Bryant is foiling the Cubs’ plan to rebuild with a resurgent season, forcing them to decide whether to stay the course or go all in.
It’s funny how good things can have ragged edges.
I’m thinking here of Kris Bryant, the Cubs’ multitalented, good-guy, seven-year veteran who is tearing up the league these days.
The problem for the Cubs is they had a rebuilding plan wherein Bryant would be a dud this season. You know, a reverse spin on former manager Joe Madden’s mantra, “Try Not to Suck.” If there were a current management T-shirt, it would say, “Kris, Buddy, Could You Please Try to Suck?”
The reason is the Cubs were ready to start dumping their high-priced players, cultivate kids, lose games, do the farm system-and-draft thing and re-emerge in a few years as contenders.
It’s the way they got good back in 2016. It’s cheesy and devious as a plan — Moneyball for uncreative folks — but it often works. Ask the 2015 Royals, or the 2017 Astros. Or the 2018 Marlins. (Oops, didn’t work for them.) Or . . . OK, let’s be honest, lots of recent teams.
Sports Illustrated writer Jack Dickey accurately called the 2017 World Series champion Astros “a major-market team that opted for a shameless tanking strategy.” He wonderfully described the technique as “terribleness weaponized.”
Call it aggressive non-winning.
If fans will tolerate it, which they stupidly do, then clear the decks and savage the payroll. It’s a plan!
The trouble for the Cubs is they’re contenders now, and that plan won’t sail.
And Bryant is one of the biggest reasons. You can’t dump an MVP candidate — which he is — especially a beloved one. So what a mess.
Last season, Bryant was not very good. He batted .206 with just four home runs and 11 RBI.
The Cubs expected more of the same this year. It even seemed a dubious move when they signed him for this season at $19.5 million.
And the question was: Who was going to take this guy at a big price — a 29-year-old who was on his way down, nagged by injuries, fading from the stardom he displayed when the Cubs won their first and only World Series in the last 113 years?
So he was dangled, and the biggest fish could get him. And the fish were out there. According to USA Today baseball writer Bob Nightengale, even a fading Bryant was coveted by the Giants, Rangers, Mariners, Mets, Phillies, Red Sox and Nationals.
But last season was a joke. Remember the depths of COVID-19? The disorientation? The empty stands? The fear everywhere?
Bryant only played in 34 games in 2020, and it was simply a year to forget, one symbolized not by a baseball but a round ball called a coronavirus.
Entering Monday, Bryant was batting .309 this season with 13 homers and 38 RBI in 55 games. At that rate, he’d finish with 38 homers and 111 RBI, the latter being the most he has had in a season.
Moreover, he’s displaying amazing versatility by playing all over the field on defense. He has started more than six games each at third and first base and in right, left and center field.
On Sunday in San Francisco, his leaping catch above the wall in left field in the ninth inning against the Giants helped preserve an eventual 4-3 win and stop a three-game skid. Remember, the guy is 6-5, with long arms, and who knows how many other fielders could have made that catch.
Former team president Theo Epstein left the Cubs last year, with the seeming finality meaning the Cubs were ready to go to the bottom and dig out again, as they did en route to that 2016 championship.
Dumping ace big-salaried pitcher Yu Darvish set the tone. They would have just enough talent to be apparently competitive, and then every veteran — Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras, even Javy Baez — would be up for sale.
Winning can screw you up when it arrives when you least expect it.
Back in 2013, Epstein said, “Our record is a function of our long-term building plan.” And their record was terrible — an amazing 377 losses from 2011 to 2014.
But the destruction led, undeniably, to that World Series crown, setting a path for other teams to follow.
Now general manager Jed Hoyer — who likes to win, by the way — has to decide whether to go all-in and possibly buy players this season or stick with a plan to, quite honestly, suck.
He can thank Bryant for the dilemma.