Cubs see Kris Bryant as one key piece in a big puzzle

Cubs see Kris Bryant as one key piece in a big puzzle
August 14, 2013, 5:30 pm
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If only Kris Bryant was already here at Wrigley Field, so everyone could dissect his two-strike approach, wonder if he was ready to step up and be a leader and badger him with questions about a long-term contract extension.

We’re all guilty of it, overhyping the Starlin Castros and Anthony Rizzos and picking apart their flaws as soon as they struggle in the big leagues. It’s going to happen to Bryant whenever he makes it to the North Side. But for now it’s time to relax, breathe deeply and let the No. 2 overall draft pick develop at Class-A Daytona.

So Wednesday’s 5-0 loss to the Cincinnati Reds became more background noise in this multiyear rebuilding project. On a beautiful 64-degree afternoon that felt more like autumn, the Cubs got shut out for the fourth time in their last five games at home, managing only two hits off crafty Bronson Arroyo.

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“Do I have enough bullets?” manager Dale Sveum said inside the interview room/dungeon, repeating a reporter’s question. “This is all I got.”

It’s not nearly enough to contend in the National League Central.

The Cubs (52-68) have been able to improvise at third base, entering the day with 20 home runs out of the position, or four times as many as the New York Yankees with their fragile combinations (Alex Rodriguez/Kevin Youkilis). Only the Detroit Tigers (Miguel Cabrera), Pittsburgh Pirates (Pedro Alvarez), Texas Rangers (Adrian Beltre) and Tampa Bay Rays (Evan Longoria) have generated more.

Deep down, the Cubs don’t really know how long Bryant will be able to handle third base, projecting his 6-foot-5, 215-pound body and the power that profiles like a corner outfielder. His 31 homers as a University of San Diego junior exceeded more than 200 Division I programs.

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Sure, the Rays drafted Longoria third overall out of Long Beach State University in 2006 and had an All-Star/Rookie of the Year playing in the World Series by 2008.

But Alvarez – the No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 draft out of Vanderbilt University – needed almost 1,000 plate appearances in the minor leagues and parts of three seasons in the majors before emerging as an All-Star this summer. And the Pirates are trying to finish above .500 for the first time since 1992.

If anything, Javier Baez appears to be next in line to switch to third base. The 20-year-old shortstop has used that Gary Sheffield bat speed to crush 29 homers in 111 games split between Daytona and Double-A Tennessee.

“You want to leave a player at a premium position as long as you can,” team president Theo Epstein said. “You’d like to emphasize versatility as much as possible, too. If we expose a player to another position, it’s not necessarily an indictment of his ability at his original position.

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“It’s just increasing his value as a player, increasing the likelihood that he could get called up. Because if you have to wait for one specific spot to open up, you might have to wait longer than you want.”

In the same week the Los Angeles Dodgers released late night Twitter star Ian Stewart from their Triple-A affiliate, the Cubs underlined how much depth they could have at third base.

Bryant shook off the rust at Boise, hitting .354 with a 1.108 OPS in 18 games and skipping Kane County, so the organization wouldn’t disrupt 19-year-old Jeimer Candelario’s development.

“We really want to keep Candelario getting everyday at-bats at third base,” Epstein said. “He’s an outstanding prospect and a couple years younger than Bryant. It made sense to leave ‘Candy’ where he is and challenge Bryant.

“Daytona’s in a push. They’re going to be in the playoffs. It’s good to get our prospects who are ready to move on some exposure to minor-league postseason baseball.”

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Tennessee third baseman Christian Villanueva – who was acquired from the Rangers last year in the Ryan Dempster deal – became a Southern League All-Star this season.

The Cubs tried to acquire Mike Olt at last summer’s deadline, before the third baseman was named the minor league player of the year in the Texas system. A down season put him off the untouchable list and in play for the Matt Garza deal. He’s hitting .133 through 20 games at Triple-A Iowa, but could be an interesting September call-up.

By now, it’s obvious Josh Vitters is not a Sveum guy or a Theo guy. It’s unclear whether he can stay healthy, much less handle third base in the majors. It seems like he has been around forever. But he will turn 24 this month and still has that No. 3 overall pick pedigree from 2007. Maybe he’s a piece for another change-of-scenery trade this winter.

Even if the Cubs want to get a long look at Junior Lake in center, he’s still a converted infielder who could potentially play third base in a super-utility role.

The Cubs need volume because so many prospects don’t live up to the hype. But after watching the big-league team lose 11 of its last 12 games at Wrigley Field, can you blame the fans for going crazy on Twitter every time Bryant homers for Daytona?