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See Also: For Cubs, One Position Doesn’t Fit All
Time after time, Cubs front-office officials believed they finally cracked the code on challenging Kris Bryant, only to see him step in the box, hit a few home runs and respond, “Is that all you’ve got?”
It started not long after Bryant, the 2013 College Player of the Year, signed last July for just more than $6.7 million. He went 0-for-3 with three errors in his pro debut, in the Rookie-level Arizona League, and had a brutal 0-for-5, five-strikeouts opener with short-season Boise two games later. He quickly took off thereafter, and the Cubs sent him to high Class A Daytona to try to help the club in a playoff push.
Chicago’s front office thought Daytona would be a steep test for a hitter just weeks into his pro career. Bryant hit .333 with five home runs and a .719 slugging percentage in 16 games, then went 7-for-20 in the Florida State League playoffs to help lead the team to a championship.
OK, so the Cubs decided to raise the bar. They sent him to the Arizona Fall League, a very aggressive assignment for a first-year pro, especially one who would likely be worn out by playing baseball in October and November after beginning his college season in February. Bryant hit .364/.457/.727 with an AFL-leading six homers and was the league MVP.
|MINOR LEAGUE PLAYER OF THE YEAR|
|1981||Mike Marshall, 1b, Albuquerque (Dodgers)|
|1982||Ron Kittle, of, Edmonton (White Sox)|
|1983||Dwight Gooden, rhp, Lynchburg (Mets)|
|1984||Mike Bielecki, rhp, Hawaii (Pirates)|
|1985||Jose Canseco, of, Huntsville/Tacoma (Athletics)|
|1986||Gregg Jefferies, ss, Columbia/Lynchburg/Jackson (Mets)|
|1987||Gregg Jefferies, ss, Jackson/Tidewater (Mets)|
|1988||Tom Gordon, rhp, Appleton/Memphis/Omaha (Royals)|
|1989||Sandy Alomar Jr., c, Las Vegas (Padres)|
|1990||Frank Thomas, 1b, Birmingham (White Sox)|
|1991||Derek Bell, of, Syracuse (Blue Jays)|
|1992||Tim Salmon, of, Edmonton (Angels)|
|1993||Manny Ramirez, of, Canton/Charlotte (Indians)|
|1994||Derek Jeter, ss, Tampa/Albany/Columbus (Yankees)|
|1995||Andruw Jones, of, Macon (Braves)|
|1996||Andruw Jones, of, Durham/Greenville/Richmond (Braves)|
|1997||Paul Konerko, 1b, Albuquerque (Dodgers)|
|1998||Eric Chavez, 3b, Huntsville/Edmonton (Athletics)|
|1999||Rick Ankiel, lhp, Arkansas/Memphis (Cardinals)|
|2000||Jon Rauch, rhp, Winston-Salem/Birmingham (White Sox)|
|2001||Josh Beckett, rhp, Brevard County/Portland (Marlins)|
|2002||Rocco Baldelli, of, Bakersfield/Orlando/Durham (Devil Rays)|
|2003||Joe Mauer, c, Fort Myers/New Britain (Twins)|
|2004||Jeff Francis, lhp, Tulsa/Colorado Springs (Rockies)|
|2005||Delmon Young, of, Montgomery/Durham (Devil Rays)|
|2006||Alex Gordon, 3b, Wichita (Royals)|
|2007||Jay Bruce, of, Sarasota/Chattanooga/Louisville (Reds)|
|2008||Matt Wieters, c, Frederick/Bowie (Orioles)|
|2009||Jason Heyward, of, Myrtle Beach/Mississippi/Gwinnett (Braves)|
|2010||Jeremy Hellickson, rhp, Durham/Charlotte (Rays)|
|2011||Mike Trout, of, Arkansas (Angels)|
|2012||Wil Myers, of, Northwest Arkansas/Omaha (Royals)|
|2013||Byron Buxton, of, Cedar Rapids/Fort Myers (Twins)|
Not tough enough? The Cubs had debated sending Bryant back to Daytona to start the season this year, but ended up pushing him to Double-A Tennessee when spring training wrapped up.
It didn’t stretch Bryant. He was leading the Southern League in most offensive categories in June, forcing a mid-season promotion to Triple-A. Bryant has yet to find the level that challenges him; he’s been the best around wherever he’s played the last three years.
“He’s exceeded our expectations at every level,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. “At three different junctures we felt we were pushing him into struggles.”
There’s little doubt Bryant was the best player in the minors this year. In his first full pro season, Bryant led the minors with 43 home runs, 78 extra-base hits, a .661 slugging percentage and a 1.098 OPS. He wasn’t just a swing-for-the fences slugger, as Bryant posted his gaudy home run numbers while hitting a robust .325 and posting the minor’s second-best on-base percentage (.438).
Bryant’s exceptional season made him an easy choice as Baseball America’s 2014 Minor League Player of the Year. He joins Alex Gordon as the second player ever to win the College and the Minor League POY awards in consecutive years.
Light Tower Power Under The Lights
Bryant’s 43 home runs are the second-most ever for a Minor League Player of the Year, topped only by Ron Kittle’s 50 home runs in 1983. Last year, Bryant’s 31 home runs with the NCAA’s BBCOR bats not only lead Division I by double-digits, it was more than most teams hit.
But even with power evaporating from the game, it’s Bryant’s hitting approach that is more notable. It’s hard to find a power hitter who can hit 25-30 home runs consistently. But a slugger who can hit for power and hit for average? That’s limited to the best players in the game.
At the Futures Game in Minneapolis this July, Javier Baez reached the upper deck in left field during batting practice. Joey Gallo hit a ball that shattered a windshield and another that almost bounced out of the ballpark. Kennys Vargas, Hunter Renfroe, Jorge Alfaro and Michael Taylor all impressed with second-deck shots.
“When you see those guys Gallo and Baez hitting cars, I’m sure there is a temptation to let it out,” Hoyer said.
Bryant hit some nice line drives to the right-field power alley. His batting practice was studious, it was professional and it was completely unmemorable.
Bryant doesn’t care.
|HOW HE STACKS UP|
|A look at the hitting stats for the position players who have won Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year award.|
|1982||Ron Kittle||White Sox||24||472||121||163||50||144||5||.345||.442||.752||1.194|
|1989||Sandy Alomar, Jr.||Padres||23||523||88||160||13||101||3||.306||.358||.474||.832|
|1990||Frank Thomas||White Sox||22||353||85||114||18||71||7||.323||.487||.581||1.068|
|1991||Derek Bell||Blue Jays||22||457||89||158||13||93||27||.346||.424||.532||.956|
“It’s kind of tempting to launch some balls to the upper deck, but you can create some bad habits,” Bryant said. “I’m big on having a routine and sticking to it. Just because it’s an all-star game doesn’t mean I should go away from my routine. My routine has gotten me to that type of game.”
It’s in there. When Bryant turns on a pitch, he can hit a ball as far as almost anyone in the game. But you’re almost never going to see it if there’s not a real pitcher on the mound trying to get him out.
When Bryant came to Wrigley Field for the post-draft meet and greet, Cubs senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod felt it necessary to warn his bosses that his pre-game batting practice might not be as impressive as they would expect.
“I saw him hit in the cage in college, but I had never seen him in batting practice,” Hoyer said. “Jason said, ‘Don’t expect a big show. That’s not what he does.’ I’m glad he said that.”
Fly balls didn’t land on Waveland Avenue. There were no mammoth moonshots that left jaws dropped. Just a professional batting practice with lots of line drives to the opposite field gap.
Bryant will never be accused of being a five o’clock hitter, a disparaging term scouts toss around for hitters who put on shows in BP but melt away meekly when games start at 7.
Bryant’s father Mike drilled Kris to be a hitter first. The power’s important, but it can be saved for games. In batting practice work on getting the timing down that will pay off in the extra single a slugger may miss.
“The biggest thing with Kris is, he competes every pitch,” Cubs hitting coordinator Anthony Iapoce said. “He doesn’t waste pitches. He’s a grinder. He’s mentally exhausted after each game. It’s a mental at-bat every time.”
The Hit Tool
A plot of Bryant’s home runs looks like the spray from a sprinkler. They range from the foul pole in left field to the one in right. There’s not a lot of gaps left in between. The same disciplined approach Bryant uses in batting practice pays off in games; he is quite comfortable lining balls the other way.
“Pull power will translate into lower averages and home runs,” Iowa hitting coach Brian Harper said. “The thing about Kris is he has more power the other way. He doesn’t get into pull mode. That’s the destruction of many young power hitters.”
Iapoce says he’s coached one other hitter with a similar combination of power, hitting ability and a grinder’s mentality—Giancarlo Stanton.
“You don’t see a guy like Bryant and Stanton do what they do in the minor leagues,” Iapoce said. “They pride themselves on being tough outs. When you pride yourself on being a tough out and you’re big and strong, it’s like hitting on a half field. Kris’s line drives go off the fence. Mishits can leave the yard.”
Bryant combines that all-fields strategy with a heady approach at the plate. As a 6-foot-5 hitter with long arms, Bryant is going to have holes in his plate coverage. But those holes don’t stay static. Get him out one way and a pitcher is wise to not try the same thing again.
“You’re going to get him out, but he’s going to make an adjustment,” Iapoce said. “If it’s down and away or hard in or a first-pitch breaking ball, you’ve got to move it around.”
Harper, a .295 career big league hitter in his own career, added, “When you get the big leagues, they’ll try all different kinds of ways to get you out. Those who make quick adjustments will survive. Kris does that.”
In 2014, Bryant’s never went hitless in three straight games. He failed to reach base in only 14 of the 138 games he played.
A Big Third Baseman
Ever since Bryant signed, scouts and fans have questioned whether he’ll stick at third base, largely because of the same 6-foot-5 frame that led some to question his hitting potential. Bryant’s height does mean he has to spend extra work on agility and practicing getting to balls to his backhand side.
“I definitely have to work on staying low to the ground more than the average third baseman,” Bryant said. “The backhand is a priority of mine to work on. I do have to go an extra six inches to get down to the ground to field the ball. It’s something I worked on all year.”
Playing third base is very important to Bryant. He wants to stay there. Scouts and managers who have seen him this year range from seeing him as an adequate third baseman with an excellent arm to a potentially above-average one. Those same scouts do note that they expect he would make an above-average right fielder.
Whether he gets to stick there may be beyond his control, because he’s in an organization that is trying to figure out how to get three shortstops (Starlin Castro, Javier Baez and Addison Russell) into its future lineup. But with a full season under his belt, the Cubs feel more confident than they did when he was drafted that Bryant is a viable third base option.
The Next Step
The Cubs have run out of ways to challenge Bryant in the minors. He wasn’t called up this September in part so the Cubs don’t have to put him on the 40-man roster so soon. But it’s also a vote-of-confidence of sorts for a franchise cornerstone. Unlike Baez, the Cubs don’t have many concerns about Bryant needing a period of time to get acclimated to the big leagues.
The only challenge left for Bryant is the toughest one. Major league pitchers likely will find weaknesses that college and minor league pitchers have failed to unearth. Just as likely, Bryant will continue to drive pitchers crazy by making the adjustments that are the mark of an advanced hitter.
And when he connects, Waveland Avenue will be a regular landing spot. Just don’t expect him to hit ‘em there during batting practice.