Photo: Chicago Cubs

ST finds more 'laid-back' Bryant

Jeff Dahn

Published: Friday, March 25, 2016

  Kris Bryant Rawlings Profile

MESA, Ariz. – One of the most tired and overused buzz-lines in all of sports – in all of life, for that matter – is the worn-out observation, “What a difference a year makes.” But there really isn’t any more appropriate way to describe the situation Chicago Cubs’ third baseman Kris Bryant finds himself in at this year’s Cubs’ Cactus League spring training camp compared to his situation during the 2015 camp.

Every Cubs fan remembers March, 2015, and the expectations they had of Bryant. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound slugger had, after all, spent the 2014 season tearing things up down on the farm, and at least one media outlet named him the Minor League Player of the Year.

He was far and away the Cubs’ top prospect and he did nothing to disappoint the faithful, hitting .425 (17-for-40) with nine home runs, 15 RBI and 14 runs scored in 14 spring training games. Despite that, he opened the season at Triple-A Iowa in Des Moines, which served no other purpose than to allow the Cubs another year of control over their then-23-year-old budding superstar.

The belated big-league debut finally arrived and one National League Rookie of the Year season later, Bryant, now 24, is back in the Cubs’ spring training camp this month preparing for a second big-league season. When he spoke to Perfect Game from inside the Cubs’ clubhouse at their state-of-the-art Sloan Park Complex this week, he certainly seemed in a relaxed frame of mind.

“I really feel a lot more laid-back. I kind of know most of the guys here, and obviously playing a full year with them definitely helps so it’s a little different for me,” Bryant said. “Last year, with all the attention, I don’t necessarily know that I wanted that, I just wanted to go out there and be another guy and this year I feel like I can do that.”

There is a different vibe around the Cubs this spring, the direct result of what the young team accomplished last season. They won 97 regular-season games – the NL Central Division champion St. Louis Cardinals won 100 – beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Wild Card game and the rival Cardinals in the NL Division Series. The dream season came to an end when they were swept in four games in the NL Championship Series by the pennant-winning New York Mets.

Most of that team is back, including Bryant at third, Anthony Rizzo at first, Addison Russell at short, Dexter Fowler in center and veteran Miguel Montero behind the plate; Kyle Schwarber is expected to be the everyday left-fielder. NL Cy Young Award and 22-game winner Jake Arietta returns, as do 11-game winner Jon Lester and 10-game winner Jason Hammel. And it would be remiss not to mention that 2015 NL Manager of the Year Joe Maddon is also back.

Those guys and others were all instrumental in a late-season surge that lifted the Cubs into the playoffs and should be able to ride that momentum into a new season that is filled with high expectations; most Vegas sports books have the Cubs favored to win the World Series.

“Once you learn how to win a little bit and get in the playoffs and get some of that experience under your belt, it all definitely helps,” Bryant said. “But it’s a new season and anything can happen, so we’ve just got to go out there with a new mindset and take what we learned last year and really apply it this year, and then see where we’re at by the end of the year.”

The Cubs did acquire three key veterans off the free agent market – four counting the re-signing of Fowler – who should only enhance the Cubs’ already formidable roster. They signed All-Star and three-time Rawlings Gold Glove Award winning right-fielder Jason Heyward and All-Star right-hander John Lackey away from the Cardinals and then grabbed two-time All-Star second baseman and top utility guy Ben Zobrist from the World Champion Kansas City Royals. Heyward will start in right, Zobrist at second and the veteran Lackey will likely be in the No. 3 spot in the rotation.

“With their personalities, they just really add to the clubhouse (chemistry),” Bryant said. “They’re a little different, just like everybody else here. Everybody has a different personality and adding somebody like Ben, a World Series champion, and Jason, who’s obviously young but he’s a veteran of the game, just having guys that know how to win it’s important to have that here if we want to win. I think they’re going to be great for us this year.”

Bryant, a native of Las Vegas, was at six Perfect Game events in 2008-09, including two appearances at the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., with the Ohio Warhawks, and spotlight performances at the 2009 PG National Showcase in Minneapolis and the 2009 PG All-American Classic in San Diego.

At the ’09 A-A Classic, Bryant hit cleanup in the West Team’s batting order, one spot behind another Las Vegas All-American, Bryce Harper. Bryant was named the 2015 NL Rookie of the Year, an award the Washington National’s Harper won in 2012; Harper was named the NL Most Valuable Player last season. They weren’t the only future big-leaguers at Petco Park back in 2009.

“I knew Bryce was pretty special just because I got to play with him a lot growing up,” Bryant said. “But it’s hard to even fathom what people can be, and with that whole class just seeing Kevin Gausman throwing 100 miles-an-hour and Aaron Sanchez. There are so many people from that game that I see now, and I think back to that and we were just scrawny high school seniors playing out there and having fun in Petco Park. It’s a good memory for all of us and it’s kind of coming full circle now.

“It’s important for you, especially in high school, to get on that stage and play better competition, and those experiences certainly offered it to me,” he continued. “If I would have gone out and played only against my high school competition I don’t think I would have gotten any better until I got to college. It was important for me to get out there and play against some really good competition – with a wood bat – and get used to that. I’m a big believer in getting out and playing in those showcases.”

Bryant’s father, Mike Bryant, was one of dozens of parents in the stands during those marquee PG events and he was always a firm believer that he had put his son in the right environment.

“My feelings were that I wanted to get Kris to play above his own ability level and dominate there so he could continue to move up” Mike Bryant told PG during a conversation in September. “Coming into high school, he was basically in the same boat as a lot of these guys are right now. He had to separate himself from the other talent … and Perfect Game was a part of that.”

Bryant graduated from Bonanza High School in Las Vegas in 2010 with a 4.6 GPA and the Toronto Blue Jays drafted him in the 18th round of the 2010 MLB Draft. His PG experiences left him prepared for life as a professional but he wisely chose to spend the next three years at the University of San Diego where he developed into one of the best college players of his generation.

At the conclusion of the 2013 season, he earned the Golden Spikes Award as the USA Baseball National Player of the Year and the Dick Howser Trophy, the National Collegiate Baseball Writers’ award for National Player of the Year.

The Cubs made Bryant the second overall pick in the 2013 MLB Amateur Draft out of the USD and he agreed to a $6.7 million signing bonus. He was named the Arizona Fall League MVP and the 2014 Minor League Player of the Year before finally making his big-league debut with the Cubs on April 17; he became an NL All-Star for the first time in July.

Bryant played in 186 ballgames in 2015, a total that includes 17 games in spring training, seven with Triple-A Iowa to start the season, 151 regular season games with the Cubs and then 12 more in the postseason. As a young player in his rookie season, it was important for Bryant to experience that grind if for no other reason than to see how his body felt when it was all over.

He would have gladly played in as many as 10 more if it would have resulted in a World Series Championship for the Cubs’ loyal fans on Chicago’s Northside but just experiencing what he did left him all the more prepared for what he hopes is another long season.

Even though Bryant’s big league career kicked-off in 2015 about 10 days later than most Cubs’ fans would have liked, everyone’s patience was rewarded when he was named the NL Rookie of the Year. He slashed .275/.369/.488 with 26 home runs, five triples, 31 doubles, 99 RBI and 87 runs scored, and stole 13 bases for good measure. He struggled at the plate in nine postseason games, hitting .176 (6-for-34) with five RBI, but his six hits included two home runs, a triple and a double.

The 2016 Cactus League season is coming to a close, and while Bryant’s numbers this spring (8-for-34, 1 HR, 3 2Bs, 6 RBI) have not approached those of a year ago, the whole spring training experience usually proves to be invigorating to young and veteran players alike. And while that tired old line of “What a difference a year makes” certainly applied to Bryant this spring, he and his Cubs’ teammates hope a whole lot of 2015 replicates itself in 2016.

“I think we’re all ready to get going,” Bryant said. “Spring training is fun but I kind of think we’re all ready to get going and get the season started.”

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