All eyes will be on Kris Bryant this spring. Every swing within view on a practice field and every Cactus League plate appearance will be under the public microscope. For the Cubs, Bryant exists as the most critical component to correcting the offensive landslide that occurred last year.During Cubs Convention
All eyes will be on Kris Bryant this spring. Every swing within view on a practice field and every Cactus League plate appearance will be under the public microscope. For the Cubs, Bryant exists as the most critical component to correcting the offensive landslide that occurred last year.
During Cubs Convention last month, Bryant dispelled any lingering notion that his good friend Bryce Harper might be coming to the North Side when he proclaimed with a smile: "He's not signing here." So, without a major addition joining Chicago's lineup, much of the focus will be trained on Bryant and his return from the left-shoulder injury that robbed him of his National League MVP Award-caliber power last summer.
With Spring Training looming, Bryant insisted that his shoulder and swing are in good health.
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"I feel very strong," Bryant said. "I can't say enough about how good I feel."
While the Cubs would have preferred to play deep into October, one silver lining beneath the early-exit sting was the ability to give Bryant the rest he required. No offseason surgery was necessary and the star third baseman was able to resume his hitting program in early December under the watchful eye of his father, Mike Bryant, in Las Vegas. Cubs personnel were able to check in with Bryant during the Winter Meetings.
So far, so good on that front, but the real tests start arriving later this month. Position players will report to Mesa, Ariz., for Spring Training on Sunday, Feb. 17, with the first full-squad workout on the following day. The Cactus League slate begins on Feb. 23 against the Brewers, who claimed the NL Central crown in a Game 163 showdown with the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
The Brewers deserve all the credit for their incredible season-ending hot streak to win the division, but there is no denying that the Cubs' lineup did them no favors down the stretch. It was a team-wide problem over the second half, which included Bryant missing all of August and not looking like himself when he was able to step into the batter's box.
"You want to get back out there and totally redeem yourself," Bryant said. "So, I'm excited for it. I'm excited for spring to get going and just to be with the guys, and being on the field. We're all ready for it."
Overall last season, Bryant posted a .272/.374/.460 slash line with 13 home runs, 52 RBIs and an .834 OPS in 102 games. His 125 wRC+ indicates that he was 25 percent above league average as a hitter, but that was a big step back from both 2017 (146) and '16 (148). The most notable dropoff came in the power department. Bryant's slugging decreased by nearly 80 points from '17 (.537) and he averaged 35.2 plate appearances per homer (22.9 in '17).
Bryant initially injured his shoulder during a headfirst slide in May, and it's not hard to spot how the injury impacted his production.
On May 22, Bryant was batting .303 with a 1.007 OPS through 40 games. That was the last time his season OPS was at least 1.000. From May 23 on, he turned in a .252/.337/.380 slash line in 267 plate appearances. Bryant's overall swing rate numbers (percentage of swings and contact on pitches in and out of the zone) were actually relatively close to his NL MVP Award season of '16. Dig a little deeper and the primary issue emerges.
Per Statcast™, Bryant's average exit velocity dipped to 84.5 mph in June -- down from 88.4 mph in April and 88.6 mph in May. In July, following roughly two weeks on the injured list, his exit velo plummeted to 78.5 mph on average. In that month, Bryant's launch angle also fell to an alarming 6.4 degrees and his ground-ball rate ballooned to 54.8 percent. His June showing also included a 20.0 percent rate of infield fly balls.
All of that combined essentially cost the Cubs an elite power bat for three-plus months and the offense as a whole struggled to make up the difference.
So, as the Cubs prepare for Spring Training and the season ahead with virtually the same roster in place, the club is counting on Bryant returning to full strength.
"He looks great. He looks like he's focused," general manager Jed Hoyer said in December. "I think all the players we've talked to this winter, I think there's an added motivation when you had that extra month off that you didn't want to have off. I think he's excited and ready to go."
Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook.