Bryant nixes Harper hopes, exudes confidence

Cubs Convention gives players chance to connect with fans

January 19th, 2019

CHICAGO -- knew that it would be the first question he encountered when the doors to the Sheraton Grand Chicago banquet hall opened and reporters waited inside. So, with four words and a smile, the Cubs star tossed some ice-cold water on the idea that his friend, free agent , might ink a contract with the North Siders.

"He's not signing here," Bryant said.

While that comment began to cause a stir on social media, Cubs Convention kicked off with its usual fanfare. Longtime radio voice Pat Hughes took to the podium and declared, "Chicago Cubs baseball is on the air!" Wayne Messmer filled the room with his signature rendition of the national anthem and angst over a quiet winter was temporarily quieted by the roar from the blue-and-red-clad fanatics.

The introductions started with Cubs players of yesteryear, who took the stage, soaked in the cheers and high-fived children as all those remember-when memories flooded the crowd. Then, it was time to introduce the current roster. It looks a lot like last year's group, which won 95 games, but was pushed off the October stage after a one-and-done Wild Card Game.

That sting remains as sharp as the wind off Lake Michigan, but some players said maybe it was a needed reality check.

"In 2019, I think we're going to be more hungry than last year," said.

Bryant, who will play as big a role as anyone in righting Chicago's offensive shortcomings of last summer, said losing the division to the Brewers in Game 163, followed by the Wild Card Game against the Rockies, was a good thing.

"It's kind of good for us to go through that and get our teeth kicked in a little bit on our field," Bryant said. "It was really good for us. I think ultimately, we'll all learn from it and come out with a chip on our shoulder, definitely."

They will need to do that, because as Bryant said -- and as manager Joe Maddon repeated multiple times this week at charity stops -- Harper is not walking through Wrigley Field's door.

The Cubs' payroll will be the highest in franchise history this year, but the budget in place has left the front office "less nimble" than previous winters, as president of baseball operations Theo Epstein explained. The team added an intriguing veteran infielder in and is still monitoring the relief market for reinforcements, but the big-ticket items were for past winters, not this one.

Bryant also spun that as a positive, noting that the lack of turnover shows a surplus of trust.

"Honestly, I understand some of the fan frustration," Bryant said. "But, as a player, that feels pretty good, knowing that your owner, and your president and GM all trust the team that we have. That means something to us, knowing that, 'Hey, we don't really need another addition, because we know that the talent that we have is pretty dang good.' I like the team we have. A lot of these guys have been on that [2016] World Series team."

Without any marquee additions, much of the onus will fall on Bryant's shoulders. Specifically, the 2016 National League MVP's left shoulder will be under the public microscope after what happened last year. After a strong start to the '18 campaign, Bryant was first shelved with inflammation in that area in late June. It emerged as an issue again in late July, and he did not look the same after returning again in September.

Bryant's shoulder never received the necessary rest and it took a toll on his home run total (down to 13 in '18 after launching 68 combined in the previous two years) and his slugging percentage (down to .460 in '18 from .537 in '17). Around Dec. 1 this offseason, Bryant resumed his hitting program and he said there have been no problems. The extra time off was beneficial for the healing process and he feels his swing is back to normal.

"Perfect," Bryant said of his health. "I feel so good. I feel great. I'm doing everything that I can this offseason. I feel very strong. I can't say enough how good I feel."

Can he be an MVP-level slugger again?

"There's no reason to think that I won't do that," he said.

Bryant is also looking forward to being reunited with Anthony Iapoce, who is the Cubs' new hitting coach and knows plenty of the team's hitters from his earlier days as a Minor League hitting coordinator with the organization. Iapoce and assistant hitting coach Terrmel Sledge will provide the position players with two fresh voices and some new eyes after the offense labored last year.

"I love him. I'm really, really, really excited about 'Poce," Bryant said. "There's just something about him. There's a good energy. I don't know if you guys have talked to him yet, but you'll get to know him. He's just one of the most positive guys that I've been around. He's someone you want in a clubhouse and I can't wait for the season to start with him."

A recent report out of New York claimed that Bryant and played a large role in the Cubs' parting ways with hitting coach Chili Davis last season. Bryant would not go that far, but did say Davis (now the Mets' hitting coach) did not "mesh" well with some hitters.

"I don't make the decisions at all and I can tell you it's not just because of me and [Rizzo]," Bryant said. "I think Chili was a great guy, fun to talk to, but I just think some of our hitting philosophies didn't match up. And that's OK. The guy had a 19-year big league career. He has nothing to prove."

No, it will be the Cubs' hitters for the most part who have something to prove, especially if help is not coming in the form of a premier bat like Harper.

Bryant said he has tried not to pester his friend about the looming decision.

"That's his business," Bryant said. "It's a good time for him and his family. And I'm not going to be another one of the guys that are asking him where he's going to sign. I'm happy for him, though. He seems to be enjoying it. It's nice to have all that attention on you."

Bryant laughed when asked about the fact that Harper's dog is named Wrigley.

"I mean, it's been named Wrigley for a long time," Bryant said. "I don't know. I think it's a cool pet name. My cat's named Wrigley. And I had a cat named Fenway."