Clinch coming into focus for Cubs with magic number down to nine

Clinch coming into focus for Cubs with magic number down to nine

MILWAUKEE – Cubs win. Cubs lose. Who cares? Check back in October, because this season has been World Series or bust since this team reported to spring training and embraced the target.

The Cubs earned the chance to decompress in September, killing the drama in what was supposed to be a furious three-team race between the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates before the NFL season even starts.

What you need to know: The magic number to clinch the National League Central is now down to nine, even after Wednesday’s 2-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park, thanks to the Pirates beating the Cardinals 4-3 at PNC Park.

And the Cubs didn’t suffer any catastrophic injuries that could damage all their playoff hopes, the way the Washington Nationals now have to be bracing for worst-case scenarios with Stephen Strasburg.

Six years after undergoing Tommy John surgery – and four months after signing a seven-year, $175 million extension – Strasburg couldn’t finish the third inning during Wednesday’s start against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park. This on the day the Nationals activated their homegrown ace after what was labeled a precautionary move to the disabled list with “right elbow soreness.”

In many ways, the Cubs mirrored the Nationals during a step-by-step process that built the league’s two best teams. But this time manager Joe Maddon could laugh about Justin Grimm facing one Brewer, exiting this game in the sixth inning with a stomach virus.

“What happened? I did not want him to soil himself on the mound,” Maddon said. “He told me: ‘I can get through it.’ I said: ‘No, you’re not. We’re trying to win this game. I’m not trying to get you through this inning.’ Or anything else through you at this particular moment. That’s it. He was ill.”

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So Cubs fans and the Chicago media can go back to projecting their playoff rosters: There are no apparent arm issues that would make Grimm (0.44 ERA in his last 25 appearances) a question mark for October.

The rest of this season will have to be viewed through that prism. Mike Montgomery, the sixth starter/lefty swingman, made another good impression, facing the minimum through three innings and not allowing a hit until Jonathan Villar blasted a home run over the left-center field wall leading off the fourth.

Montgomery stretched out to 87 pitches, allowing only one run on two hits while notching six strikeouts in five innings, giving the Cubs some insurance if their rotation has to deal with an unexpected Strasburg-level crisis.

Joe Smith – the veteran right-hander trying to pitch his way off the bubble – absorbed the loss after surrendering another home run to Villar in the eighth inning.

Even All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo admitted that he did a little bit of scoreboard-watching on a night where he blasted his 29th homer and just missed his 30th when Keon Broxton made a leaping catch at the center-field wall in the ninth inning. Depending on how this weekend’s series goes against the Houston Astros, the Cubs could be in position to clinch at the final stop on this road trip: Busch Stadium.

“Yeah, I saw they lost,” Rizzo said. “But we just got to play baseball. We know if we play, it’s going to take care of itself. The sooner, the better, obviously, but we just got to keep playing.”

Be ready for anything: Cubs open to all trade avenues this winter

Be ready for anything: Cubs open to all trade avenues this winter

While Cubs fans sit on the edge of their seats waiting to see if Theo Epstein's front office trades away a core player — and which guy that might be — the question has really become more of a when

Both because it seems likely Epstein shakes up this Cubs roster this winter and because there's natural curiosity about the timing of such a move. 

If the Cubs don't get the type of return they're seeking for players like Willson Contreras and Kris Bryant, they are not going to trade just for trade's sake. But it's clear the roster needs a change and the front office has also shifted a good amount of focus on the long-term future of the organization — beyond 2021, when most of the core players are set to hit free agency.

As for when a major trade may come down, there's really no indication on that front. The MLB Hot Stove season has taken longer and longer to get going in recent winters and that very much appears to be the case again this 2019-20 offseason as many teams — including the Cubs — have just recently finalized their coaching staff and key front office hires.

At the GM Meetings last week, the Cubs said they were in the early stages of any offseason moves and had just started to exchange names with other teams about who is and isn't available.

They're not pigeonholing themselves into any one avenue for how the winter will play out.

"Sometimes you get a feel for the marketplace or kernels of ideas and they end up coming true and you look back and you're like, 'ah, that feel we had really matched the whole tenor of the offseason with certain teams,'" Epstein said. "Other times, you can go through a whole Russian novel's worth of twists and turns in an offseason depending on one or two player moves or clubs changing course or being able to execute things or not execute things. 

"We'll see. I think the important thing is to keep a really open mind and be prepared for all different permutations of how things can work out."

As for what shape the trades may come in, be ready for anything. 

The Cubs have said they still have no issues trading within the division, so even in a year where they're planning on competing in the wide-open NL Central, they're more concerned with improving their organization in the long run than worrying about potentially making a rival better.

Epstein also said they're not afraid of acquiring a player with only one year of team control left, as long as it makes sense. But there's no reason right now for the Cubs to mortgage the future to go all-in on 2020.

"It just depends on the player and the fit and the acquisition cost, and everything else," Epstein said. "I think we're like every team — to one extent or another, we're trying to balance an immediate future vs. a longer-term future. We knew that as we got closer to the end of the period of club control with some of our best players, we had to be increasingly mindful of if you put the longer-term future rather than just the short-term. 

"It's a bit of a transition for us, but it doesn't mean you rule anything out, even if it's something short-term. But you try to strike that right balance."

The Cubs also insist they're not locked into adding any one specific position or type of player. For example, they're not only looking to trade for centerfielders or leadoff guys — even if both are clear areas of need in the short-term.

Anything is on the table, which makes sense considering trading a core guy would also open up a hole elsewhere on the roster. If Contreras is dealt, the Cubs could feel pretty confident about Victor Caratini sliding into a larger role, but they would obviously need more catching depth both in the short- and long-term.

"I still think we have a lot of pieces that can move around the board a bit," Jed Hoyer said. "As we think about what we're gonna do [and] have conversations the whole winter, there's a big picture element to it where I think we're not gonna be entirely married to this position or that position — making moves that make sense both long-term and short-term. 

"We do have pieces that you can move around that makes us able to do that. We don't have particular holes that we feel like we have to spend the whole winter trying to fill, but rather we can make some moves maybe a little bit more strategically."

So the Cubs are saying all the right things, but what does that mean? 

For starters, it doesn't appear any major move is approaching on the horizon and regardless of what the first trade or free agent signing is, it will be just one piece to a larger puzzle. This is shaping up to be a crucial offseason in every aspect of the organization, so the final judgement of the winter will be the most important one.

But as the Cubs try to put that puzzle together and make their big-picture plans a reality, they're not going to get sidetracked by the incessant rumors and aim to continue trying to shield their players from a similar fate.

"We can't chase down every rumor," Hoyer said. "People are gonna put stuff out there about our guys and there's definitely some clickbait opportunity about our guys. We have a lot of guys who have been All-Stars and you can put a story out pretty easily that gets clicks. 

"One of the things about our players in general is we're in a big market, they're used to having their name in trade rumors, they're used to having their names out there. I think they have a sense of what's real and what's not real. But we can't chase down every rumor. We can't deny every rumor because we know that's going to happen. We have to live with that. We're not gonna add fuel to that fire, that's for sure." 

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Kris Bryant's big winter continues with baby announcement


Kris Bryant's big winter continues with baby announcement

Kris Bryant is in the midst of a potentially career-altering grievance case while trade rumors and contract extension talks continue to swirl around him.

Oh yeah, and he's about to be a father in April.

Talk about a life-changing winter for Bryant. 

Jess Bryant dropped a video on social media Tuesday morning showing pictures and videos of her and Kris throughout their relationship (including what looked to be a couple prom photos with a teenage "KB") and the minute-long video ended with a sonogram photo and the announcement that a baby boy is due April 2020:

Baby Bryant will be born a little over three years after Kris and Jess tied the knot.

That will be right as the regular season heats up for Bryant, who will be looking to build on a resurgent 2019 campaign that saw him hit 31 homers and post a .903 OPS while being named to the National League All-Star team and playing through persistent knee inflammation.

Bryant's long-term future with the Cubs is still in doubt but his agent, Scott Boras, confirmed they're open to listening on a contract extension and also shed some light on how unlikely it is that the Cubs would be able to recoup enough value in a deal to make trading the superstar worthwhile.

In the meantime, should we pencil Baby Bryant into the 2040 MLB top prospects list now or is that getting too far ahead of ourselves?