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.