Kris Bryant: Just a matter of when for Cubs’ great hope

In the end, none of it mattered. Not the 2014 minor league player of the year honors. Not the No. 1 prospect ranking. Not one of the best spring training offensive shows you’ll ever see.

No, like it or not, Kris Bryant was never going to ride out of the Arizona desert and straight into the Friendly Confines.

In the end, long-term goals prevailed over short-term ones. Business won out over baseball. Cry all you want about what’s best for baseball or its fans. This is how the game of Moneyball is played today.

Now that it’s official that the slugging third baseman will be starting the season at Triple-A Iowa, two questions are left for long-suffering Cubs fans to ponder about their great hope: When will they see him in a big league uniform? And what can they expect to see when he finally makes his appearance?

The question of when is in the hands of Cubs’ management. What we know is that for the team to preserve control over Bryant for an extra year, through 2021, it has to keep him off the major-league roster until after April 16. What that means is that Cubs fans might want to start thinking about getting tickets for the April 17-19 weekend home series against the Padres. As a bonus, the Cubs will be giving the first 10,000 fans in the ballpark on that Friday series opener a Cubs winter aviator hat, meaning that Bryant’s first look at the Wrigley faithful will have a strange Fargo-like feel to it.

As we all know by now, the reason for Bryant’s delayed arrival has nothing to do with what he’s done on the baseball field and everything to do with service time. For those not in the know, the baseball calendar includes 183 days and a player needs to spend 172 of those in the majors to accrue one year of service time. By keeping Bryant a minor-leaguer for 12 days, the Cubs can delay his free agency a year because a player with six complete big-league seasons can become a free agent.

Assuming that April 17 is Bryant’s coming-out party, what can fans expect to see then?
Well, you can expect him to hit. That’s what he does. He hits baseball hard and for long distances. That’s the reason the Cubs signed the 23-year-old to a team-record $6.7 million signing bonus as the second overall pick in the 2013 draft.

At every level he’s played in, beginning in high school in Las Vegas, Nevada, and continuing through college at the University of San Diego where he led the entire country in home runs, and as a minor leaguer in the Cubs system, Bryant has consistently produced big power numbers. In 2014, a season split between the Double-A Tennessee Smokies and the Triple-A Iowa Cubs, Bryant cracked 43 home runs and drove in 110 runs while batting .325, numbers impressive enough to earn him minor league player of the year honors from both USA Today and Baseball America.

If you’ve been a Cubs fan long enough to remember Dave Kingman, you’ll have some idea of the kind of size and power you can expect to see from Bryant. Nicknamed “Kong”, Kingman played mostly left field for the Cubs during the 1978 to 1980 seasons. The 6’6” Kingman was a powerful hitter known for his long home runs, much like the 6’5” Bryant.

Kingman was also known for his high strikeout rate, and that has perhaps been the biggest knock on Bryant as well. In 2014, Bryant fanned in about one-third of his plate appearances in the minors. “In Triple-A, Kris Bryant whiffed almost as often as Javier Baez did,” FanGraph’s Jeff Sullivan wrote in a recent analysis that raised concerns about Bryant’s low contact rate.

While Sullivan reported that projections by ZiPS and Steamer put Bryant in the same league as Evan Longoria, he also noted that Bryant’s Triple-A contact rate ranked 25th lowest since 2008, which raises some cause for concern though not alarm at this stage. “Great players, players with Hall-of-Fame arguments, have begun their careers with contact problems,” Sullivan wrote, noting Mike Schmidt, another third baseman, as an example. “A contact problem at 22 doesn’t have to be a contact problem at 28.”

The other question mark about Bryant is his defense and whether a player his size can cleanly field the hot corner at the big league level. Bryant seems out to prove that he can hold his own at the infield position, though he also has expressed willingness to move to the outfield if that’s where the team sees him as the best fit.

“I’ve played third base my whole life, and I’m extremely comfortable there,” he said in a 2013 WGN Radio interview after the Cubs drafted him. “I know I have a long way to go to man the position, but I would love to stay there. It’s a premier position, and it’s a challenge for me and I’ve always been up for a challenge. But if the people in charge want to put me in the outfield, I’m going to play the heck out of it and give it my all.”

What comes across when you listen to Bryant being interviewed is that he is humble, smart and well-spoken. “This is a young man who received straight As during his entire academic career at Bonanza (High School) save for one “B” – an 89.2 in calculus when an “A” was 90,” Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Katowski wrote in 2012. “He was going to be salutatorian of his class until he learned how badly a female classmate wanted it and stepped aside; he visits sick kids in hospitals; he is polite to a fault; when he borrows the car, he always returns it with a full tank of gas.”

Bryant was a good student at the University of San Diego as well, majoring in finance and being named to the West Coast Conference All-Academic team.

When asked what was going through his head when he first got that he’d be playing in Chicago, he said: “There’s so much. I have family back there, that came into my mind. Definitely Wrigley Field, one of the greatest ballparks ever, and all the history of the Chicago Cubs, all of that came to my mind. It’s just something that I think any baseball player would love to be a part of and I’m just so happy that the Cubs are giving me an opportunity to fulfill my dream.”

He said he might have been to the Friendly Confines once, though he never saw it. “I think I was at Wrigley, but I was in my mom’s stomach at the time.”
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Listen to the entire WGN Radio 2013 interview with Kris Bryant at
http://wgnradio.com/2013/06/07/cubs-1-pick-joins-sports-night/

View Kris Bryant’s prospect video at
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qyUdTJFzEEY

See Kris Bryant club a long home run over Will Ferrell in center field at
http://www.bleachernation.com/2015/03/12/watch-kris-bryant-sends-a-massive-home-run-over-will-ferrell-in-center-field/

Did you know? Kris Bryant’s father, Mike, was a Red Sox minor leaguer who got hitting lessons from Ted Williams.