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A slump in the road - the Cubs' 2019 World Series dreams hinge on the bat of Kris Bryant

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USA TODAY

A slump in the road - the Cubs' 2019 World Series dreams hinge on the bat of Kris Bryant

Does a 2-for-4 mean you are on track?

The answer is, it depends.

Kris Bryant is an MVP, Rookie of the Year, World Champion and a super talent. Not just because he displays the outward abilities like power or hitting for average, but because he has the less visible skills, like good baserunning, plate discipline, intangible instincts.

Kris Bryant has been having a tough time by Bryant standards. It is easy to rattle off numbers to underscore the distance between today and his MVP season. Early 2019 shows the .368 slugging, the hitting under .200 vs. lefties, the near .100 with two strikes and the .154 batting average when he pulls the ball.

Yet despite knowing these numbers are only after 68 at-bats, there is a deeper concern because of expectation.

The Cubs need Bryant. Last season, he was still a solid player, but the Cubs were banking on an All-Star to create a few more wins, and as we know, a few more wins and the Cubs win the NL Central outright.

Injuries have crept in; doubt always follows, even after you have a clean bill of health. Bryant also got hit in the face, which gets lost in some of the noise. These injuries and setbacks stay with a player, creeping up after a twinge in the weight room, the break-up with your girlfriend, the sleeping funny on your pillow the night before, the three game series in the stadium where you don’t pick up the ball out of the batter’s eye.

Outside of the standard numbers, his baserunning was down last season. He had been masterful of going first to third, first to home and second to home. He created runs by having great reads and even better instincts. But he was not quite as effective last year, and not getting quite the same reads, at least so the numbers say. In Bill James' annual handbook for 2018, Bryant's baserunning was calculated as a -5 net loss, which accounts for advancing extra bases, baserunning outs, double plays and a stolen bases.

But slumps are part of any players career, and they are not always just an offensive thing. In fact, they are as normal as being on fire, and there are times when the lines blur between being in one and getting out of one. It matters which direction you are heading in.

A player like Bryant has the ability to reduce the damage of a slump. He can walk and he can get on base with his eyes, all while he is fixing he stroke. He is dangerous enough of a power hitter to induce walks just because of the threat. Pitchers may know he is struggling, but they also know, one bad pitch and the ball is on Waveland Ave., no matter what he did the last seven days.

I had my share of slumps in my career and I define it as a place of relativity. We are comparing to what we think should be, both based on past and future. But it is deceiving to base expectation only on the comfort of hard data, not data that in reality is fluid and constantly changing with time and environment. Bryant's MVP season also had ups and downs, but he kept the downs short.

It is still early and Bryant still has a good space between his batting average and his on-base percentage (.235 average and a respectable .342 OBP), but he is expected to be dominant from tape to tape by this point in his career, with all the lofty traditional numbers to go with it—OBP, AVG, HR, RBIs. And for the Cubs to not just win, but win it all, Bryant's ability to be that day in and day out threat is pivotal.

Keep in mind, everyone is making major adjustments to Bryant, and it is not just his opponents on the field, but the opponent in the cloud. The data and the speed of these data-driven adjustments are lightning quick, especially against a player that can beat you single-handedly.

I remember when I was struggling mid-career, and we were heading to Toronto for a series. I was in the batting cage with Phillies hitting coach Hal McRae and expressing my frustration. I was fouling out to first, to the catcher, rolling over on balls down the middle. Then Hal said to me that it was a “credit to your talent that you are hitting close to .270 when your heart and mind are clearly with your father.”

My father was in and out of the hospital that year and eventually would pass away the last game of the season a couple of years later. There was no stat for anxiety or stress, no multiplier to explain the degree by which you are off your game. Maybe that stress is a motivator, provides an edge in some players, in others, not so much. But slumps are part mechanical as they are part mental, emotional, psychological. And they can come out of nowhere; we often don’t know what a player is going through even if it is just a bad swing and bad pitching matchups for him.

It is not the slump, but how quickly you can get out of a slump. Three weeks instead of three days makes a world of difference. Those who do not have the opportunity to play through a slump, will not make it.

When I was a veteran in the game, besides the skill decline and the health decline, there was the opportunity decline. I no longer would be granted the bandwidth to struggle through it. I needed to produce every time I got the chance to play, even if I had two weeks between starts. When a team will not stick with you, you lose the pathway to get out of the hole you dug. And often the hole gets bigger. Bryant does not have this problem.

That is because Bryant has time and has earned the time on a good team that has other assets to keep them competitive. Yet being granted time does not mean the team has time. The manager, the coaches, the closer, are on clocks too.

Working hard can do a lot, but only so much. The doubt has to go, the second guessing of self or that in-between trapped feeling when you don’t know what is coming out of the pitcher’s hand, has to go.        

The Cubs know they are built from many talented assets, many players that can do the job. At different times in the season, a different player will carry the team. If the rotation keeps rolling, while key players like Baez and Contreras are producing, and the wins are rolling in, Bryant can work through it, just another reason why being on a team that picks each other up matters so much.

The slump is highly dependent on time and opportunity. This needs to be the Cubs' year, so the time is now, and they have to keep betting that the former league MVP will find a big way out, then he will carry this team for a while, maybe right back to the World Series. Then all will certainly forget what Bryant’s stat sheet showed before April 19, 2019.  

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Why Kris Bryant doesn't feel 'safe' and why his voice should matter most to MLB

Why Kris Bryant doesn't feel 'safe' and why his voice should matter most to MLB

Having spent the past week failing to answer how they expect anyone to believe they have a chance to pull off a baseball season during a pandemic, MLB officials are forcing hundreds of players to keep asking their own shared question: “Why the hell am I doing this?”

Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant on Monday said he “absolutely” considered opting out of playing after his wife gave birth in April to their first child and then watching the spread of COVID-19 accelerate across his native Nevada and baseball-centric states such as Florida, Texas, Arizona and California.

“I still think that runs through a lot of people’s minds today,” Bryant said.

Concerns haven’t been eased by lags and deficiencies in coronavirus testing during the first week of training camps. MLB was forced to release a statement Monday promising improvement after players throughout baseball raised the issue with media in recent days.

That included closer Sean Doolittle of the defending-champion Nationals citing a lack of masks and other protective gear with his team and Bryant saying he didn’t feel safe after seeing the promises of every-other-day testing already being broken by the team.

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Bryant, who wears a mask even at times while practicing on the field, said he went from having an intake test on June 27 to his second test on Sunday.

“Then you don’t get the results for two days, so that’s nine days without knowing,” he said. “I wanted to play this year because I felt that it would be safe, and I would feel comfortable. But, honestly, I don’t feel that way."

Bryant’s voice is especially significant on the topic — and not only as a star player and former union representative.

His voice is coming out of a camp that has had no delays or cancelations of work over testing or safety issues — the only team in at least the National League without a positive COVID-19 test among its players.

In other words: The Cubs’ former MVP and three-time All-Star doesn’t feel “safe” in the team environment that by definition is the safest in the league (so far).

If Cubs players and staff are seeing problems that raise concerns, what does that mean for the rest of baseball, where players have tested positive and others have opted out?

What does that say about even the slim chances baseball had at the outset of even starting a season — never mind finishing one?

“Guys are doing a great job,” Ross said three days into training camp — offering an understated “bothered” to describe Monday his emotional state when talking to league officials about his team’s testing concerns.

“We’re doing everything possible. But for sure, there’s a lot of pause around the league, and rightfully so.”

Just on Monday:

— The Astros and Nationals canceled practices over safety issues, and the Oakland A’s have yet to hold a full-squad workout because of testing deficiencies.

— Braves outfielder Nick Markakis, citing the frightening symptoms of stricken teammate Freddie Freeman, became the ninth player known to have opted out of the 2020 season.

—The Rangers reported that slugger Joey Gallo, whose father was a baseball-school partner of Bryant’s father in Las Vegas, has tested positive for the virus (asymptomatic as of Monday) — joining dozens of known COVID-19 cases among MLB players.

Perhaps ironically, Monday also was the day MLB officially released the schedule for the shortened season, to begin in less than three weeks.

MORE: 2020 Cubs schedule starts vs. Brewers, ends at White Sox

“It’s not guaranteed that we’re going to play or finish a season,” Bryant said. “Everybody involved knows that and is aware of that.”

And with every day that includes news of PPE shortages, positive test results or descriptions of Freeman’s “chills and fever,” every player in the game will be forced to ask the same question every time he looks in the mirror in the morning — and then takes his temperature to find out if he qualifies to even go to the ballpark.

“Why?”

Since he made his original decision to play, Bryant so far remains firm in his resolve to stand by that decision and “do everything I can to be safe and healthy and lead by example and encourage people to do the right thing,” he said.

“I know I have a lot to worry about, and I still worry about going home and bringing it to my wife my newborn,” said Bryant, who brought his family to Chicago with him. “That’s scary to me.”

Scary? Ask the Phillies, who had at least 12 players and staff test positive before anyone headed to Philadelphia for camp. And ask the Braves, who have lost at least four players early to positive tests, and a fifth player and a coach (Eric Young Sr.) to opt-outs — in a city where the mayor just reported Monday night that she had tested positive for the virus.

And then ask, again, why?

Maybe MLB can get its act together before a wave of opt-outs remove more players from the 2020 season than the virus itself, said Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr., who did not bring his wife and small kids to Chicago.

“That will probably bring down the barriers for the guys that are uneasy and uncomfortable,” he said, “But, yeah, it sucks. There’s no other way to put it.”

Angels star Mike Trout has expressed reservations about playing with his wife due next month, and Bryant noted Yankees ace Gerrit Cole has a newborn at home.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if people like that decide to sit out, and rightfully so,” Bryant said, “because there’s a lot more to living than playing a game.”

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Cubs early schedule is favorable, but watch out for divisional games

Cubs early schedule is favorable, but watch out for divisional games

With only 60 games this season, getting off to a good start is imperative for any team's postseason chances. That sentiment is especially true for the Cubs, based on how their schedule lines up to start the season.

The Cubs and Cardinals have the second easiest schedules through Aug. 6, based on their opponents' 2019 winning percentages (.445). The Reds (.437) have the easiest schedule through that stretch.

In those 14 games the Cubs play the Brewers (three times), Reds (four), Pirates (three) and Royals (four). They then play St. Louis three times before their first scheduled day off (Aug. 10).

MORE: 2020 Cubs schedule starts vs. Brewers, ends at White Sox

The context, of course, is Reds — a thorn in the Cubs' side last season — improved their roster immensely over the winter. Cincinnati added outfielder Nick Castellanos (Cubs) third baseman Mike Moustakas (Brewers), starter Wade Miley (Astros) and outfielder Shogo Akiyama (Japan) in free agency following a 75-87 2019 campaign. They also have a formidable rotation featuring Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray and Miley.

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Besides Moustakas, Milwaukee lost another cog to their 2019 lineup to free agency in catcher Yasmani Grandal (White Sox). Also gone is first baseman Eric Thames (25 homers last season), who joined the Nationals in free agency.

As has been the case in recent seasons, there are questions about Milwaukee's starting rotation. They dealt Zach Davies to the Padres and Chase Anderson to the Blue Jays, adding Erik Lauer (trade with San Diego), and Josh Lindblom (Japan) and Brett Anderson (A's) in free agency. 

Milwaukee is still a competitive rival and has proven doubters wrong by making back-to-back postseasons. Their bullpen is solid and they're still led by 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich.

Pittsburgh and Kansas City are still in rebuild mode, but lest we forget the Pirates were 44-45 at the All-Star break last season and in the thick of the NL Central race. A 60-game season is a crapshoot, and it would be foolish to take any opponent lightly.

No matter what any team did last season, 2020 is unique and unlike anything we've seen. Even with these factors, the Cubs need to get off to a good start to assert themselves in the race to October (should we get there, COVID-19 contingent).

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