Cubs

Jon Lester and Jose Quintana give Cubs a one-two punch for this pennant race and beyond

Jon Lester and Jose Quintana give Cubs a one-two punch for this pennant race and beyond

BALTIMORE – A media scrum that began with Theo Epstein’s classic “Ask wetbutt” response to what the Cubs do next ended with the team president laughing as he concluded a long answer on the Jose Quintana/Jon Lester comparison: “I think Jose’s got him on throwing to first base.”

“And Jon’s got him on throwing the cutter, so I think they’re probably even,” Epstein said after literally knocking on the bench in the visiting dugout at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

A Cubs team that at times has seemed too quiet came out firing one-liners after the All-Star break, hitting bombs all over the stadium and onto Eutaw Street, sweeping the Orioles and feeling the bounce from that blockbuster trade with the White Sox.

For some of the same reasons that the Cubs invested $155 million in Lester, Epstein sacrificed top prospects Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease to get another All-Star lefty who can anchor the rotation through 2020.  

“There are some similarities in their delivery, their effort levels and how clean their arms work,” Epstein said. “And – knock on wood – how clean their injury histories have been, how consistent they’ve been.

“They manipulate the baseball a little bit differently. Jon obviously cuts the ball a lot more than Quintana does. But, yeah, they’re pretty good comps. They’re right next to each other on the most valuable pitchers (rankings) the last three, four years in baseball.

“Lefties with great deliveries – repeatable deliveries – excellent command, the ability to get soft contact and miss a bat now and then, and not beat themselves.”

The Cubs purposely gave Lester some extra rest coming out of the All-Star break and will start him against Julio Teheran and the Atlanta Braves on Monday night at the new SunTrust Park. The hope is that will help Lester recover from the worst outing of his career – giving up 10 runs and getting two outs in an ugly loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates that ended the first half – and a workload that includes nine playoff series across the last four years.  

Teheran actually tops the “Similarity Scores” on Quintana’s Baseball-Reference page, a top-10 list that also includes Dallas Keuchel, Chris Archer, Marco Estrada and Yu Darvish.

“We’re completely different pitchers,” Lester said. “I think people want to compare because we’re left-handed. I don’t like putting two people together. We’re all different. We all go about things a different way. I know he’s a very solid, good pitcher and has been doing it for a while.

“The thing I respect, obviously, is his ability to take the ball every five days. He pitches 200 innings and goes about his business the right way. As far as the other stuff on the field, I don’t like pigeonholing people.”

Lester is five years older than Quintana, who at 28 already has four consecutive seasons with 32 or 33 starts on his resume (while playing for White Sox teams that averaged almost 90 losses a year). Between 2013 and 2016, Lester (18.3) and Quintana (18.1) rank sixth and seventh in terms of pitcher WAR on the FanGraphs database, trailing only Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, David Price and Corey Kluber.

The history of nine-figure megadeals for pitchers shows Lester should crash at some point. But there are also reasons to believe that Quintana could rise while pitching in the National League with a Gold Glove-level defense behind him and Bryzzo Souvenir Co. generating more offense.

First impression: Quintana looked extremely comfortable in a pennant race, putting up seven scoreless innings, 12 strikeouts and zero walks in his Cubs debut. The Cubs believe they’ve found the one-two punch that can get them back to October, year after year. Left unsaid: Your move, Brewers.

“Well, Jon is the best left-hander in the league,” Quintana said, “and now he’s my teammate, so that’s an honor for me. I’m real excited. I can’t wait to work with him and learn with him and help this team (show) what we can do.”

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.