Kris Bryant is making it look easy, though we only really see the numbers, the highlight clips and the OMG! reactions on Twitter.
Deep down, the Cubs know their farm system shouldn’t be getting this much attention, that they need to start investing in the big-league product and showing results at Wrigley Field. But then again, it’s better than focusing entirely on why the stadium renovation project remains in limbo or why No. 1 starter Jeff Samardzija has reached the walk-away point.
The Chicago media recognizes the wall-to-wall coverage is a little silly, but then again it’s exactly what Cubs fans want to read and talk about and the news cycle now goes 24/7/365. It’s also not much of an exaggeration to say the entire organization — from the Ricketts family to Theo Epstein’s front office to Crane Kenney’s business side — pretty much needs Bryant to become a star given the franchise’s leverage and limitations.
So Bryant debuting at Triple-A Iowa on Thursday night is a major step for The Plan, what the Cubs hope will be a sign the future isn’t so far off into the distance.
But #KrisBryantFacts aside, he really does still have boxes to check, to borrow a Cubs Way talking point, and it’s not all about service-time considerations and future negotiations with Boras Corp.
Anthony Rizzo knows what it’s like to be in Des Moines, getting all the questions from friends and family and wondering what else you need to prove before getting called up to the North Side.
Rizzo Watch is so two years ago, but the Cubs first baseman did make an interesting Bryant prediction.
“I think he’s going to really dominate Triple-A more than Double-A,” Rizzo said. “I thought Double-A was the hardest level, personally. He’s way more polished than I was when I was in the minor leagues.”
Bryant was leading the Southern League in the Triple Crown categories when the Cubs made Wednesday’s announcement, hitting .355 with 22 homers and 58 RBI. But the instant impact Javier Baez had at Tennessee last year — 20 homers, 54 RBI in 54 games — didn’t automatically translate to Iowa this season.
Baseball America’s No. 5 overall prospect needed a push to get his average up to .215 after a slow start and the emotional letdown when the 21-year-old shortstop — as expected — didn’t make the team out of spring training. Baez has still put up 11 homers and 38 RBI through 60 games and addressed some of the concerns about his defense and maturity.
Bryant, 22, will be facing older, more experienced pitchers who’ve gotten a taste of the big leagues and are trying to feed their families. They attacked Baez' weaknesses, knowing his big name and aggressive swing, not wanting to be a part of his home-run list.
“(Bryant’s) going to see a lot more advanced pitching up there,” Rizzo said. “Guys that with the bases loaded would rather walk him and give up one run than give up four. So he’s just going to really put the finishing touches on his approach, and hopefully he takes off.”
Before last year’s draft, minor-league infield coordinator Jose Flores filed a report off the West Coast Conference tournament. Flores was part of the group in Stockton, Calif., that included Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and scouting/player development chief Jason McLeod.
Flores followed the University of San Diego for a few games, evaluating Bryant’s entire routine, watching him during batting practice, noticing what he did in between innings, how he interacted with his teammates and reading his attitude in the dugout.
“He wants to win,” Flores said. “The players feed off that (and) that’s something we look at as an organization: Is this guy going to be able to be an impact player in the big leagues, but at the same time be a good teammate? He’s got all that. He should be able to be an impact player and at the same time a go-to guy.”
The Cubs selected Bryant No. 2 overall and gave him a $6.7 million signing bonus, thinking he’d have a chance to stick at third base but knowing he could move to the outfield if his 6-foot-5, 215-pound frame outgrows the position.
Flores still believes Bryant has what it takes to play third base in the big leagues.
“There were some things we needed to do defensive-wise, minor stuff,” Flores said. “What I saw in him was very simple to clean up. He’s got a way above-average arm.
“The main concern that we had on him was his forehand side, which is actually a little weird on infielders. Usually, for your glove side, you should be able to react better. He’s really good with his backhand, so we talked during spring training and did some adjustments on his positioning.
“He used to play a little bit closer to the line, (but) during the game, there are very few balls that get hit (there). Now we’re playing him way far off the line, so he gets to those glove-side groundballs a lot easier. And since he’s got such a good backhand, the routine balls that he was able to field cleanly in front of him, now he’s backhanding those. He’s all right.”
Bryant studied finance in college, made the conference’s all-academic team and got invited to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship.
Bryant stayed on message during spring training, acting like he belonged without coming across as arrogant. He made himself available for waves of interviews without losing patience or saying anything remotely controversial.
“He’s a pretty mature young man,” Cubs manager Rick Renteria said. “Very well-spoken, doesn’t seem to be fazed by a whole lot. He’s very focused on his game, but it does seem like he’s a well-balanced individual. Those things play well for him. Hopefully, he continues to handle the success.”
Failure is wired into this game. There are no sure things. Jake Arrieta excelled in the Arizona Fall League, pitched in the All-Star Futures Game, felt the love from Baseball America and became an Opening Day starter for the Baltimore Orioles in 2012.
But now at the age of 28, after parts of four seasons at the Triple-A level and last summer’s trade, it finally looks like Arrieta could be a big part of the Cubs rotation.
“It’s hard to see the big picture as you’re a young guy first getting to the big leagues,” Arrieta said. “But tough times are just part of it. It’s part of the growth experience, not only as a player, but as a person, how to handle those ups and downs, being able to lean on some teammates when you are scuffling. We’ll be here for those guys, through the good and bad.”
That’s why the Cubs will have to add some established veterans and clubhouse leaders this winter, to take some of the pressure off Bryant and Baez, because everything is already on their shoulders now.
“You got to be there for each other,” Arrieta said. “Those guys will be welcomed with open arms and everybody in here will do whatever they can in their power to make their transition as smooth as possible.”