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Late in a 2020 season that couldn’t be worse for Cubs’ Kris Bryant, hardest questions arise

Is he soft? Let’s leave that word to the meatheads. Is he injury prone? Maybe just unlucky. Are the Cubs better off without him? Whoa — that’s the one.

Kansas City Royals v Chicago Cubs
Bryant circles the bases after one of his two 2020 home runs.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

In the social-media cesspool, which never seems to run out of room for another dump of miasmic waste, reaction to Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant’s latest injury was swift and visceral.

Here we go again.

What good is this guy?

Fire him into the sun!

But that’s what Bryant gets for putting together one of the great five-year stretches in Cubs history, right? A Rookie of the Year season. An MVP season. Three All-Star Games. A World Series title. A whole lot of slugging, scoring and versatility. Not always everything fans wanted him to be, but often — and when healthy — all that and more.

Year 6, though? In 32 games played, it couldn’t have gone any worse. Bryant, 28, has slashed .195/.283/.301, numbers so puny that “slashed” seems like far too active a verb. A sprained wrist had something to do with it. And a sprained finger. And issues with his back, an elbow, now his left oblique — and don’t forget the (very) brief COVID-19 scare after he self-reported symptoms a week into the season.

Is he soft? Let’s leave that word to the meatheads. Is he injury-prone? Maybe just unlucky. Are the Cubs better off without him?

Whoa — that’s the question, isn’t it?

As Bryant left Monday’s game in Pittsburgh early, his oblique barking insults on top of injury at him — and the playoffs a week away — there were multiple ways to consider that question. Are the Cubs better off with David Bote at third the rest of the way in 2020? Are they better off long-term with Bryant, who’s eligible for free agency after the 2021 season, or should they tighten their focus on a future without him?

Three weeks ago in this space, a real wisenheimer took aim at those who were calling for manager David Ross to play Bote more at the expense of Bryant. As an emailer kindly suggested Tuesday, what the columnist who defended Bryant knows about baseball wouldn’t fill a bubble-gum wrapper.

But you can bet on this: If Bryant is able to play again this season — and that’s up in the air — Ross will write his name into the lineup every chance he gets.

“[For] fans and critics, I guess, if you want to call them that, it’s ‘What have you done for me lately?’ when you play hurt and you’re not very good,” Ross said. “I know a Kris Bryant in the lineup is good for the Cubs. That’s what I know.”

Looking at next season and beyond is more complicated. It defies logic to believe Bryant will be the blockbuster successor to Mike Trout and Mookie Betts in free agency, as once seemed to be his destiny. But — market factors aside — how harshly should he be judged for struggling through a little over half a 60-game season? Ask the Brewers’ Christian Yelich, who has been a shadow of his usual self. Ask the Cubs’ Javy Baez, who has barely hit his own weight. Ask the White Sox’ Yoan Moncada, an emerging star who has contributed little to his team’s cause.

“If somebody wants to criticize Kris for getting injured, I don’t know,” Ross said. “Bad people do that. Good people don’t do that.”

Recollections of a quiet conversation with Bryant last July come flooding back. It was during a period when Bryant was getting ripped by fans and media a lot, or at least perceived that he was. He admitted how much it hurt.

“I just care so much,” he said. “Every big situation, I want to come through. Every big play, I want to make it. And then when I don’t, I feel like it’s the end of the world. I feel like I let everybody down.”

Perhaps we should flip the question around: Is Bryant better off without the Cubs? It could be a fresh start — in 2022, if not sooner — becomes the best thing for him.

No, we’re not there yet.

JUST SAYIN’

One thing new Bulls coach Billy Donovan has always done is make those around him believe they can beat anybody. He did it as a college player when he carried Providence to the Final Four. He did it as a coach at Florida when he hung banners with hard-nosed players such as Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller, Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer and helped turn them into longtime pros.

He even seemed to do it with a Thunder squad whose roster was a who’s who of, “Who?”

Based on Donovan’s NBA record, it’s possible he isn’t the best coach for a team full of superstars. You might’ve noticed the Bulls don’t have any of those. This could really be good.

† Seven Notre Dame football players tested positive Monday for COVID-19, leading to the postponement of Saturday’s scheduled game at Wake Forest. That brings us into the 20s as far as FBS games postponed or canceled because of positive tests and contact tracing. What month is it again?

Don’t worry. We’re sure everything will be fine.

† It was a lot of fun listening to Sox shortstop Tim Anderson talk about himself Saturday while miked up during a national broadcast on Fox, but the best part was his generosity toward teammate Jose Abreu.

Anderson had just homered and — on fire all September — no doubt was soaring up the American League MVP charts. Speaking with announcers Don Orsillo and A.J. Pierzynski, though, he steered the conversation to Abreu’s huge season at the plate.

“He’s going to be MVP, man,” Anderson said. “You see the kind of numbers he’s putting up, and he shows up every day ready to play. So, you know, I couldn’t be more happy for him. He deserves it. He deserves it, man. He definitely deserves it.”

Point definitely made.