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

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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).

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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.”

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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.”

Why longtime Cubs ace Jon Lester has never been more important to team

Why longtime Cubs ace Jon Lester has never been more important to team

This isn’t exactly the way Jon Lester envisioned the final year of his $155 million free agent deal with the Cubs.

A couple of months ago it was difficult to envision anything this season, much less the scene at Wrigley Field he has been part of the past week — and certainly not the mask he has at all times and the piped-in ambient crowd noise he’ll hear for the first time when he pitches in an intrasquad game Sunday night for the first time during this restarted training camp.

“It’s weird,” the five-time All-Star said. “It’s unique. The cool part is everybody’s taking it in stride. All this stuff with the mask and the protocols and the testing and all that is weird but now we just have to adapt and make it kind of normal.”

That’s not going to happen. Not for the Cubs or any other team, no matter how long this 30-team, 1,800-player effort at playing baseball during a pandemic lasts.

But for the Cubs, Lester might be as close as normal gets in the middle of all the “weird.”

When asked Saturday about what Lester brings to the team, the first words out of manager David Ross’ mouth were, “his presence.”

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It’s been there since 2015 as the stabilizing, credibility-building influence for a team that went from last place to 97 wins in his first season and a rise to that historic championship in his second.

Lester has earned two All-Star selections, made 10 postseason starts and four Opening Day starts for the Cubs during his five seasons in Chicago.

And just because he won’t start this year’s opener or that he’s coming off a disappointing 2019 season (4.46 ERA) doesn’t mean he won’t have a major influence on this team’s chances to focus and have success on the field this year and, perhaps just as important, off the field as it navigates the COVID-19 risks.

“Jon’s done so much for this group and this organization as far as preparation off the field, how he goes about his business prior to his start day, the routine he has when he comes in here,” said Ross, a teammate before he became Lester’s manager. “He doesn’t vary from that routine.

“His resumé obviously speaks for itself of what he’s done. But outside of what he’s done on the field, I think he’s influenced this organization as a whole in a really good way."

Lester, 36, is the most accomplished, longest-tenured player on the club — a career workhorse and three-time champion who’s five years older than one of the coaches and closer in age to four more than he is to any of his teammates.

So when Lester wears a mask, those around him notice.

“I think we’re all a little nervous,” he said. “Nobody wants to get this thing. You have to just believe in the testing process; you have to believe in kind of the bubble community we’re trying to create here; you have to believe in these things [holds up a mask].”

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Whether Lester is able to achieve the bounce-back performance in a short season that he sought when he started the original spring training in February, he starts the second training camp behind the four other projected starters in a rotation already missing Jose Quintana (thumb injury) — all of whom started twice in scrimmages the first eight days of workouts

“I had a hard time just diving into going and trying to throw bullpens and trying to simulate innings [during the uncertainty timeline of the shutdown],” said the only Cubs starter who didn’t try to ramp up aggressively ahead of camp. “I figured that if I kept my body in shape and kept my arm going [in the weight room] that I would be fine when we got to this stage — it would just be a little slower.”

He said the “multiple factors” involved in that approach includes knowing himself well enough at this point in his career to trust what he needs to get ready — even in a short, “weird” prep period.

“I feel like I’m in a good place,” he said.

Who’s going to tell him he’s not? After the past five years, who’s going to suddenly decide they don’t trust what Lester brings to his job, or even the rest of the room?

In February Ross looked at a “leaner” version of Lester and said he had no concerns about the longtime ace and where he would be once the season started: “I know what his mentality is,” he said. “He is a guy that still has the top-of-the-rotation potential for me.”

That mentality. The presence. Lester’s belief and lead role in creating a “kind of normal.”

It might put him at the top of the Cubs’ rotation in more ways this year than he ever has been in his career.

MORE: Jon Lester on shortened 2020 MLB season: 'A trophy's a trophy'

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Cubs extend Wrigley Field dugouts to keep players engaged, out of stands

Cubs extend Wrigley Field dugouts to keep players engaged, out of stands

The Cubs plan to practice social distancing as much as possible during games this season. They also want their players and coaches — and those from their opponents — to be comfortable.

The solution? Extending Wrigley Field’s dugouts further down the foul lines. 

As sports return worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic, players will need to social distance as much as possible. During games, one way to do this is having teams sit in the stands rather than their dugouts. David Ross said that was a concern for the Cubs, however.

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“That was a concern of ours, that sitting on the bench is way different than sitting in an actual seat in the stands,” Ross said on Saturday. “You're gonna want to be active, you want to get up, move around, you want to go down to the cage and take some swings. 

“Just a little bit closer to the action and to help with the energy in the dugout and root guys on.”

Ross said the Cubs don’t know whether players have strong feelings against sitting in the stands. He put himself in their shoes and thought about the drawbacks of not being in the dugout.

“You don't want to sit for three innings in that environment and then try to get up and get loose and then hit,” he said. “We have nervous energy, I guess I'm speaking for myself, but you’ve got energy that you want to get out, move around, stay loose. 

“You may want to run up to the clubhouse, check your locker, all that stuff. I just think it's a little more convenient for the players.”

As MLB embarks on the challenging season ahead, keeping things as normal as possible for the players may help alleviate the added stress from this season.

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