Kris Bryant returning at 100% is critical for the Chicago Cubs offense

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

After suffering an injury over the weekend, Chicago Cubs slugger Kris Bryant could return to the starting lineup as soon as Wednesday night in Houston.

Coming off two consecutive losses to the Houston Astros, Joe Maddon‘s Chicago Cubs have to be looking for a bit of good news. Despite rocking five long-balls on Tuesday, the Cubs dropped a 9-6 decision on the road as their lead in the National League Central shrank to just a half-game.

To be fair, though, Chicago (30-23) is playing a bit banged up. Javier Baez continues to battle a heel injury, which has relegated him to designated hitter duties in the first two games of this series. Mike Montgomery is working back from a left finger issue and Jason Heyward just made his return to the lineup Tuesday after being involved in the collision that sidelined Bryant on Sunday.

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In his return, Heyward went 2-for-5, hitting his eighth home run of the season. That stands out as it marks his season total from a year ago – a testament to his improved production at the dish. But as much as Heyward providing positive offensive value is nice, he’s no Bryant – few players in the game are. But, according to Maddon, his young third baseman/outfielder could be back soon.

"“I’m waiting to hear,” Maddon told Tuesday. “He’s supposed to have hit a little bit, and after he hits and does some normal activities, I’ll know more. If that trends well, we might be able to get him back tomorrow, possibly.”"

The offense has picked up the slack in Bryant’s absence, scoring 11 runs in the first two games against the Astros. But pitching has struggled badly – a trend that has emerged in recent weeks – evidenced by the Cubs’ starters ERA now ranking seventh in the league. No one has epitomized that struggle more than lefty Jon Lester, who got hit hard for a third consecutive start Tuesday.

"“It’s a hard start to walk away with positives,” Lester said. “It’s a results-driven industry. I can’t sit here and lie to you guys that I feel good about that. Seven runs is seven runs. Just didn’t get the results.”"

So while the offense has been holding its own of late, there’s still little doubt that a fully healthy Chicago roster is more than capable of pulling some extra weight while the staff figures it out. Anthony Rizzo is enjoying arguably the best year of his career and Baez has done plenty to show that last year’s MVP runner-up finish was no fluke.

But Bryant, at least to me, is the difference maker. Aside from his defensive versatility, this guy doesn’t just add depth to a lineup – he adds impact. Entering Wednesday, Bryant carries a .972 OPS and 151 OPS+ – both of which would be career bests. He ranks alongside Rizzo, Baez and Willson Contreras in virtually every offensive category this year, a performance that’s helped people get past his injury-plagued 2018.

Make no mistake, though. As we await his return to the lineup, all eyes will be on Kris Bryant. If he struggles the first few games out, everyone will start to point at his woes last year, when a nagging shoulder injury sapped him of his bat speed and ability to drive the ball. There’s literally no indication we’re dealing with such an injury again this time around, but those thoughts are sure to creep up in the minds of fans.

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With a healthy Bryant, a scorching hot Rizzo and a focused Baez, the Chicago Cubs boast one of the most potent three-headed monsters in the entire league. Without him, we saw what opposing pitchers can do last year. So let’s not just hope for Bryant’s return – let’s hope for him to pick right up where he left off prior to Sunday’s injury.