What Kris Bryant’s value to Cubs has to do with Adbert Alzolay

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What Bryant’s value to Cubs has to do with Adbert Alzolay originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Anybody keeping one eye on the future while watching the progress of this Cubs season — like team president Jed Hoyer — should get something out of Tuesday’s pitching matchup in Cleveland.

Not just for its value as a benchmark for young Cubs starter Adbert Alzolay against reigning American League Cy Young winner Shane Bieber.

But maybe even as a barometer for the value of Kris Bryant to the Cubs’ future.

No? In fact, the development of Alzolay and some of the Cubs’ other young pitchers this year might be as big a factor in determining Bryant’s value — to the Cubs — as his own MVP-caliber hitting and ability to play all three outfield positions as well as his natural third base.

At least until Rick Hahn of the White Sox (or somebody else’s GM) decides to go big in a trade for what might be the best available bat ahead of his free agent winter.

“I love his value to the Chicago Cubs and to me,” manager David Ross said, touting Bryant’s starts this year at third, first and each of the three outfield spots. “And there’s a version of him that’s a shortstop when we’re shifted over.

“His value’s always been extremely high; he’s a former MVP,” the manager added. “His versatility lends to even more talks of MVP if he continues to put up the numbers he’s putting up.”

That includes league-leading numbers in slugging (.650), OPS (1.047) and offensive WAR (2.0, per baseball-reference.com),

“I’m going to say it: This is a really underrated baseball player,” teammate Anthony Rizzo said.

Which brings up another pending free agent whose value to the Cubs is tied to the likes of Alzolay, left-hander Justin Steele and right-hander Keegan Thompson. And not just Bryant and Rizzo, either Add walk-year shortstop Javy Báez and catcher Willson Contreras (a free agent after next year) to the group.

Why?

Because if Alzolay continues to establish that he’s what the Cubs believe he is, and if the early looks at Steele and Thompson — especially Steele — have lasting power through the season, the Cubs might finally have some low-cost, homegrown, impact pitching to fill key roles on the major-league roster.

Which means they’re in position to think of their next window of contention in the next year or two, they’re going to need somebody to hit with some impact, too.

And if all that talk the last six or seven years about establishing a team culture wasn’t just happy-talk lip service, then some of the best solutions are already on the roster — for a limited time only, unless they get to work on closing some extension deals.

Consider the alternative.

A couple of weeks ago in Atlanta, both Bryant and Báez were out of the lineup on a night the Cubs were shut out during a losing four-game series. It was a scoreless game until the fifth; the Cubs pitching kept it at 2-0 until the eighth.

A glimpse into the near future if the Cubs let Bryant, Báez and Rizzo walk as free agents? After all of them — and Contreras — have said repeatedly they want to return?

“I’m just focused on playing first base for the Chicago Cubs,” Rizzo said.

But for how long?

That’s obviously the point. And an even bigger one if this ripening homegrown pitching is about to actually bloom into an actual pipeline.

When Steele and Dillon Maples combined for three scoreless innings Sunday, it meant the four homegrown pitchers on the Cubs pitching staff were 3-2 with a 2.97 ERA in a combined six starts and 20 relief appearances.

Steele (2.89) and Thompson (7 2/3 scoreless innings) both debuted in the last four weeks. Both project as potential starters. Steele, whose development track was delayed by Tommy John surgery in the summer of 2017, is back with a 94-mph fastball, two breaking balls and command of all of it at this point.

None of those pitchers is the Cubs’ top pitching prospect, Brailyn Marquez — another power-pitching left-hander who flashed the raw power (emphasis on raw) in a seven-batter debut last September and who’s poised to open his season at Double-A Tennessee later this month after dealing with COVID-19.

The value of the Bryant-Rizzo-Báez walk-year trio, along with Contreras, has been well documented during the Cubs’ six-year run of winning seasons that included 10 combined All-Star appearances, five combined Gold Gloves, Bryant’s MVP and Rookie of the Year awards, Báez’s MVP runner-up finish and a championship.

But if the Cubs actually have some young, cheap, good pitching ready to start helping them win in the next year or so — with Kyle Hendricks under contract through 2023 as well?

How much more valuable are those bats — and those veteran presences?

Especially for a team that has only Jason Heyward for two more years, then Nico Hoerner, maybe Ian Happ and David Bote and possibly prospect Brennan Davis as key remaining bats who might contribute next year.

The high-revenue Cubs certainly would have enough payroll flexibility to pay for significant extensions for their All-Star hitters if they had a competitive pitching staff with lower-priced players. They proved that much when the pay-roles were reversed during the last championship window.

So if Alzolay and the rest of this group are ready to fulfill their big-time promise, then the team’s chances to win big again anytime soon might come down to how soon ownership wants to act like a big-market team again.

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