Jason McLeod was on Minors and Majors (MLB Network Radio) around the Winter Meetings. McLeod discussed Kris Bryant’s season and him being named National League Rookie of the Year with Grant Paulsen. And McLeod talked about the front office’s decision to call-up Kyle Schwarber last year.
On what it means to the organization for Kris Bryant to be named National League Rookie of the Year, a player that was drafted and developed by the Cubs
“It makes everyone feel good. Kris [Bryant] is on such a great run here over the last couple of years. When you look back at 2013 he’s the Collegiate Player of the Year, comes back out in ’14 and he’s the Minor League Player of the Year and he follows that up with the National League Rookie of the Year. He’s been so much fun to watch. I know everyone who has gotten to be part of scouting him, evaluating him, drafting him and then for all us in the minor leagues up to the Major League staff that got to watch him go out and perform this year, I think everyone has been really excited. He’s a joy to watch play that’s for sure.”
Grant Paulsen: “He’s got to win the MVP award then next year so the trajectory continues. The MVP would be next, right? No pressure.”
Jason McLeod: “Well, if he holds true to form, I don’t think anyone around here would … can be complaining about that, that’s for sure.”
On Kris Bryant’s excellent rookie season, when you look back at it was there any one thing that he surprised you with?
“More than anything I think it’s just the way he carried himself and handled everything. He came into Spring Training, there was so much hoopla around him coming off the year he came off last year. There was a lot of talk in the media about how he wasn’t called up last year. He had to deal with that all through Spring Training. When he was putting up big numbers in Spring Training again, he had to keep answering the questions. Granted his minor league stay was very short this year, but he came here with such high expectations, unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my career for a young player. Just the way he carried himself and dealt with it. First couple of weeks he hadn’t hit a home run yet. Nightly news was like the Kris Bryant Home Run Watch, he hasn’t hit one yet. What’s going on? He never wavered, he stuck to his approach, stuck with his daily routine. As the home runs started coming, hitting in the big spots, driving in runs, just seeing the way he was going about his at bats. A lot of 0-2 counts would be flipped to 3-2 and then he would come up with a big hit. He just maintained that consistency throughout the year and obviously at the end of the year the numbers were there.”
On the elite of the elite young talent in the game, the blue chip prospects, each of those players can deal with the noise from the media and fan base as Kris Bryant did. Are those guys great because they deal with the noise? Or do they deal with the noise because they’re great?
“It is. You hit it right on the head. It is the chicken and the egg. Just knowing Kris now for about four years now, he’s just always carried himself in that way where I don’t think he gets too caught up in what people say about him. He has very high expectations of himself. He’s a very confident player but when you watch this guy go about his daily routine, he would be totally fine if people weren’t watching him. He’s just going to come to the ballpark. It’s the same program every day. Work on his swing. You’re not going to see Kris Bryant hitting a ton of home runs during batting practice. He’s going to work on going up the middle, work on grooving his swing to right-center field. This is just a guy who believes in his process and what works for him. Like I said, he has very high expectations. He’s a very confident player, obviously he’s a very talented player but coming into this market, in this city, Chicago, all of the expectations, the fans wanting it so bad, watching how he dealt with all of that noise this year was just one of the most incredible things that I think I’d take away from the season that he had.”
“I think people got to see it this year. They think about Kris Bryant, power comes to mind, home runs come to mind. But the guy is a very good baseball player who cares about winning. He’s a very good athlete. He beat out infield hits this year. He took hits the other way. He really wants to win. He wants to help his team win and he wants to fit in. And maybe some of that is just being a rookie and coming up and wanting to do your part. I think as his career matures and goes forward he’s going to expect even more out of himself. But watching Kris this year, certainly he had his streaky moments. He had times when he wasn’t able to come through, there were some strikeouts in there. But we asked so much of this kid this year. Calling him up, hitting him basically in the three-hole for the majority of the season on a team that was, you know, pushing for a playoff spot. Kris showed his versatility. Joe [Maddon] played him in about five different positions, of course third base being the prominent one. We moved him all around the outfield. He played a game over at first base. We put a lot on his shoulders this year and he handled it so, so well. He showed everyone what he’s about. He’s about winning and he’s about being a productive Major League player.”
On Kris Bryant leading the league with 199 strikeouts (77 walks), do the Cubs want that number to come down or more concerned with the walks coming up? If he walks 115-plus times in a season and strikes out 199 times, do the strikeouts matter as much?
“I don’t think anyone wants to strikeout that much. I think Kris will tell you he’s probably not happy to have that many strikeouts on the resume. At the same time, I think anyone who saw him play in college we knew that strikeouts were going to be a part of his, what he does. A lot of it is because he does get into so many deep counts. He’s not afraid to take pitches early. And I do think that he’s a kid who you will see the walk-rate go up even more, which should naturally bring that strikeout-rate down a little bit. I think that now he’s been through the league and knowing what they’re trying to do to him that’s certainly going to help him out somewhat. Kris is a guy also with his swing path, it works uphill and there are times he’s going to swing and miss at balls in the zone just with the path that he’s got going to the contact. We understand that’s going to be part of his game, but at the same time I think he expects himself to get that number down. We surely expect it to come down somewhat and I think the walks will go up as well.”
On how the Cubs handle the expectations placed on young players and how do you know when the players are ready for the big leagues, what are some of the dos and don’ts you look for when calling up a guy who is supposed to be the next great thing?
“Just in my experience and I’ve been fortunate to be in two big markets with big expectations in Boston and here. Some younger players that we’ve called up with [Dustin] Pedroia and [Jon] Lester and [Jacoby] Ellsbury over there in Boston and thinking about Kris here, [Kyle] Schwarber coming up this year. All of these guy, of course they’re really talented, but there is such a belief in themselves to win and compete. As they are coming up through the minor leagues you definitely see that. And it doesn’t have to manifest itself in terms of their the leader of the clubhouse, but in sheer terms of just competition and in sheer terms of how important winning is and sheer importance of how they are going to rally their teammates for that ultimate goal of beating the team that’s in the other dugout. All of those guys have that. They are all different types of players and they affect the game in different ways. There is such a mental toughness and a belief in themselves that they could put the team on their back, so to speak to use that analogy, to win that night’s ballgame.”
On the difference between following a player’s progress in the minors now compared to what it was a decade ago, has anything changed on the team side or is it just more hype for the players to deal with?
“I don’t think it’s changed much from the team side other than trying to manage somewhat your players, how much they’re paying attention to that noise that we were talking about with Twitter and all of these social media outlets. Whether it’s them reading all the hype and believing it themselves or whether they are posting things out of whether it’s frustration or happiness along the way on the minor league stops, Major League stops. I think it’s just kind of managing all of that. From a team standpoint I don’t think it’s really changed how we approach evaluations or decision making.”
On Kyle Schwarber’s historical and memorable post-season, at times he was the best bat in the lineup, at what point did you guys decide to stop developing him as a catcher last season in order to get the bat to the big leagues, what ended up forcing the Cubs to promote him and were you confident he would produce the way he did last season?
“It worked out perfect for us and the timing of it all in that he’d gotten off to such a good start, the first two months in Tennessee. In fact, I think if you look back at his first, maybe 60 games or so in Double-A and mirror those with what Kris Bryant did last year on the same team, same place. The numbers are almost identical to the monster year that Kris had last year. Kyle was almost doing the same thing while catching. We were looking at where the Major League team was in the standings in June. We were certainly hanging around. The team had been playing pretty well. As we looked at the calendar, the conversation started taking place that we could use a left-handed bat with the Major League team. We were coming in to play Cleveland in Interleague games so Theo, we started talking about the idea of bring Kyle up because we felt with the way he was swinging the bat, the way that his approach was in his at bats that he could come up here and be a productive member of the lineup. It worked out well for us. He got to go to Cleveland, hit a big home run, had a big game there and just showed that he was ready to hit up here in the Major Leagues. Now the catching part of it was still a work in progress and we were able to get him back down to Triple-A to continue to work on it there. And then obviously the need of the Major League team and with what he was doing we felt he could provide, offensively, we called him back up and the rest is history. It was an incredible run for him to watch what he was doing in September and October considering he was out of the draft last year. I think Kyle would be the first one to tell you he’s still hyper-focused on catching. He’s going to work relentlessly and tirelessly to pursue that goal.”
On what the Cubs feel like Kyle Schwarber is capable of as a catcher in the big leagues, what is the plan with him moving forward?
“I think the plan going forward is still to get him as much time behind the plate as we can. He’s working hard at it this off-season and he’s got a great relationship with Tim Cossins, our field coordinator who really took him under his wing in the minor leagues. Tim oversees our catching instruction as well as Mike Borzello in the big leagues. Just like I said, Kyle is so committed to doing it. He’s got a skill. He’s got great hands. The receiving part is pretty good. It’s a lot of the mechanics of the release and the footwork and the movement behind the plate. We believe in him as a person for sure. He’s going to work tirelessly to put everything he has into it. Our focus with him going into 2016 is still to work at catching as much as he can. We still have Miguel Montero coming back and that’s going to allow us to probably move Kyle around a little bit like we did this last year because more than anything we still want his bat in the lineup as much as we can get it in there.”
On having the NL Rookie of the Year on the Cubs in what was called the Year of the Rookie in Major League Baseball, do you think players are getting better younger or are we noticing more now because there are more ways to watch the players develop?
“I think all 30 clubs want to win. Every team has their own needs throughout the course of a season and then depending where they are in the standings. You look at the Mets and Michael Conforto being up here this year and just all of the youth in general. I think certainly there are talented players out there but I feel the clubs are probably a little more focused on where they are in the standings. Who the best person they think is that can help them at that time. And we’ve seen teams be more aggressive bringing their younger players up to the Major Leagues.”