Sports Illustrated declared the Houston Astros will be “Your 2017 World Series Champs.” Now imagine if “Ground Control” had decided to pick Kris Bryant.
The Cubs never looked back after drafting the University of San Diego third baseman. Almost exactly a year after getting a $6.7 million bonus, Bryant will play in the All-Star Futures Game on Sunday at Target Field in Minneapolis. The early verdict: Almost too good to be true.
“From the day he signed,” Cubs executive Jason McLeod said. “When you look at a No. 2 pick, and now with the draft and the dollars being what they are, I thought he endeared himself to his teammates last summer right away. They all loved him.
“He’s a confident guy who respects the game — and respects his teammates — and just wants to work every day to get better.”
The Astros simplified the pitcher-vs.-hitter debate the Cubs had going by grabbing Stanford University right-hander Mark Appel with last year’s No. 1 overall pick.
Appel underwent an emergency appendectomy during the winter, struggled to adjust to Houston’s unique piggyback system — a four-game tandem rotation — and dealt with tendinitis in his right thumb. He’s posted a 9.57 ERA through 10 starts at advanced Class-A Lancaster this season.
The Cubs showed their bias toward position players by passing on University of Oklahoma flamethrower Jonathan Gray, who went third overall to the Colorado Rockies and has gone 8-4 with a 3.77 ERA in 17 starts at Double-A Tulsa this season.
Bryant helped advanced Class-A Daytona win a Florida State League title last year. He became the Arizona Fall League’s MVP. He was leading the Southern League in the Triple Crown categories last month when he got promoted from Double-A Tennessee to Triple-A Iowa.
Combined, Bryant’s hitting .346 with 31 homers and 81 RBIs through 92 games this season. He’s also hanging around Iowa player/coach Manny Ramirez.
“I’ve never seen him without a smile on his face,” Bryant said. “That’s kind of how I play the game, too. You have to kind of just look at it like it’s a game. You have to go out there and have fun. I think (Manny) is the idol in that aspect, going out there and having fun every single day. He doesn’t take it too serious, but he was a really hard worker. I think there is a balance there, and (it’s been) a blast to meet him so far.”
McLeod — who oversees scouting and player development — remembered meeting with Bryant during last year’s West Coast Conference tournament in Stockton, Calif. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer joined the sit-down in a hotel lobby.
“Kris is a very intelligent kid,” McLeod said. “You’re talking about a college player who’s had a lot of accolades. Certainly, in general, these guys are much more confident, much more short with their answers. Almost like — I don’t want to say an inconvenience — but ‘OK, I’ll get through this.’
“Kris was very talkative. He asked very pointed questions. It became pretty apparent this is a humble guy that comes from a good family who’s a student of the game. He really talked about learning and wanting to watch video and wanting to talk to other players about pitchers they’ve faced. It’s important to him to be really, really good and to work for it.”
The Futures Game is supposed to be a sneak preview, but Bryant and Javier Baez have been big stories since they reported to spring training, getting wall-to-wall coverage all season. Cubs fans and the Chicago media won’t be giving them much of a grace period when they get to Wrigley Field.
“You never know until they’re there and actually living it and dealing with it on a daily basis,” McLeod said. “But I think with the information that we’ve given them, how well we know them now as young men, certainly I feel really good that they’re equipped (to) come up and deal with that and perform in this environment.
“To deal with (day games ending and it’s) 5 o’clock and now what does the city of Chicago have to offer, knowing you got to get back there at 8 a.m. the next morning to get your early work in. Those are constants that are always talked about.”
Those big-market expectations — combined with video-game numbers — could one day put Bryant on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It’s definitely not the World Series, but Cubs fans will want to see Bryant vs. Baez on Sunday, Team USA vs. The World. The Futures Game is now.