Cubs

From injuries to harsh criticism, Kris Bryant is still learning how to give himself a break

From injuries to harsh criticism, Kris Bryant is still learning how to give himself a break

As Kris Bryant stood at his locker before Wednesday night's game, a reporter asked him how the Cubs have been able to get by recently without their "best players" — referencing the injuries to Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez.

The reporter quickly clarified and said, "SOME of your best players," but Bryant didn't even bat an eye and he certainly didn't appear to take any offense to the accidental slight. 

In fact, he agreed and also referred to Rizzo and Baez the Cubs' "best players" throughout the interview.

It was just a small, innocuous interaction, but it is a window into how Bryant views himself. 

He's obviously confident (no player can make it to the big leagues without self-confidence), but he's also his harshest critic and a perfectionist. 

There's a strong argument to be made that Bryant is the Cubs' single most important player even when everybody is healthy — he is the only guy in that locker room who has ever won an MVP award — but now that Rizzo and Baez are likely done for the regular season, all eyes are on Bryant.

If the Cubs are going to get where they want to go, they're going to need an MVP-level performance from Bryant. And he'll have to deliver that while battling through right knee inflammation that has hampered him for the last two months.

Bryant received a cortisone shot in that knee last week in San Diego and returned to the lineup with such force that he was named National League Player of the Week. He also surpassed Ernie Banks for the most homer by a Cubs player (137) in his first five years with the team.

He wasn't willing to credit the shot as a magic cure, but he admitted it played a factor in his turnaround at the plate.

"When you speak up and say something's not right and then you — I wouldn't say fix it — but make it feel a lot better, that's very satisfying," Bryant said. "Sometimes people are scared to say stuff or speak up because you think you're gonna look a certain way or you're not gonna look tough. But at the end of the day, you gotta do what's best for the team and at that point, I was hurting the team by not saying anything. I'm glad I did."

Bryant said he still feels like he has a lot to learn in that regard — finding the balance between trying to tough out injuries and speaking up to get some time off or other treatment to address the issue. Even after dealing with last year's shoulder injury and this year's knee issue, he still doesn't know exactly how to walk that fine line.

Part of that is because he has such high expectations for himself. 

He's so tough on himself that earlier this month, Joe Maddon resorted to emailing Bryant some notes and included his career WAR, highlighting how impactful he's been as a player in his five years with the Cubs.

"He can be his own worst critic," Maddon said. "This guy really sets high standards for himself and so does everybody else around him — almost to the point that the standards are unsustainable or unreachable."

The Cubs skipper called Bryant an "underrated" player and feels the 27-year-old with a .904 career OPS still has another level of production he can achieve as he continues to learn how to give himself a break.

Over the weekend, Bryant was discussing his career to date and said he felt it was filled with good and bad but probably more bad days than good. 

Seriously.

The guy who trails only Mike Trout and Mookie Betts in WAR since the start of the 2015 season believes his career has been filled with more bad days than good?

"Think where he came from: He was supposed to be this guy since he was 12," Maddon said. "So he's been dealing with these kinds of thoughts for a long time. And any time he has a bad moment, it becomes overamplified, there's no question about it. 

"...I appreciate that, the fact that he is self-critical in a sense. But he's also gotta give himself a break. Cut yourself some slack, brother. There's 29 other teams that would love to have him."

Bryant agrees that he's his own harshest critic. So any time a fan expresses frustration after he strikes out or complains when he doesn't come through in the clutch, what they're saying holds no weight compared to what he's already telling himself inside his own head.

He appreciates the way Maddon and his Cubs teammates and coaches have had his back and provided him with positive reinforcement over the years, especially when he's slumping or just having a tough day. 

But he also doesn't anticipate a world in which he is not his own harshest critic. 

In fact, Bryant and those around him feel he's actually gotten HARDER on himself over these last few years, even though he's already accomplished so much personally and for his team (including etching his name in history books forever by playing a central role in the 2016 World Series championship).

Bryant is still learning how to forgive himself and not beat himself up too much. Even after hitting two homers in the Cubs' rout of the Pirates Sunday, he spent more time thinking about how he struck out in his final at-bat of the game.

"It's a game of failure," Bryant said. "I need to think that way so that it brings the best out of me so that I'm never satisfied or complacent with anything I do on the field, 'cause I don't ever want to feel that. And it's tough because I'm so hard on myself, but that's just who I am.

"I'm still working on that. It's really hard to get to that point because I think it's just natural for us to be negative sometimes. There's so much negativity in baseball. You're failing so much. But I truly think in sports, the strongest and most mentally tough people are baseball players because you really have to do it for 162-plus games a year — just constantly succeeding and then getting beat up for four straight at-bats, then succeeding, then doing it again, then making an error in the field or making a nice play. Just so much going on, but I wouldn't trade that for the world."

Tom Ricketts thinks Chicago Cubs 'have the best team in our division'

Tom Ricketts thinks Chicago Cubs 'have the best team in our division'

For the first time since 2015, expectations around the Cubs aren’t that high.

Sure, a significant core of the 2016 World Series-winning team is still around but, also for the first time since 2015, the Cubs are coming off a season in which they did not make the playoffs. Plus, the offseason hasn’t inspired much confidence that the team will improve from its 84 wins in 2019.

Despite that, owner Tom Ricketts talked the talk about his team being the best in the NL Central.

“I think we have the best team in our division,” Ricketts said during a press conference from spring training on Monday. “I think we have a really dynamic, exciting new manager. I think the players are going to play very, very hard for David Ross. Barring some kind of crazy injuries, I think we should win our division and get back in the playoffs.”

RELATED: Javy Baez on 2019 Cubs: 'We weren't ready' to play

The Cubs’ offseason lacked a notable addition on paper. Here, Ricketts is alluding to Ross being that notable addition. If things got stale under Joe Maddon, perhaps that was a reason for underachievement. Expecting Ross to be the biggest reason for a turnaround is a lot to put on a rookie manager with no coaching experience, but it would be weird if Ricketts didn’t hype up his own guy.

Recently signed Jason Kipnis agrees that the Cubs have the best roster in the division on paper. Kipnis told a story about texting Anthony Rizzo about it when he talked to the media from Mesa on Sunday.

“They got a good core here. I’m well-aware of that. They’re well-aware of that, too,” Kipnis said. “I texted him and called him, and asked him what happened last year because I look at rosters, I look at St. Louis’, I look at all that and I’m like, ‘I still would take your guys' roster.’”

Early projections don’t agree with Ricketts and Kipnis. The Cubs are not favored in the division as projected by USA Today, which put the Cubs at 82 wins, and PECOTA, which has the Cubs averaging 84.5 wins.

Still, Ricketts believes in his group to get to the playoffs.

“Once you’re in the playoffs, there’s no reason to think you won’t go all the way,” Ricketts said. “I think one of the things that people realize about baseball playoffs is it doesn’t matter what your record was during the season. Everyone has a chance to go all the way. So that’s what we have to do. We have to get back on top of our division and I think we have the right guys to do that.”

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Steven Souza's healthy and ready to prove himself to Cubs fans and baseball in general

Steven Souza's healthy and ready to prove himself to Cubs fans and baseball in general

MESA, Ariz. –  Two years ago, things were looking bright for Steven Souza. At 28, he was coming off the best season of his career, one where he slashed .239/.351/.459 with 30 home runs, good for a 121 wRC+. The Rays are certainly never prohibitive favorites in the AL East, but the team was talented and the idea of catching up with the division’s juggernauts was no longer unrealistic. 

Then came the shoulder injury, which delayed the start of his 2018 season until mid-May. After that there was a pec injury, and before he knew it, the year was over and the right fielder had only played in 72 games. Think that’s bad? The following season, now playing for Arizona, Souza slipped while crossing home plate during one of the last games of Spring Training. He tore his ACL, and his season ended before it began. 

“It’s been a grind,” said Souza, who signed a one-year deal with the Cubs in late January. “Coming off the year I had in ‘17, I was excited for the future held for me, and I just kind of ran into a couple injuries that really derailed my last couple seasons. It’s been frustrating, but all that’s behind me, and even though it’s been a grind, I’m excited to get back out here and look forward to the future.” 

Freak injuries derailed what looked to be a promising prime of Souza’s career, and you wouldn’t blame him for harboring his fair share of resentment. It’s impressive, then, to hear him talk about what lasting effect the run of injuries has had on his psyche. 

“Personally, I don’t believe in accidents,” he said. “I believe everything happens for a reason. I don’t know what that reason was, but I know that I’m stronger for it. Mentally, I think if there’s a silver lining, it’s that I got to spend a full year with my son and my newborn daughter. As we all know, in this game, we don’t get to spend a lot of time with our families. So it was a huge blessing and I’m looking forward to moving on from that.” 

Unlike the years he spent playing alongside All-Star center fielders like Kevin Kiermaier and A.J. Pollock, Souza’s outfield positioning will be less set in stone with the Cubs. He’ll get ABs from the corners, but with Schwarber and Heyward not losing their starting positions anytime soon, the quickest road to more at-bats may come in center field. 

"Like I said, wherever I need to fit on the field,” he said. “Whether it’s first base, catcher, shortstop – I mean I’m not very good at those, and there are some really, really good players that are way better than me at those – but I’m just looking to help this team any way I can.” 

Not unlike new teammate Jason Kipnis, the draw of Wrigley was also too much to turn down. He has some moderate success there, too. Over 23 career plate appearances in the Friendly Confines, Souza’s hit .333/.391/.429 with an .820 OPS. It’s a small sample size, but it’s one that has him optimistic that he can prove himself the the North Side’s faithful. 

“I’ll tell you what, that was one of the things that brought me here, the fans and the environment. I’m super pumped,” he said. “And no offense, but I’ve played in Tampa and Arizona and those aren’t the greatest markets in the league. I’ve always enjoyed going to Wrigley, and I’ve had some good success at Wrigley, and I know the Cubs fans bring it every day and I’m looking forward to that.” 

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