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Bryant reflects on comeback, aims to get better

@MLBastian
October 11, 2019

CHICAGO -- On the final weekend of the regular season, Kris Bryant leaned against an elevated bench in the visitors' dugout at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals were closing in on the National League Central crown that the Cubs coveted and Bryant was rendered a spectator due to injury. As the

CHICAGO -- On the final weekend of the regular season, Kris Bryant leaned against an elevated bench in the visitors' dugout at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals were closing in on the National League Central crown that the Cubs coveted and Bryant was rendered a spectator due to injury.

As the clock ticked down to the end of the season, Bryant said it was important to soak in the final few moments with his 2019 teammates. Coming off a solid comeback season personally, the 27-year-old understood that the Cubs' front office would be taking a close look at the roster and plotting potential changes for next season and beyond.

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"I think it's like that every year. You really want to enjoy the last few days," Bryant said. "It's just emotional at the end of each year, because you know the team is never going to be the exact same the next year. Guys are going to go their own way. Guys are going to retire. ... You form bonds with these guys."

Bryant -- a first-round pick in 2013, Rookie of the Year in '15 and MVP in '16 -- is a key part of a Cubs core that has four postseason appearances and one historic parade over the past five years. This winter, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein will be examining that core with the mindset that the franchise needs to look forward rather than focusing on past success.

"We're open to change. We're open-minded about this roster," Epstein said last week. "I expect to have a lot of trade discussions this winter. I think a lot of the players on this year's team are going to be part of the next Cubs championship team, so we want to be mindful of that. But, it's also really hard to accomplish improvement and change in certain areas unless you're extremely open-minded."

In the meantime, Bryant will head home to Las Vegas, where he will examine his own season to make improvements for 2020.

"Coming back from last year, yes, there is plenty to be proud of for me," Bryant said. "But, there's always going to be things that I want to do better. That's how I'm always going to answer that question, whether it's an MVP year or the worst year in my career. I'm always going to say I want to be better until I'm done playing this game."

What went right?
On the whole, it was a strong comeback showing for Bryant, whose 2018 campaign was marred by a left shoulder injury that sapped his slugging percentage. Bryant proved that the shoulder setback was a one-season fluke and returned to MVP-level performance at times in '19.

Overall, Bryant posted a slash line of .282/.382/.521 and ended the year with 31 home runs, 35 doubles, 74 walks, 77 RBIs and 108 runs scored in 147 games. Bryant (138 career homers) also made some history, passing Hall of Famer Ernie Banks' club record for the most home runs by a player in his first five years with the Cubs.

"He’s got a statue out front," Bryant said of Banks. "That gives me goosebumps when I am mentioned in the same sentence as that guy. It's truly an honor. I just hope I'm making him proud."

What went wrong?
There was still a nagging injury issue that hindered Bryant's production over the past few months. The third baseman had a right knee problem that flared in June and became a continuous problem from late July through the end of the year.

After exiting a game in San Francisco with the injury on July 24, Bryant hit .247 with a .773 OPS over his final 50 games. Prior to that stretch, he was hitting at a .299 clip with a .967 OPS. For comparison, Bryant hit .293 with a .943 OPS over the 2016-17 seasons combined.

Bryant received a cortisone shot in September, returned with a two-homer game in San Diego and hit .311 with a 1.052 OPS in his last 13 games. That streak ended on Sept. 22, when Bryant slipped on a wet base, sustaining a season-ending right ankle sprain.

"You're going to have your bumps and bruises along the way," Bryant said. "Some of them are kind of more like head-scratchers than others."

Best moment?
Bryant had a historic night in a 14-6 romp over the Nationals on May 17 in Washington, D.C. He launched a two-run homer in the seventh, a solo shot in the eighth and another two-run blast in the ninth to power an 11-run outburst over those three innings. Per the Elias Sports Bureau, that is one of just 13 instances in which a player homered in three consecutive innings in MLB history. Reds rookie Aristides Aquino also joined that exclusive club on Aug. 10 against the Cubs. Bryant is only the second player to do so in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.

2020 outlook
Bryant, who will turn 28 in January, will be eligible for arbitration again this offseason for the Cubs after earning $12.9 million in 2019. With the third baseman inching towards free agency ahead of the '22 campaign, expect Chicago to approach agent Scott Boras about the possibility of an extension. If a deal isn't in the cards, the Cubs might explore what the trade market might be for Bryant. Otherwise, Bryant would once again return as the starting third baseman and a focal point for Chicago's lineup.

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 and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.