorizing super-agent Scott Boras to fight his service-time battle in the media, getting his own adidas “WORTH THE WAIT” billboard across the street from the Wrigley Field marquee and shooting a down-on-the-farm advertisement with a goat for Red Bull.

Whether or not Bryant becomes a huge crossover star and cashes in on all that marketing potential, he definitely proved that he could play at this level, even with only 181 minor-league games on his resume.

“I don’t think there was any pressure for myself, just because you’re surrounded by (other young players),” Bryant said. “The only expectations that really matter are the ones that you put on yourself. And I certainly exceeded my expectations this year.”

[MORE CUBS: Will Theo Epstein build 2016 ‘super-team’ or try to keep window open longer for Cubs?]

Bryant did his live shot for the MLB Network award show with a Boras Corp. logo in the background. The third baseman obviously didn’t need those seven extra games at Triple-A Iowa to get into a “defensive rhythm” in April. The Cubs used the system to delay free agency until after the 2021 season.

“Honestly, I haven’t really thought about that much lately,” Bryant said. “I said what needed to be said earlier in the year. And right now, it’s really just enjoying the award that I won and the season that we had as a team.

“Things happen for a reason. I said it before: I think I played with a little chip on my shoulder this year. And it’s good to play that way sometimes. You really want to help your team win in any way possible. And sometimes when you have something to play for, you play even better.”

For a 6-foot-5 slugger with smash-the-video-board power and a swing that generated 199 strikeouts, Bryant still found different ways to contribute to a playoff team.

A better-than-advertised third baseman, Bryant also played all three outfield positions and even made a six-inning cameo at first base, demonstrating his versatility, athleticism and unselfish attitude.

Bryant also stole 13 bases and showed such surprising speed, aggressiveness and instincts that a major-league evaluator nicknamed him “The Untaggable Man.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get a Kris Bryant jersey right here]

Bryce Harper — a Rookie of the Year in 2012 and a likely MVP winner for the Washington Nationals this season — grew up in Las Vegas playing with and against Bryant and tweeted a message, hashtagging a childhood nickname for his smooth game: “Nobody deserves it more than you brotha #Silk."

Bryant became the 20th overall player to unanimously win this award, joining a list that includes Frank Robinson, Mark McGwire, Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, Mike Trout and Jose Abreu.

Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa — a player the Cubs once worked out at Wrigley Field and thought might fall to them at the sixth pick if things broke a certain way in the 2012 draft — won the American League Rookie of the Year hardware. Correa went No. 1 overall to Houston, but the Astros did the Cubs a favor the next year by passing on Bryant and taking pitcher Mark Appel.

The BBWAA voting closed before the playoffs began and the Cubs advanced to the NL Championship Series. Maddon — a two-time AL Manager of the Year with the Tampa Bay Rays — is a finalist along with Terry Collins (New York Mets) and Mike Matheny (St. Louis Cardinals). Arrieta is going up against a pair of aces for the Los Angeles Dodgers — Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw.

Those trophies would be nice, but after a breakthrough season, the Cubs feel so much closer to their ultimate goal and that World Series ring.

“Twenty years from now,” Bryant said, “you’re not going to remember your batting average or how many home runs you hit in a certain season. It’s going to be the championship that you won.”

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

1012_manny_machado.jpg
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.