However, heading into 2019, opposing teams should be more concerned with the chip on Bryant’s shoulder than the Cubs should be for any lingering ailments from a year ago. After hitting .272/.374/.460 with 13 homers last season, the former National League MVP crushed a home run in his first spring training plate appearance on Saturday.
Bryant couldn’t help but pay attention to some of the negative stories about him that surfaced this offseason. Following the first mortal season of his life, the 27-year-old suddenly found himself the subject of trade rumors––though nothing significant ever came of them.
"Keep them coming. Bring it," Bryant told reporters in response to those doubting him. "It's, 'What have you done for me lately?' And last year I didn't really do anything. And sure, it was warranted, but boy did it motivate me this year. I'm excited."
To an extent, Bryant is right that the criticism was warranted. In the depths of winter and another slow free agency market, baseball fans have little choice but to look back on the previous season. So it was only natural to focus on Bryant’s struggles as he dealt with his first significant injury ever.
"You set those expectations super high and, when you don't have a year like that, it's kind of like, 'What are you doing? You suck,'" Bryant said. "But at the end of the day, you probably don't; it just wasn't as good as it was during some of your best years."
Those best years were good enough to win the NL Rookie of the Year in 2015 and the MVP in 2016, when the Cubs won their first World Series since 1908. Perhaps track record is a more accurate sign of what should be expected from the third baseman.
Consider this: Bryant averaged a .288/.388/.527 slashline with 31 homers and a 141 OPS+ in his first three seasons. He played in at least 150 games each year, and he would’ve played in more games in 2015 as a rookie had the Cubs not kept him in the minors to start the season.
How uncharacteristic was Bryant’s 2018 season? Before leaving Chicago to begin a minor league rehab assignment in early July, Bryant explained how rare it was for him to be away from the diamond.
“Maybe when my mom grounded me as a kid. Literally, I can’t remember a time where I’ve been forced away from a baseball field,” Bryant said in front of his locker at Wrigley Field. “I’ve been really fortunate, up to this point, my whole life playing baseball.”
After his first-inning blast Saturday, the fortunate Bryant of old has returned to the lineup with thoughts of his down year and long offseason driving him. If he even needed additional motivation at all.