Cubs

All-Star or not, Cubs expect Kris Bryant to be their Derek Jeter in second-half push to October and beyond

All-Star or not, Cubs expect Kris Bryant to be their Derek Jeter in second-half push to October and beyond

Derek Jeter is the headliner trying to corral enough heavy hitters to close a billion-dollar deal for the Miami Marlins, the sale of a dysfunctional franchise hanging over the All-Star Game this week in South Florida.

Kris Bryant is the National League’s reigning MVP, not invited to Major League Baseball’s showcase event, an awkward symbol for an underachieving Cubs team that won’t have a single player from last year’s World Series winner there on Tuesday night at Marlins Park.

But the glass-half-full look at the rest of this season begins with Bryant, whose relative downturn includes 18 homers, a .928 OPS that’s only 11 points from where he finished his MVP campaign and a WAR rating that still makes him a top-15 player in the NL.

Bryant also possesses the inner drive, natural calm and sense of responsibility that draws comparisons to Jeter, a player he publicly patterned himself after while being anointed as the franchise savior, trying to deflect credit and attention and defuse controversy.

“I think there’s a lot of similarities there between KB and Derek,” catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello said on this week’s Cubs Talk Podcast, remembering his time as a Yankee staffer on championship teams in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000. “Derek’s focus, No. 1, was on the score. You never really heard about any personal achievements with him.

“It was about coming here to beat the other team, day in and day out, whether it be with a great play or a bunt or a smart base-running play. He was always looking for some way to change the game in a positive manner for our team.

“That’s the mark of a winner. They have to find some part of their game that’s going to effect the score in a positive way, whether it is defense or base running. Obviously, when (KB’s) swinging the bat, he’s a game-changer. But when those guys aren’t swinging the bat as well as they want, or getting the hits, they find a way to still effect the game and help the team win.

“I see KB that way. When KB’s hot, he’s hot, great. But what about when you’re not? And how does that affect you mentally? You watch Kris and he may be the best base runner on our team and his decision-making is always on point.”

Jeter is a far more complicated figure behind the scenes, but his brand became synonymous with winning, a baseball shorthand for how to handle yourself in the media spotlight, in the corporate world and in October.    

For Joe Maddon, it starts with the manager’s only rule about running hard to first base. As much as anyone, Bryant represents an idealized version of The Cubs Way, one of their best hopes that this 43-45 start is a fixable glitch and not a system-wide breakdown of a one-and-done team.     

“It’s hard to throw him out on a routine groundball,” Maddon said. “How about his effort to first base? I mean, he’s a Rookie of the Year, MVP, (25 years old). Um, I don’t want to say he doesn’t have to do that. But he doesn’t have to do that.

“He does it, every day, and he sets a wonderful example for this entire organization. Not just this club. I’m talking like everybody in A-ball, Double-A, Triple-A. When they tune in the game and they see KB turning a routine groundball to shortstop into a bang-bang play, what does that mean?

“So when you go to spring training or guys come up and you talk about ‘Respecting 90,’ here’s the poster child right here, man. He does it as well as anybody. I always thought that about Derek Jeter. I see (Mike) Trout do that a lot. I’ve seen Jeter in the past hurt – bad foot, bad ankle – do that. And then he’d limp out to shortstop. The real guys do that kind of stuff and he sets a great example.”

Bryant obviously has years and years to go before coming anywhere close to matching Jeter’s five World Series rings, 3,465 hits, 14 All-Star selections and no-doubt Hall of Fame credentials. But Bryant already understands his role as an ambassador, saying “yes” over and over again to media requests and signing autographs in a mostly empty complex around 5 p.m. on the day pitchers and catchers reported to spring training in Arizona.

“What you’re talking about is franchise players have instincts,” super-agent Scott Boras said. “There are few of them. And certainly it’s not something Kris tries to do. It’s something that Kris instinctively knows to do.”

Where Jeter dated models and actresses and enjoyed the New York nightlife, Bryant married his girlfriend from high school and likes to order in food and watch Netflix at home. Where this season already dented Kyle Schwarber’s legendary status and Addison Russell’s off-the-field reputation, Bryant is hitting .213 with runners in scoring position.

Bryant’s ability to ride the waves without crashing is exactly what the Cubs need now if they are going to make up those 5.5 games, catch the Milwaukee Brewers and chase that kind of Yankee dynasty.   

“I just feel very determined,” Bryant said. “When things aren’t going my way, there’s just a switch in me that makes me want it even more. And sometimes when you want it even more, you end up going the opposite way, so it’s a fine line there.

“But it’s just a matter of showing up and competing. You are the player who you are and things usually work out in the end. I think that goes for everybody in this clubhouse.”

Willson Contreras’ trade value just spiked, thanks to White Sox signing Yasmani Grandal

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USA TODAY

Willson Contreras’ trade value just spiked, thanks to White Sox signing Yasmani Grandal

This is the best thing the White Sox have done for the Cubs in years.

The White Sox made a big splash in free agency Thursday, signing catcher Yasmani Grandal to a four-year, $73 million contract. Grandal joins the South Siders from the Brewers, where he played an integral role in Milwaukee making a second-straight postseason appearance in 2019.

Grandal led qualified catchers in on-base percentage (.380) last season, also posting career highs in home runs (28) and RBIs (77). He’s also an excellent pitch framer, tying for fourth in RszC (runs saved by catcher framing) among all catchers with 9.

Milwaukee’s payroll reached a franchise-high $122.5 million in 2019 and their farm system (No. 29 in MLB, per Baseball America) is lacking. How they replace Grandal’s production is a major question mark, which in turn is a win for the Cubs this offseason.

But besides plucking him from the NL Central, the White Sox signing Grandal early in the offseason helps the Cubs, who have important decisions of their own to make.

Although Cubs president Theo Epstein said to take any trade rumors with a “mouthful of salt,” multiple teams believe catcher Willson Contreras is available for trade. The Cubs need to retool their roster and replenish a farm system that has been depleted in recent seasons from numerous “win now” trades.

The Cubs and White Sox made the notorious José Quintana trade in July 2017, but it’s unlikely the two would have matched up for a Contreras trade. The Cubs need young assets; trading away young assets is the last thing the White Sox want to do as their championship window opens.

So, Grandal landed with a team that was unlikely to be involved in any potential Contreras trade talks. Grandal was the best free agent catcher; Contreras is the best catcher that can be had in a trade.

Other teams interested in Grandal — such as the Reds — can no longer turn to him in free agency. The Rays have made addressing the catcher spot this winter a priority, but they have one of MLB’s lowest payrolls each season. Signing Grandal wasn’t going to happen, but Tampa Bay has the farm system (No. 2 in baseball, per MLB.com) to make a big trade.

Contreras is the best catcher available — for the right price, obviously — so the ball is in the Cubs' court. They don’t get better by dealing their two-time All-Star backstop, but Contreras’ trade value is high. With Grandal off the market, it just got even higher.

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Cubs add four players to 40-man roster ahead of Rule 5 Draft, including top prospect Miguel Amaya

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MiLB

Cubs add four players to 40-man roster ahead of Rule 5 Draft, including top prospect Miguel Amaya

In preparation for next month’s Rule 5 Draft, the Cubs have added four players to their 40-man roster. 

Wednesday, the Cubs selected the contracts of right-hander Tyson Miller and infielder Zack Short from Triple-A Iowa and right-hander Manuel Rodriguez and catcher Miguel Amaya from Single-A Myrtle Beach. The Cubs 40-man roster now stands at 36 players.

The Rule 5 Draft is Dec. 12 at the Winter Meetings. Teams can “draft” players from other organizations if that player is not on a 40-man roster and also matches one of the following criteria:

-If the player was signed when they were 19 or older, they must have at least four years of professional baseball experience

OR

-If the player was signed when they were 18, they must have at least five years of professional baseball experience.

Miller is a fourth-round draft pick from 2016. He went 7-8 with a 4.35 ERA in 26 starts between Double-A Tennessee and Iowa in 2019. The 24-year-old was much better with Tennessee (2.56 ERA, 15 starts) than with Iowa in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League (7.58 ERA, 11 starts).

The Cubs drafted Short, 24, in the 17th round in 2016; he can play shortstop, second base and third base. He gets on base at a decent clip (career .377 OBP) but hasn’t had much success offensively (.241 career average) in his four minor league seasons.

The Cubs signed Rodriguez, 23, to a minor league deal in July 2016. He posted a 3.45 ERA in 35 relief appearance with Myrtle Beach in 2019, faring much better than he did in 2018 with Single-A South Bend (7.59 ERA, 32 appearances).

Amaya is the Cubs' No. 2 prospect and No. 90 overall in MLB (per MLB Pipeline). The Cubs signed him during the international signing period in July 2015, giving him a $1.25 million signing bonus. The 20-year-old posted a .235/.351/.402 slash line in 99 games with Myrtle Beach in 2019. His OPS jumped from .714 in the first half to .790 in the second half.

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