Versatile Bryant shines as Cubs surge into contention

MLB

CHICAGO (AP)The Kris Bryant watch is on. The sweet-swinging slugger is playing like an MVP again, and he could be the biggest name on the trade market this summer.

While baseball is watching Bryant, waiting to see what the Chicago Cubs do, the 29-year-old Bryant is watching Kyler Bryant, waiting to see what his precocious son does next.

”Anytime there’s baseball on TV, he points and says `Daddy,’ even if it’s a different team,” a grinning Bryant said. ”Like no, I’m right here. Listen, look.”

Hard to blame Kyler, who turned 1 in April. Dad is everywhere these days.

Bryant’s versatility – while producing offensive numbers that belong alongside his NL MVP season in 2016 – is a big reason why Chicago is on top of the NL Central once again, helping the Cubs go on a 22-9 run while dealing with a rash of injuries.

Bryant has made at least five starts at five different positions: third base, first base and each of the three outfield spots. He is batting .317 with 12 homers heading into a seven-game West Coast trip, ranking among the NL leaders with 36 RBIs, a .598 slugging percentage and a .996 OPS.

”I mean he’s definitely hitting the high fastball better,” manager David Ross said. ”I think that’s a mechanical issue he worked on in the offseason. I see a confidence, I see him on the attack in the box.”

Bryant struggled with injuries during the pandemic-shortened season last year, batting a career-low .206 with four homers in 34 games. He also went 0 for 8 with two strikeouts as Chicago was swept by Miami in the NL Wild Card Series.

Brushing off his health or any significant mechanical adjustments, Bryant offered a simpler explanation for his success this year.

”It’s just who I am,” he said. ”You go through ups and downs throughout your whole career. You have a hundred at-bats that are good, a hundred at-bats so-so, a hundred at-bats that are bad, and sometimes they just happen at different points.”

With every swing, every routine day at a new spot in the field, Bryant is adding to a tricky situation for Chicago’s front office. After helping the Cubs win the World Series in 2016 and spending the beginning of his big league career with the team that drafted him No. 2 overall in 2013, Bryant is eligible for free agency after this season.

Asked about the possibility of a contract extension, Bryant made it sound as if there hadn’t been any conversations with the Cubs for a while, not even during spring training. After consistently saying in the past that he was willing to listen, he cast doubt on the possibility of getting a deal done ahead of next month’s trade deadline.

”I feel like it has passed,” Bryant told the AP. ”I think usually if something gets done it’s always in spring training. Why would anybody want to talk about it during the season? It’s just a distraction.

”But, yeah, I don’t know. I just feel like the last couple years, I’ve always felt like I would get traded, and that was always in my mind, reading about it.”

Bryant said he feels extension talks at this point are ”just a disservice to the people involved.”

”And it just doesn’t really happen too often, so it’s like status quo not to do that,” he said.

That means Bryant could be on the move before the July 30 deadline, even if Chicago is in contention. Or president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer could hold onto Bryant, giving the Cubs a better chance of a second straight division title, but also raising the possibility of losing him this winter with nothing coming back in return.

Shortstop Javier Baez and first baseman Anthony Rizzo also are eligible for free agency after this season, further complicating matters. Bryant rested during Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over San Diego, but Baez and Rizzo each had a big day as the Cubs improved to 32-23 by completing a three-game sweep of the Padres.

Hoyer said last month there were no contract discussions going on with the players. But he acknowledged it made sense to reach out again before the trade deadline.

Hoyer also heaped praise on the 6-foot-5 Bryant for his versatility.

”His ability at his size and with his offensive profile to be able to move around, sometimes I think we don’t give him enough credit for being the kind of athlete that he is,” he said. ”He’s an incredible athlete.”

Bryant has moved around the field since he broke into the majors in 2015. But not as much as he has been doing this year. He has spent more time in the outfield this season than he has at his regular position of third base.

While traditionally baseball’s biggest stars stay in one place to help protect their offensive numbers, Bryant has shown no signs of any trouble.

”It doesn’t matter where I’m playing in the field when I’m in the box,” he said.

Whatever happens, the ultra-competitive Bryant – who wants to win everything he tries, including family board games with his wife, Jessica, and his parents – doesn’t carry it home as much as before. Not with Kyler waiting for him.

”I’m blown away with how smart he is,” Kris Bryant said. ”He just loves walking around, opening up all the cabinets. … We have a blanket with my face on it. He loves just holding it and walking around with it. He’s tripping himself, falling down constantly.

”I never expected fatherhood to be this awesome.”

Jay Cohen can be reached at https://twitter.com/jcohenap

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