OMAHA, Neb. -- He’s the talk of the minor leagues this season, as he’s putting up huge numbers, but Chicago Cubs prospect Kris Bryant doesn’t know it. Or if he does, he doesn’t care.
The third baseman is focused on two things: crushing baseballs and getting better as a defender.
“I guess it’s gone better than expected, I would say, but there are always times in the season where I felt like I could have done better,” Bryant said before Triple-A Iowa played Omaha on Tuesday. “Granted, the year I’m having so far is pretty good, but I’m just thinking back to times where there’s a runner on third, less than two outs and could have got him in. But that’s baseball. You can’t do it every time, but I just want to keep getting better.”
Bryant was promoted from Double-A to Triple-A last month, putting him one step away from the big leagues. He has to master one last level before being ready.
“Double-A off-speed stuff stays in the zone more often,” Bryant said. “Here, it goes in and out. You have to go up there with a little more focus and try and lay off those pitches. Sometimes you can’t.”
It doesn’t hurt to have all-world, off-speed expert Manny Ramirez on the team, as Bryant has already picked his mind for how pitchers might throw to him.
Bryant hasn’t been successful every time at the plate -- it just seems like it. Between Double-A and Triple-A, he has gone two consecutive games without a hit just once all season. He hit .355 in 248 at-bats with 22 home runs for Tennessee, and he’s hitting .356 in 73 at-bats with eight home runs for Iowa heading into Tuesday’s contest. He has been a model of consistency in his first full year as a pro.
“He’s raised everybody’s level of play,” Iowa manager Marty Pevey said. “He’s been great.”
The Iowa Cubs are 13-7 since Bryant’s arrival, moving into first place in the Pacific Coast League’s American North Division. He’s a difference- maker, but his game isn’t all polished. His defense at third base needs some work before the inevitable call to the big leagues comes. That is if he stays at third base, a topic of much debate among fans.
“I definitely think it’s a challenge to stay at third base,” Bryant said. “I want to show people I can play there. Obviously, making silly errors isn’t going to help me.”
Bryant was referring to a ball that went through his legs in Monday’s 7-3 loss to the Omaha Storm Chasers. His play might have been the difference in the game, as four unearned runs scored after the miscue. It was his third error for Iowa and 17th this season overall.
“I’m 6-[foot-]6 and it can be tough for me to stay low to the ground, but that’s no excuse for it,” Bryant stated. “I felt like I’ve been playing good defense lately; errors happen.”
Should he stay at third base in the future? Right now the Cubs don’t want to move him, but with the addition of Addison Russell to the organization it’s getting crowded in the infield. Bryant was asked if, were he to move to the outfield, would he like to move now as opposed to when he's close to being called up.
“Moving from infield to outfield is a little easier,” he said. “You just have so much more to deal with in the infield. I think it might be easier to learn [outfield] on the fly.”
But he’s not giving up on third base. He calmed himself down after the error by doing some research on a great player who had a rough start to his career on defense.
“I was actually looking up [Derek] Jeter’s stats today,” Bryant said. “He made 56 errors his first year [in the minors], and then 25 the next year. It’s a learning process. I feel like I’ve gotten a whole lot better.”
If defense is the only thing Bryant has to worry about, the Cubs should be in good shape. The rest of his game is seemingly ready for the major leagues. It’s hard -- especially since the Cubs traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel -- not to think about another promotion for Bryant, but he tries not to focus on it.
“It is kind of hard,” Bryant said. “You see these guys [pitchers Tsuyoshi Wada, Dallas Beeler, Kyle Hendricks] come out of the manager’s office with huge smiles on their face and you can’t help but feel happy for them. I hope to get the call one day, but it’s been fun living in the moment with the Iowa Cubs.”
Bryant is nothing if not genuine. His new teammates can’t believe how nice the No. 2 pick in last year’s draft has been. He and Javier Baez have manned the left side of the infield, and Pevey says Bryant has even raised Baez’s game on defense. And the team has taken off.
“It definitely correlates,” first baseman Chris Valaika said of Bryant's arrival. “For a guy in his first year in pro ball, he’s definitely polished. He’s exciting to watch. Each at-bat, you don’t know if he’s going to hit the ball a million miles.”
Valaika admits he has been lucky to hit cleanup between Baez and Bryant most of the time, but the Cubs slugger switched places with him on Tuesday night. Might as well get used to it for the big leagues, right?
“They have a plan for everyone, and they have a good track record,” Bryant said of the Cubs' front office and a promotion. “I trust it with all my heart.”
And Cubs fans are trusting that Bryant will be the franchise-changing player he has already shown to be at both Double-A and in his short time at Triple-A. The scary thing is the easy part for him is hitting home runs -- he once claimed hitting home runs always came “naturally” for him. As it turns out, hitting for a decent batting average hasn’t been hard either. The Cubs like to look past those numbers and look at the walk and strikeout totals. Bryant has 102 strikeouts to 52 walks. He wouldn’t mind getting that closer to a 1:1 ratio, but he knows striking out is part of the game.
“I don’t think about that because I never want to go up to the plate looking for a walk,” he said. “I feel like walks happen. My job is to put damage on the ball. Along with that comes the strikeouts. You have to give something to get something."
Remember, this isn’t a hitter with a .200 average and 100 strikeouts. When he connects, he does damage.
“It’s been amazing watching him,” Baez said. “He did it in spring training and now he’s doing it here.”
With all due respect, Baez was making the headlines in the spring, though he has taken a back seat to Bryant’s monster year. But he has been better with Bryant around.
“Javier is doing a lot better at seeing the ball through the zone,” Bryant said. “I think I can learn from him.”
It’s that humble attitude that fans at the next level are going to love. Bryant claims he’ll stay this way throughout his career, as he can put in perspective things that many 22-year-olds are unable to.
“It’s an honor for people to look at me the way they are right now,” Bryant stated. “I’m just thankful that I get to play this game and people ask me for my autograph. I think it’s so cool. When I walk onto the field, I’m going to think about being that kid in the stands that wants my autograph. I used to be that kid. Would be a shame if I ignored him and walked by him.”
He’s a wanted man by fans because he does one thing better than anyone in the minors this year: He hits home runs. He has hit 30, and many have been memorable. One, in particular, stands out.
“In Huntsville, in Double-A,” he said, “was a good pitch, down and away, and I think I put the best swing of the year on it. That will be a swing I picture in my head every time I go up to the plate.”
So will any Cubs fan who happened to see it. Or those who can only imagine what that swing will do at Wrigley Field someday soon.