Cubs

As advertised: Jose Quintana stars in Cubs debut

As advertised: Jose Quintana stars in Cubs debut

BALTIMORE – As much as the crosstown Jose Quintana trade stunned the baseball world, the full ripple effect won’t be known for years.

The Cubs now have another All-Star lefty to pair with Jon Lester through 2020 and team president Theo Epstein is already thinking about how Quintana’s team-friendly contract could create the payroll space to add another superstar and build a dynasty on the North Side.

We don’t even really know how good Quintana can be after spending almost his entire career on bad White Sox teams, never pitching in the playoffs and getting most of his exposure through MLB Trade Rumors. 

But this is exactly what Epstein envisioned when he gave up two blue-chip prospects in last week’s blockbuster deal, exactly what manager Joe Maddon hoped Quintana’s presence would do for a quiet clubhouse after an underachieving first half.      

In a dazzling debut, Quintana absolutely shut down Baltimore in Sunday’s 8-0 win, the Cubs roaring out of the All-Star break with a three-game sweep where they scored 27 runs and got the kind of pitching that can carry them into October.

Maddon didn’t hesitate when asked for his most encouraging sign this weekend: “Energy.”

“I really believe that if we play with that kind of internal fire, that energy,” Maddon said, “we’re going to win a lot of games in the second half.”

If this is how Quintana is going to respond to pennant-race pressure – and a sign that the defending champs have finally shaken off the World Series hangover – then Epstein’s front office will keep looking to add before the July 31 trade deadline and try to pack as much talent on the 25-man roster as possible.

Looking like a Game 1 starter in a playoff rotation – or Game 2 out of respect for Lester’s three World Series rings – Quintana struck out five of the first nine Orioles he faced and didn’t allow a hit until Adam Jones drove a ground-rule double into the left-field seats leading off the fourth inning.

At that point, the Cubs already had a six-run lead, the kind of offensive support Quintana rarely worked with while putting up a losing record (50-54) and getting 65 no-decisions since his big-league debut with the White Sox in 2012.

“That’s in the past right now,” Quintana said. “Honestly, sometimes I haven’t thrown the ball well, so it’s not about hitters. That happens. I’m just focused here and want to keep doing my job.

“I’m happy being here, and to see these teammates and how they play baseball. Every day is a good day, a good chance to get a W. I’m excited for that. I want to be part of that.”

Working quickly and efficiently on an 84-degree afternoon against a strong American League lineup, Quintana needed only 100 pitches to cruise through seven scoreless innings, allowing only two more singles and finishing with 12 strikeouts against zero walks.

It may have taken until Game 91 for a team that plays from behind and in scramble mode far too often, but Quintana probably put together the best pitching performance so far this season and made it look effortless.

“I really liked his routine on the mound,” Maddon said. “Really, tremendous focus per pitch. That’s what I took away from it. And then he’s able to execute. The ball had great carry at home plate. The curveball – not overusing it – using it at the right time. The changeup became more effective. But more than anything, I like the method. Deep breath, then he goes into his delivery, here comes the next pitch.”

Those 12 strikeouts matched the franchise record Matt Garza set in his Cubs debut on April 3, 2011. By early July that year, Garza said “we’re right where we need to be” after a comeback win in Washington left the Cubs 17 games under .500.

Where the Garza trade with the Tampa Bay Rays tried to patch things together and reopen a window that had already slammed shut, the Quintana deal showed a franchise that knows what it wants and where it plans to go.

“It obviously just gives us that extra confidence,” said Kris Bryant (3-for-4, 19th home run). “We have a lot of the same core that we had last year and we won the whole thing. And to add him for an extra three more years, too, I think it’s a great move.

“He’s going to be here for a while and I think we all feel really great about that.”

The Cubs are now 46-45 after being at the .500 mark 21 different times this season. The clubhouse understood the message the Quintana trade sent loud and clear: It’s go time.

“He could really be a big boom to us, there’s no question,” Maddon said. “Everybody else saw it. All the other starters saw it. We grab a lead, and then he pitched really well with a lead. There was no messing around. There were no walks. There are no bad counts.

“He made them put the ball in play and he’s punching guys out. He gets to two strikes, he was burying the curve and elevating with the fastball. He just did everything really well. Coming over from the White Sox to the Cubs, middle of the season, there’s got to be something going on there. And he handled it extremely well.”

Why did Kris Bryant get a first-place vote in this year's National League MVP balloting?

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USA TODAY

Why did Kris Bryant get a first-place vote in this year's National League MVP balloting?

Kris Bryant was the 2016 National League MVP. And despite having what could be considered an even better campaign this past season, he finished seventh in voting for the 2017 edition of the award.

The NL MVP was awarded to Miami Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton on Thursday night, a fine choice, though it was nearly impossible to make a poor choice, that's how many fantastic players there were hitting the baseball in the NL this season.

After Stanton, Cinicinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto finished second, earning the same amount of first-place votes and losing out to Stanton by just one point. Then came Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon and Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon ahead of Bryant.

But there was someone who thought Bryant deserved to repeat as the NL MVP. Yes, Bryant earned a first-place vote — as did everyone else mentioned besides Rendon, for that matter — causing a bit of a social-media stir considering the Cubs third baseman, despite his great season, perhaps wasn't as standout a candidate as some of the other guys who finished higher in the voting.

So the person who cast that first-place vote for Bryant, MLB.com's Mark Bowman, wrote up why he felt Bryant deserved to hoist the Kenesaw Mountain Landis Memorial Baseball Award for the second straight year.

"In the end, I chose Bryant because I believe he made the greatest impact, as his second-half production fueled the successful turnaround the Cubs experienced after the All-Star break," Bowman wrote.

"Though I don't believe the MVP must come from a playoff contender, in an attempt to differentiate the value provided by each of these three players (Bryant, Votto and Stanton), I chose to reward the impact made by Bryant, who produced the NL's fourth-best OPS (.968) after the All-Star break, when the Cubs distanced themselves from a sub-.500 record and produced an NL-best 49 wins."

It's easy for Cubs fans and observers to follow that logic, as the Cubs took off after the All-Star break following a disappointing first half. As good as Bryant was all season long, his second-half numbers, as Bowman pointed out, were especially great. He hit .325 with a .421 on-base percentage and a .548 slugging percentage over his final 69 games of the regular season, hitting 11 home runs, knocking out 21 doubles and driving in 35 runs during that span.

Perhaps the craziest thing about this year's MVP race and Bryant's place in it is that Bryant was just as good if not better than he was in 2016, when he was almost unanimously named the NL MVP. After slashing .292/.385/.554 with 39 homers, 102 RBIs, 35 doubles, 75 walks and 154 strikeouts in 2016, Bryant slashed .295/.409/.537 with 29 homers, 73 RBIs, 38 doubles, 95 walks and 128 strikeouts in 2017.

Of course, the competition was much steeper this time around. But Bryant was given the MVP award in 2016 playing for a 103-win Cubs team that was bursting with offensive firepower, getting great seasons from Anthony Rizzo (who finished third in 2016 NL MVP voting), as well as Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist. While the Cubs actually scored more runs this season and undoubtedly turned it on after the All-Star break on a team-wide basis, Bryant was far and away the best hitter on the team in 2017, with many other guys throughout the lineup having notably down years and/or experiencing down stretches throughout the season. Hence, making Bryant more, say it with me, valuable.

So Bowman's argument about Bryant's impact on the Cubs — a team that still scored 822 runs, won 92 games and advanced to the National League Championship Series — is a decently convincing one.

Check out Bowman's full explanation, which dives into some of Bryant's advanced stats.

Game on as Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis and Alex Cobb turn down qualifying offers

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AP

Game on as Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis and Alex Cobb turn down qualifying offers

During the middle of Jake Arrieta’s 2015 Cy Young Award campaign, super-agent Scott Boras compared the emerging Cubs pitcher to another client – Max Scherzer – in the first season of a seven-year, $210 million megadeal with the Washington Nationals.

Now don’t focus as much on the money – though that obviously matters – as when Scherzer arrived for that Washington press conference to put on his new Nationals jersey: Jan. 21, 2015.

It might take Boras a while to find a new home for his “big squirrel with a lot of nuts in his trees.” Teams have been gearing up for next winter’s monster Bryce Harper/Manny Machado free-agent class for years. Mystery surrounds Shohei Ohtani, Japan’s Babe Ruth, and the posting system with Nippon Professional Baseball. Major League Baseball’s competitive balance tax may also have a chilling effect this offseason.

As expected, Arrieta, All-Star closer Wade Davis and pitcher Alex Cobb were among the group of free agents who went 9-for-9 in declining the one-year, $17.4 million qualifying offer before Thursday’s deadline.

With that formality out of the way, if Arrieta and Davis sign elsewhere, the Cubs will receive two third-round picks in the 2018 draft.

By staying under the $195 million luxury-tax threshold this year, the Cubs would have to give up a second-round draft pick and $500,000 from their international bonus pool to sign Cobb, an obvious target given their connections to the Tampa Bay Rays, or Lance Lynn, another starter on their radar who turned down a qualifying offer from the St. Louis Cardinals.

That collectively bargained luxury-tax system became a central part of the Boras media show on Wednesday outside the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, where he introduced “Playoffville” as his new go-to analogy at the end of the general manager meetings.

“The team cutting payroll is treating their family where they’re staying in a neighborhood that has less protection for winning,” Boras said. “They’re not living in the gated community of Playoffville. Certainly, they’re saving a de minimis property tax, but the reality of it is there’s less firemen in the bullpen. There’s less financial analysts sitting in the press boxes.

“The rooms in the house are less, so obviously you’re going to have less franchise players. When you move to that 12-room home in Playoffville, they generally are filled with the people that allow you to really achieve what your family – your regional family – wants to achieve. And that is winning.”

Boras also represents four other players who rejected qualifying offers – J.D Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Greg Holland – another reason why this could be a long winter of Arrieta rumors, slow-playing negotiations and LOL metaphors.