Cubs

What Kris Bryant’s off-the-charts versatility means for Cubs

What Kris Bryant’s off-the-charts versatility means for Cubs

SAN FRANCISCO – So much hype surrounded Kris Bryant from the moment the Cubs drafted him No. 2 overall in 2013 that it felt like everyone assumed he would inevitably become one of the best players in the game.

The hot-button debate went national and the free-agent payday looked so automatic that when the Cubs assigned Bryant to minor-league camp last year – gaining control through the 2021 season – the Major League Baseball Players Association released a statement saying: “Today is a bad day for baseball.”

Before his 24th birthday, Bryant had earned an All-Star selection, helped transform the Cubs into a 97-win team and become the National League’s Rookie of the Year.    

You almost take it for granted because Bryant does all this in a way that highlights the nickname Washington Nationals superstar Bryce Harper remembered from when they were growing up as baseball prodigies in Las Vegas: “Silk.” 

So when Jason Heyward makes a highlight-reel catch on Friday and crashes into the wall at AT&T Park, Bryant moves from third base to right field in the first inning. And then hits a home run off Jake Peavy in the second inning, helping beat the San Francisco Giants with a four-RBI night.  

Or when the Cubs need to get through 13 innings – like they did in outlasting the Milwaukee Brewers last week at Miller Park – manager Joe Maddon has the freedom to move Bryant from left field to either side of the infield.  

“It’s really phenomenal to have somebody that young and that versatile,” Maddon said. “When I first met him, I didn’t realize all of that. I didn’t know. I didn’t know enough about him. The thing that’s really interesting about him is that last year when we talked to him about playing the outfield, he didn’t blanch. Like: ‘Yes, I’m fine.’

“He’s kind of like Zobrist. ‘Zo’ was exactly the same way, never really hesitated at all.”

Except Ben Zobrist had been an under-the-radar sixth-round pick of the Houston Astros who spent parts of three years on the Triple-A level and didn’t establish himself as an everyday player until his age-28 season with the Tampa Bay Rays. 

Zobrist didn’t have Bryant’s status as Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect or a marketing machine working behind him. These seamless transitions say a lot about Bryant, a super-utility franchise player. 

“I’m really just embracing it,” Bryant said. “Wherever they need me, I’m going to give it my all. But some guys are swinging the bats at certain positions – and forcing me to move around a little bit – and I’m OK with it.”

Remember when the Cubs kept Bryant off the 2015 Opening Day roster and said they wanted him to get into a defensive rhythm at Triple-A Iowa? 

In the end, those seven games didn’t really matter in terms of player development. Just look at how Bryant charged in from third base and made a barehanded play to throw out Brandon Belt at first and end the first inning on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball.”  

“Listen, I have so much confidence putting a position after his name anywhere,” Maddon said. “Put him in center field. I’ve told you before, I think he can play shortstop. This guy is really that good of an athlete. 

“You’ve noticed how much his throwing’s improved from the beginning of the season last year until right now. The accuracy of his throwing has really gotten better, because his feet have gotten better. 

“I really have no hesitation putting him anywhere.”

Looking beyond Maddon’s lineup creativity and in-game magic and taking a wide-angle view of this six-year window for the Cubs, that off-the-charts versatility becomes such a valuable insurance policy against injuries, underperformance and prospects who aren’t as polished as, well, Bryant. 

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

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Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.