- Jesse Rogers, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- Despite a monster year in the minor leagues, 2013 No. 2 overall pick Kris Bryant is back at home in Las Vegas while many of his Triple-A Iowa teammates are playing with the Chicago Cubs this month.
“I think now more than ever, I’m realizing this game is a business, and all I can do is go out there and play as hard as I can and make it really hard on the guys in charge,” Bryant said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I think I did that this year. If I’m taking that mindset, then I’m not really going to be sitting there with my head down at the end of the year.”
Service time issues and 40-man roster spots are helping prevent the top prospect in baseball, according to ESPN.com's Keith Law, from starting his major league career just as the team called up seven other, less-accomplished players on Tuesday. The Cubs don’t believe a player finishing his first full year as a professional should be called up anyway.
“It’s kind of funny, all the rules,” said Bryant, who led the minor leagues with 43 home runs this season. “Coming into professional baseball, I had no clue. I didn’t pay any attention to it in college, either. At the end of my first season, I kind of know the lingo about all this stuff. I guess the system works in some ways, and in some ways there are some flaws. I can’t focus on that. I’ve always been high on avoiding the distractions.”
Bryant doesn’t need to be added to the 40-man roster to protect him from being taken in the Rule 5 draft this December, as he’s already protected because he’s just a first-year player. If the Cubs wait to bring him up until at least mid-April of next year, Bryant won’t become a free agent until after the 2021 season. If he comes up now, and stays for good, he’ll be a free agent a year earlier. That’s a big deal for a player who could help transform an entire franchise.
Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said he believed it was important enough to call Bryant personally and explain the situation. Epstein has always maintained that calling up a first-year, minor league player would take extraordinary circumstances. He even noted that Javier Baez didn’t need Rule 5 protection, but they called him up anyway because he’s been in the system longer, even though he’s younger than Bryant.
“I told him the other day, 'You did everything you could possibly do as a first-year pro to impress and make us proud as an organization,’” Epstein said. “I told him the simple fact we’re not in a pennant race and for a first-year professional who didn’t miss any time, it’s a long season, a long grind, whether he realizes it or not. It’s appropriate to go home and rest.”
Bryant didn’t suggest taking some time to come down from the grind would be a bad thing.
“It was a long season for me,” he said. “I think I’m more tired mentally than physically just because I’ve never played 142 straight games without many off days.”
But that doesn’t mean he didn’t want to play for another month. He would have loved to have been reunited with former teammates Jorge Soler and Baez in the Cubs lineup. Instead, he’s taking the longer vacation with some motivation.
“Next year, I’m really looking forward to coming out with a little chip on my shoulder,” Bryant said. “I’m going to go out there looking to prove something.”
He proved a lot this year between Double-A and Triple-A, putting up 110 RBIs, a .325 batting average and a .438 on-base percentage to go along with the 43 home runs. Epstein wants Bryant ready for a seven-month season, as the Cubs are hopeful a more competitive team might lead to a possible playoff berth in 2015 and beyond.
Whether it’s April 1 or later, Bryant isn’t far from appearing at Wrigley Field.
“I certainly think he’s close enough where he can start setting his sights on the big leagues. Whenever that times comes, we don’t know, but it’s getting closer,” Epstein said. “He’s as advanced and mature and professional a prospect as we’ve had. He’s as low maintenance a prospect as we’ve had. He handles new situations extremely well. It seems like nothing flusters him. If anyone can jump into the big league picture in the middle of the season and not miss a beat, it's Kris Bryant.”
But where will Bryant play once he gets to the big leagues? He worked hard at third base this season and wants to stick there. The Cubs aren’t sure where he’ll fit in just yet.
“We’re going to keep outfield fresh for him,” Epstein said of plans for next spring. “Now that it’s been a full year since college, we want to make sure he doesn’t lose that. We think -- no doubt in our minds -- he can play third base and be a really good third baseman, but we just don’t know how the roster is going to look a year from now, two years from now, five years from now. We want to keep that fresh for him.”
Bryant is committed to third, where he made 21 errors this season.
“I would really like to stick at third base,” he said. “I think, as good a season I had offensively, a case can be made I might have had a better season defensively because I’ve come a long way at third base.”
Bryant made some errors on routine plays mostly due to his tall stature, and the Cubs still want him to work on his side-to-side movement. But by all indications, he is improving at third, and considering the position is still open at the major league level, it might be where he ends up.
For now, Bryant will watch the Cubs like any fan would. The difference is he’s every bit as good as Soler and Baez and anyone else the Cubs will play this month. He just has to wait for his turn.
“I am definitely looking forward to next season and playing with those guys,” he said. “I’ll be paying attention to it here in September. I look forward to playing with those guys for a long time.
“[This year was] a good season I’ll look back on, and I’m heading into this offseason with a lot of confidence. I’m going to work real hard and improve next year, but this year was awesome.”
12hJacob Nitzberg, ESPN Stats & Information