Cubs

19 for '19: What should expectations be for Kris Bryant Comeback SZN?

19 for '19: What should expectations be for Kris Bryant Comeback SZN?

We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: What is a reasonable expectation for Kris Bryant Comeback SZN?

Kris Bryant's Comeback Tour is officially upon us.

The former NL Rookie of the Year and MVP missed 60 games last year due to a shoulder injury and even when he was on the field, he was a completely different player. 

He initially hurt his shoulder on a headfirst dive into first base in Cincinnati in mid-May. He left that series hitting .305 with a .427 on-base percentage and .583 slugging percentage (1.010 OPS). 

Even more encouraging, Bryant looked to be addressing his biggest weakness — strikeouts. In 185 plate appearances, he struck out just 15.7 percent of the time which was well below his career line of 23.8 percent. His previous career-best in that category came in 2017 (19.2 percent) and if he continued along that line for the rest of 2018, it would've marked the fourth straight season in which he reduced his strikeout percentage.

Alas, that was not meant to be and Bryant struck out 28.7 percent of the time after suffering the shoulder injury and hit just .252/.338/.382 (.721 OPS) with 5 homers and 28 RBI in 63 games.

There's no saying Bryant would've kept those numbers going all season without the injury, but he was on pace for 34 homers, 100 RBI, 121 runs, 100 walks and 59 doubles — all of which would've either set new career highs or approached his previous best marks.

If he stays healthy in 2019 (admittedly a big "IF"), that seems like a very fair stat line to expect of Bryant over a full 2019 season: 30+ homers, an OPS north of .900 and approaching 100 walks. He also will probably hover around 110+ runs and come near 100 RBI depending on where he hits in the lineup (which will probably be in the 2-hole, but there's a legit case to be made that he should lead off).

Bryant confirmed over and over again this winter that his shoulder is just fine and he's proved it so far this spring, with a couple of homers while playing both third base and the outfield. 

He also has a little chip on his shoulder, soliciting more talk from the haterz to fuel his Revenge SZN, speaking openly about the state of baseball's free agency and even sparking a war of words with all of St. Louis. 

Injuries are impossible to predict, but there's nothing indicating a healthy Bryant is anything less than an MVP candidate.

-Tony Andracki

In the time since Bryant became a mainstay in the Cubs’ everyday lineup, there have only been three more valuable position players in baseball: Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Jose Altuve. Before an injury-shortened 2018, Bryant had started his career with 6.1-, 7.8-, and 6.7-win seasons. He has, quite frankly, been the best third baseman in baseball since being drafted.

That’s why the only real way Bryant can “improve” on 2018 is staying healthy. With two actually-working shoulders, he’s not only a legitimate MVP candidate, but a legitimate MVP frontrunner.

Normally, guys with an ISO north of .200 (what FanGraphs qualifies as ‘Great’) come with a lot of strikeouts. In 2017, Bryant’s last full season, there were 48 guys with ISO’s above .200 and 550 PAs (the number generally accepted as an appropriate sample size). Of those 48 guys, Bryant was Top-20 in ISO (19th), lowest K% (19th), highest BB% (6th), and highest OBP (4th). He’s lived up to his 70/80 power grade while arguably outperforming his 50/55 discipline grade. Basically, there aren’t many better pure hitters in the game.

If we wanted to nitpick, Bryant’s defense could improve. After flashing serious leather during his first two seasons, Bryant was replacement-level in the field during 2017, and bad in 2018. Say what you will about the reliability of defensive numbers, but it’s hard to spin a negative DRS. His statcast numbers paint a similar, albeit slightly more forgiving, picture.

Still, it’s hard to judge Bryant’s defensive prowess on 2018. He’s been a net-positive in the field during every season he’s been healthy, and it stands to reason that a shoulder injury -- even one on his non-throwing shoulder -- would impede his defense in some way, shape, or form. Now, if a healthy Bryant puts up monster numbers at the plate all year and is still bad in the field, then maybe it’s worth a discussion.

For now, Kris Bryant Comeback SZN depends almost entirely on health. Even in a shortened season that was by all accounts disappointing, he was still 25 percent better than the average league hitter. If the shoulder’s fine, he’s in the MVP conversation.

-Cam Ellis

 

The complete 19 for '19 series:

19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

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Cubs back Tyler Chatwood after big-time performance: 'That's not a fluke'

Cubs back Tyler Chatwood after big-time performance: 'That's not a fluke'

Tyler Chatwood now has as many quality starts in 2019 as Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish combined.

The Cubs opted to give Chatwood a spot start Sunday against the Diamondbacks and the 29-year-old right-hander responded with a masterful performance, tossing 6 shutout innings in the Cubs' 2-1 walk-off win. He allowed only 2 singles and walked a pair, but also induced a double play after each free pass.

Manager Joe Maddon said he thought Chatwood may be able to get up to 75 or 80 pitches, but he didn't even need that many, tossing 71 pitches through 6 frames. He was still pumping 96 mph with his fastball in the last inning in his longest outing since April 29, 2018. 

"It's all about Chatwood today," Maddon said. "That was pretty spectacular. The command, the stuff, the ease with which he was throwing it. That was pretty outstanding. That's what we thought in the beginning [of his Cubs tenure] — we've talked about it a lot.

"As he gains feel for what he's doing, he's capable of that. That's not a fluke. He's capable of doing that kind of stuff. It's a nice first step for him, but it was really fun and interesting to watch."

Chatwood talked all throughout spring about the hard work he put into the offseason to clean up his mechanics and fight his way back after walking 95 batters in 103.2 innings a season ago.

"I feel like I'm back and my stuff's back and I'm commanding the ball like I know I can," Chatwood said.

Chatwood threw the first pitch of the game to the backstop and proceeded to walk the leadoff guy on four pitches, but he said that was due to being too amped up after going nearly two weeks in between appearances and eight months in between starts.

"I don't think I missed a spot in my warm-up and then throw four balls right away. Keep you guys on edge a little bit," joked Chatwood, who smiled and laughed with ease after his big outing. 

He settled in after that leadoff walk, erasing the free pass with a quick double play ball and then throwing first-pitch strikes to 12 of the final 19 batters he faced.

That's exactly the type of aggressiveness the Cubs wanted to see from him.

"He's got unique Chatwood-type mechanics," pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said before Sunday's game. "It's about simplifying things for him — trying to give him 1 or 2 things to focus on and really solidify what he wants to do. And it's about being aggressive in the strike zone, being aggressive attacking.

"When you try to feel for the strike zone and you try to work your pitches around it, a lot of times, mechanically things go wrong. So it's about letting him be aggressive, letting him be himself and attacking, using all his weapons. Mechanically, though, the big thing is just simplifying things and really giving him a good, strong foundation to pitch off of and drive off it." 

The Cubs won't keep Chatwood in the rotation with Jon Lester on the verge of returning from his hamstring injury, but the right-hander certainly did all he could to keep his hat in the ring and this outing could be huge for his confidence moving forward.

"What a performance," David Bote told Kelly Crull on the field after getting the walk-off hit. "I know that felt good for him. He's the best teammate in the clubhouse, He works his butt off every day and I love to see him do well like that."

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Reinforcements coming for Cubs pitching staff

Reinforcements coming for Cubs pitching staff

The Cubs pitching staff is about to get some reinforcements.

Not that they really need it right now — Cubs pitchers entered Sunday with a 1.80 ERA in the last 10 games, the best mark in the league in that span by a wide margin (the Pirates were next-closest with a 2.30 ERA).

But they're about to add two of their most important arms to that group, as a pair of veteran southpaws could return from injury as soon as this week.

Jon Lester threw a simulated game Saturday at Wrigley Field and Mike Montgomery is set to make his second rehab start Monday with Double-A Tennessee.

Lester (hamstring) threw 45 pitches Saturday and reports were all positive as he showed up to the ballpark Sunday. He will throw a bullpen either Monday or Tuesday and then the Cubs will reevaluate from there.

There's no specific timetable, but the Cubs have not yet announced a starter for Thursday's game against the Dodgers and acknowledged Lester could slide into that spot.

"He's looking good," pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said Sunday morning. "We're just still taking it day-to-day to make sure there's no setbacks, he's recovering the way he wants to recover and that everything's on track. He's such a tough guy and competitor — he wants to be out there as soon as he can.

"We got a couple more days to make sure he gets through the bullpen, gets through all the things he wants to get through the next few days, but hopefully we'll be seeing him here pretty soon."

Lester last pitched on April 8 during the Cubs' home opener. If all goes well with his bullpen in the coming days, he wouldn't need a rehab stint to get back up to speed.

Meanwhile, Montgomery (lat) threw 27 pitches with Class-A South Bend last Wednesday and has been working out with the team in Chicago over the weekend. He is expected to throw about 3 innings with Tennessee Monday.

"I felt really good after my last outing," he said. "Even better the last couple days. It's a change and adjusting some of the things I do to prepare — throw/workout-wise to get me feeling right.

"...It's really fun just to go out there and compete. When you're away from it, you kinda miss it and you get that itch to be, 'OK, I gotta do whatever I can do to get back healthy and be effective.' That's where I'm at."

Montgomery knows he's facing minor-league hitters, but he's treating it like a big-league appearance, trying to get himself on track mentally as well as physically. 

He dealt with some shoulder inflammation at the beginning of spring training and he felt like that set him back in terms of getting up to speed and building up strength before the season. 

Montgomery only made 4 appearances before hitting the disabled list, allowing 5 runs on 8 hits in 2.2 innings.

"I feel like I've been playing catch-up so far this year and I haven't been able to get out there and really work on certain pitches in certain zones — working on my cutter/slider and getting that a little sharper, working on curveball command where I can throw it early in counts or bounce it," he said. "That's been missing and so the last week or so, I've gotten back to that.

"...If you're dealing with things physically, it's really hard to work on stuff and perfect the mechanical side of the game. I know with all the tech nowadays, you can shape your pitches the way you want and work on pitches to one side of the plate and the other. 

"When you're really not feeling good, it's more of 'how can I just get through this?' as opposed to really working on stuff. I think I'm at a point where I can really work on stuff and that's a good place to be."

Only Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and Jose Quintana have thrown more innings for the Cubs than Montgomery over the last three seasons, as he's made 33 starts and 53 relief appearances. 

Montgomery said he hasn't had any conversations with Joe Maddon or the Cubs about a change in role when he returns, but assuming he slides back into that swingman role, this time off will allow him to build up strength and get stretched out.

He also has a new perspective on life as he and his wife, Stephanie, welcomed their first child early Tuesday morning — a boy named Max. Both sets of grandparents have been in town to help take care of and celebrate the newborn, so Montgomery has also been able to enjoy time with his family and work his rehab activities around that.

"It's been a whirlwind, to say the least," Montgomery said. "But I love it that way. My wife's awesome — she's able to handle the stress of baseball and having a baby. We're still in good spirits; the family's out here helping her out.

"Going home the last couple nights makes you get a little emotional, but at the same time, it makes you really understand what is important. For me, I think that's just me being good at my job of pitching and taking care of the family. 

"That's where I'm at, so it's a good experience to have and we're gonna take it from here."

The Cubs will also have options for the bullpen beyond Montgomery, as both veterans Xavier Cedeno and Tony Barnette are on the recovery path from their respective injuries. Cedeno made his second rehab appearance with Double-A Tennessee Saturday and Barnette will throw his first outing with Triple-A Iowa Sunday.

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