A lot has been said about Kris Bryant over the past few months, not all of it positive. People have questioned the long-term health of his left shoulder and how heavily the injury to it really factored in his 2018 performance. It was reported that the Cubs might be willing to trade him this winter. There was another report that he’d recently spurned an extension for “well north of $200 million.” All the while, Bryant remained silent.
He likewise declined to speak with the media following his meeting with the Cubs brass in his hometown of Las Vegas earlier this week. The powwow was a function of team execs being in town for the Winter Meetings and ostensibly served as a checkup on Bryant’s offseason progress, with the Cubs likely clearing the air about any rumors just as Scott Boras had done. Maybe they even followed up with Bryant on a certain friend who has also been the subject of a rumor or two lately.
All we really know is that, as Jed Hoyer said, the former MVP looked “great” and “focused” and that there were no issues with the shoulder. Pretty much par for the course.
Kris Bryant visited the Cubs suite today. Jed Hoyer: "It was good to see him. He looks great. He looks focused." No issue with shoulder.
— Jesse Rogers (@ESPNChiCubs) December 13, 2018
If I’d been a fly on the wall, though, I bet I’d have heard Hoyer and Theo Epstein talking with Bryant about the leadership void and the lack of edge and urgency they’ve noted all offseason. And I bet we’d have heard Bryant responding that he’s already three steps ahead of them. It’s doubtful we’ll see some sort of outward metamorphosis from a guy who’s generally let his bat do the talking, but don’t mistake Bryant’s reserved public persona for complacence.
“He is focused, like Jed said,” Mike Bryant, Kris’s father, told Cubs Insider. “He has been hitting with me four days a week, same swing as always, and 100 percent pain-free. No changes and the ball is jumping off his bat.”
As you no doubt recall, Bryant had changed to a two-handed “golf swing” in an effort to reduce stress on the shoulder as he worked back from his second DL stint. There were some thoughts that it could increase his opposite-field power, and that seemed to be the case to an extent, but the comfort and timing just weren’t there.
Fully healthy for the first time in several months and fueled by a desire to make last season a distant memory, the “borderline” superstar is pouring himself into his offseason preparation like never before. From the sounds of it, even the most cynical observers will have to remove their pejorative qualifiers.
“[His] strength and conditioning program is more intense than ever,” the elder Bryant said. “And he’s more determined than I’ve ever seen him.”
And that’s not to indicate Bryant hasn’t been focused or determined in the past, just that brushing up against his athletic mortality and having people question his ability served to motivate him that much more. Hoyer said recently that the Cubs’ “biggest improvements are going to have to come from within” and it’s easy to see how Bryant is key to that concept. Not only did he miss roughly two months to two DL stints, the injury played hell with his power and bat speed from mid-May on.
It wasn’t just the physical malady that weighed him down, either. Having never spent that much time on the shelf in a lifetime playing the sport, Bryant had to learn how to sit still. He had to tweak his swing and, perhaps even more difficult, his entire preparation process. That isn’t easy for a cage-rat who’s crafted his approach through tireless repetition over the last two decades.
Add to that the disappointment of missing the real playoffs for the first time and you can imagine how much drive Bryant had bottled up when he headed home for the winter. You probably won’t hear him say anything about it, at least not until spring training opens up, and even then the raw desire to be better will likely be muted by his aw-shucks modesty.
But then he’ll start terminating baseballs and skepticism alike with extreme prejudice and everyone will quickly understand that Bryant is heading into the 2019 season in what CI was told is “quiet assassin mode.”