Big question for Cubs, Bryant: Who’s on third?

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Maybe Kris Bryant doesn’t flinch because he’s heard the question so many times.

Are you a major league third baseman?

“I like to think so,” said the slugger the Cubs spent the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft on. “I want that challenge. I want to compete at a tough position. I’ve always been up for the challenge.”

For all the talk about the stutter-step seasons of alleged core guys Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, and all the talk about young-blood pitching acquired in July trades, one of the most intriguing questions for the Cubs’ multi-year rebuild involves Bryant.

And top prospect Javy Baez. And prospects acquired in trades the past two Julys: Christian Villanueva and Mike Olt.

In other words: Who’s on third when the Theo Epstein Project finally has its pieces in place.

About the only thing you know for sure – especially if you follow Twitter – is that it won’t be Ian Stewart, who was both a two-time flop for the Cubs and a cautionary tale of getting too caught up in appearances with “toolsy” prototypes.

Bryant, 21, is a 6-foot-5 power hitter and natural third baseman, but athletic enough with a strong enough arm that many project him as a right fielder.

Baez, one of the game’s top minor league hitters, is a 37-homer shortstop with a lot of errors, who many believe will be at third base when he makes a major league debut – probably sometime next season.

Bryant, a mature hitter who earned a quick promotion to advanced-A Daytona just two months after leading the nation in homers at the University of San Diego, could debut right behind Baez.

Both will play multiple positions during the upcoming Arizona Fall League season, general manager Jed Hoyer said, if only to discover and develop their versatility.

“And Villanueva’s had a hell of a season, and he’s a really strong defender,” said Hoyer, who also praises Class A prospect Jeimer Candelario. “So you feel like, ‘OK, we have some depth.’ “

Bryant could be the most interesting to watch this fall and into next spring as he develops professionally and physically.

Sluggers as big as Bryant often have grown out of the position, including former Anaheim Angels All-Star Troy Glaus, who is frequently used by evaluators as a comparison to Bryant.

Cubs scouting executive Tim Wilken said it’s a flawed comparison, that Bryant has a more athletic, lithe body, more like Washington outfielder Jayson Werth.

“He has a very flexible body. It’s not a problem for him at this time,” Wilken said. “He plays a pretty good third base. There’s some things he’s got to learn, but if he kind of stays where he’s at physically right now – maybe with 10 more pounds – he should be able to stay there, I hope.

“I don’t think we’ve got to move him, that’s for sure. But if that’d be the case, he’s enough of an athlete to be a right fielder.”

Cubs officials are fine with either position outcome. They focused more on the middle-of-the-order power bat during draft-room discussions that led to selecting him over college power pitcher Jonathan Gray.

But if he’s the hitter they believe, and he can play third, Bryant becomes a rare commodity.

“It’s one of those things where industry-wide there ain’t a whole lot of them out there right now,” manager Dale Sveum said.

That’s why Sveum’s probably staring at a third base platoon again next April similar to the Luis Valbuena-Cody Ransom-Donnie Murphy combination that has surprisingly produced 28 homers and a .782 OPS through Tuesday – ranked second and third, respectively in the National League.

At least until somebody like Baez or Bryant breaks in.

Bryant says he’ll happily move wherever the Cubs tell him to play.

As for how quickly he can get to Chicago, some evaluators say the way he looks now, he could be knocking on the door as soon as late next season, if his progress doesn’t stall.

“That’d be incredible. If that happens that’d be great,” said Bryant, whose dad Mike was a one-time Red Sox farmhand and later his hitting coach, adding, “There’s still a lot to learn.”

How quickly Bryant gets to the big leagues, Wilken said, could come down to when the front office wants to start his service-time clock if early indications mean anything.

“I could see him coming pretty darn quick,” Wilken said.

Bryant, who hit .336 with nine homers and a .688 slugging percentage in three stops this year, doesn’t lack for confidence.

“I think I’ve been good in that area,” he said. “Not really being cocky, but keeping the confidence inside and knowing that I can do it.

“And doing well these [41] games into my professional career has really helped give me a pretty good boost of confidence that I can handle what some of these guys are throwing at me.”


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