Kris Bryant is playing at an MVP level. But his athleticism and defensive versatility — at third base or in the outfield — have been a real asset to the Chicago Cubs.

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Kris Bryant never envisioned himself playing all over the baseball field.

He figured he would develop and get better at third base as his major-league career progressed. Instead, Bryant’s athleticism and defensive versatility have made him an asset this season to Chicago Cubs manager David Ross. Whether because of injuries or performance-related adjustments, Bryant’s defensive ability helps Ross optimize the lineup.

Bryant has started 14 games each at third base and in the outfield this season, playing all three outfield positions as well as starting one game at first.

He is OK with not having a set position and understands the value that gives the Cubs. While he acknowledges it has been a little weird being positionless, Bryant enjoys how that flexibility helps the team.

“I feel like you look at me and you just don’t expect me to be able to do some of the things that I do defensively,” Bryant recently told the Tribune. “So I take pride in that, definitely.”

Cubs outfielder Joc Pederson’s wrist injury required a 13-day stint on the injured list, creating an opportunity for Nico Hoerner to be called up and play regularly in the infield. Center fielder Ian Happ’s collision Sunday extended the need.

Those circumstances prompted Ross to start Bryant in the outfield nearly exclusively during that stretch. Wednesday’s series finale against the Los Angeles Dodgers represented Bryant’s first start in center since his 2015 rookie season and only his second career big-league start at the position.

Bryant played a pivotal role in the Cubs’ 6-5 extra-innings walk-off win Wednesday to sweep the Dodgers. In the 10th, he perfectly played a carom off the center-field ivy-covered brick wall on Max Muncy’s double, firing a throw to shortstop Javier Báez, whose relay throw to catcher Willson Contreras nailed Justin Turner at the plate to end the inning.

The sequence limited the Dodgers to only one run on the hit, keeping the Cubs within one heading to the bottom of the inning. The Cubs tied it and then won the game in the 11th. Afterward, Ross said Bryant’s angle on Muncy’s ball was huge in setting up the game-saving relay.

“I thought that was one of the best relays we’ve had since I’ve been here that I can remember for a while,” Ross said.

At 6-foot-5, Bryant’s physique isn’t prototypical for a third baseman. Troy Glaus is the most notable big-leaguer in the last 25 years to play third at that height, starting 1,307 games at the position. Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm also stands at 6-foot-5.

There was speculation at the time Bryant was drafted in 2013 whether he could stick at third. Eight years later, Bryant has started 605 games as the Cubs’ third baseman.

“Definitely a lot of pride in that and I think even more so the pride of being able to go out in the outfield and then come back and play third — I think that’s even harder,” Bryant said. “Sometimes when you just play third you kind of get into a routine, you get comfortable there, which is good, but I feel like I have the comfort level of playing there and then going into the outfield and going to first base and then coming back to third. I take more pride in the ability to do that and prove some others wrong.

“I mean, I don’t know if I’ll stay at third until I’m 37, but right now I’m able to do it.”

One main adjustment playing more games in the outfield is the different throwing motion. Bryant noted that when an outfielder gets a chance to throw a baseball, it’s typically an all-out throw to the infield. The wrist action and shoulder movement isn’t the same, either.

Bryant sat out one game during the Cubs’ series in Atlanta because of soreness in his right biceps. Bryant recalled a couple throws he made two weeks ago when he started two games in right field against the New York Mets that aggravated the muscle.

“It’s just a matter of me tying not to be too stubborn in that I have to realize I am in a different position here and not to do anything stupid out there to get myself in a position that I’m hurting,” Bryant said. “But at the same time, I’ve got to get to the ball quick and get it in.”

Perhaps the most impressive part of Bryant splitting time between positions is the lack of reps he took in the outfield during spring training.

Playing multiple positions hasn’t negatively impacted Bryant offensively. His stellar five-week start to 2021 has resulted in MVP-caliber numbers. He ranks second in the National League in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) behind the Braves’ Ronald Acuña Jr. and third in Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), according to FanGraphs.

Bryant’s production reminds right-hander Jake Arrieta of the version he saw when they were Cubs teammates from 2015-17. Arrieta considers Bryant among an elite group of players that includes Mike Trout, Juan Soto and Shohei Ohtani.

“No surprise at all, he’s that level of talent,” Arrieta said. “When he’s locked in, I mean, good luck. You better really execute what you’re trying to do and even then he has the ability to hit pitchers pitches over the fence and that’s a scary thought.”

Bryant’s defensive metrics haven’t dragged down his overall impact. At the very least, he hasn’t been a liability.

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