Cubs

Cubs: Is Kris Bryant the long-term answer at third base?

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Cubs: Is Kris Bryant the long-term answer at third base?

Kris Bryant’s raw power got him drafted No. 2 overall in 2013 and put him on the fast track toward Wrigley Field. But the rookie third baseman doesn’t want to be viewed as a one-dimensional slugger.

The Cubs can always shift Bryant to the outfield, depending on their long-term needs and which players step forward. He got time in the outfield at the University of San Diego and has already played 12 innings combined in center and left for a Cubs team that is trying to stress versatility.

There are legitimate questions about whether Bryant’s 6-foot-5-inch frame will eventually push him away from the hot corner. But he’s shown enough potential within his first month in the big leagues that it’s not an open-and-shut case.     

“As he gets more comfortable over there, you’re going to see him do some really good things at third base,” manager Joe Maddon said before Wednesday’s 2-1 win over the New York Mets. “He’s quick. He’s got good range. He’s long. He can lean out there and just pick up some stuff other guys can’t get to.”

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Even while acknowledging the metrics can be flawed and/or misleading – and the Cubs are sacrificing defense and experience for offense – Bryant has committed four errors. His .934 fielding percentage ranked 10th among the 12 qualified third basemen in the National League. He hasn’t scored well so far in terms of defensive WAR (-0.3) and Ultimate Zone Rating (-1.0).

“He’s also learning positioning, depths,” Maddon said. “When he goes to throw the baseball, I think you’re going to see him get even cleaner with that. Meaning he still wants to pat the ball a little bit in his glove, which causes that extra step.”

Think of the way shortstop Starlin Castro mimicked Bryant during that bizarre synchronized throwing program last week against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

How do you break that habit?

“What I like to do there is you hit him groundballs and he has a ball in his bare hand,” Maddon said. “That forces you to catch the ball one-handed. And then if you move your feet properly, you’ll just throw it. I just like the one-handed drill.”

As an amateur player, Bryant used to throw 90-plus mph as an occasional pitcher, so you know he has a strong right arm to go along with a strong work ethic.

[MORE: Analyzing the Cubs through the first part of 2015]

One American League scout who called Bryant “the real deal” did spot a hitch in that throwing motion, a kind of floppiness to his arm action. He’s typically been more comfortable going to his backhand instead of making plays on his forehand side.  

“I like really when an infielder does not take the ball back into his glove,” Maddon said. “Watch – a lot of them do it. I like it cleanly picked up, and then you just throw it with your right footwork.

“His feet are getting better. His stroke’s getting better. His understanding of the whole thing’s getting better. It’s a one-handed game. He’s catching the ball one-handed, which I like. I’m constantly seeing improvement.”

It won’t happen overnight, but Bryant is a baseball gym rat who will do whatever it takes to stick at third base.

“I’m going to try to be a complete player,” Bryant said. “I think I’ve improved a lot defensively just working on that every day. I’m pleased with the all-around game now. And I think I can get even better.”

No momentum yet on potential Cubs-Zobrist reunion

No momentum yet on potential Cubs-Zobrist reunion

SAN DIEGO — Theo Epstein's front office has a lot of difficult decisions to make this winter, but Ben Zobrist has yet to come up with his own tough answers.

The 2016 World Series MVP is currently a free agent after wrapping up his four-year deal with the Cubs. He played a major role on the team in September following a four-month absence to deal with a family matter. 

Zobrist, 38, said at the end of the season that he was unsure if he would call it quits after an impressive career or return for another season on the diamond. More than two months since he last put on a uniform, he still has not reached an answer:

If he does play another season, it would have to be in the right situation for his family. He's made enough money in his career and accomplished plenty — including hoisting a couple championship trophies — but he clearly still had the drive and desire to play, as he said in his September return.

The Cubs figure to be on the short list of teams that would make sense for Zobrist given the mutual familiarity, a home in Chicago and how the entire organization supported him as he stepped away from the team to address his personal life.

It would seem to fit from the Cubs' perspective as well, since they talked all season long about how they missed Zobrist's professional at-bats and his presence inside the clubhouse. 

But there is no traction on the reunion front at the moment.

"I haven't talked to him recently," Epstein said Monday. "I've talked to him since the season ended, but it was more just checking in on his family. As far as baseball, he hadn't made a decision at that point. He was gonna wait a while before deciding what to do. He left open the possibility, but that was it."

The Cubs have an avenue for playing time next season at second base and potentially in the outfield for Zobrist and they are currently searching for leadoff options. He proved he can still play at his advanced age by hitting .284/.388/.377 in September after months away from the game. He isn't an everyday guy anymore, but can still provide value as a role player.

If Zobrist decides to give it one more go, the price would have to be right for the financially-hamstrung Cubs, but a reunion would make a lot of sense for both sides.

Angels' search for catching help could lead them to Willson Contreras

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USA TODAY

Angels' search for catching help could lead them to Willson Contreras

Could we see a Willson Contreras-Joe Maddon reunion in Los Angeles?

According to Maria Torres of the Los Angeles Times, the Angels are “heavily engaged in the catcher market,” and are having “active conversations with two teams” regarding a trade for a catcher.

Torres didn’t specifically mention Contreras, but he’s one of several Cubs who have been linked to trade rumors this offseason. The Cubs aren’t looking to enter another all-out rebuild, but they’re keeping the future of the organization in mind following a disappointing 84-win season.

The Cubs farm system has grown barren of impact talent. They’ve struggled to develop big-league starting pitching under team president Theo Epstein. Their payroll is projected to exceed MLB’s luxury tax threshold for a second straight season, meaning they’d encounter a 30 percent luxury tax on their overages and see their draft position drop 10 spots, should they exceed the $208 million threshold by $40 million or more.

Trading Contreras — who’s projected to make $4.5 million via arbitration next season — won’t solve the financial problem. However, trading him could net the Cubs the type of blue-chip prospects they desperately need to replenish their farm system.

Contreras is also under team control through 2022, so there’s not a huge rush to deal the two-time All-Star. But if the Cubs sense he’s unlikely to sign a contract extension now or in the future, they must do their due diligence on him and see what they could acquire in a potential trade. The same is true for Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber.

The Angels have one top 100 prospect, (outfielder Jo Adell — No. 5 overall), according to MLB Pipeline, so what Los Angeles could offer the Cubs is questionable. Epstein and Co. won’t trade their backstop for the sake of doing so, especially if they deem any offers to be unsatisfactory.  

Contreras hit .272/.355/.533 with 24 home runs and 64 RBIs last season. He’d be a major addition for the Angels, whose catchers posted a combined .221/.293/.344 slash line with 15 home runs and 61 RBIs. The 27-year-old also has a special bond with former Cubs/current Angels manager Joe Maddon.

Contreras posted a heartfelt good-bye to Maddon on Instagram after the Cubs announced they weren’t retaining the manager for 2020. Contreras later commissioned a painting of he and Maddon as a gift for his former skipper.

Monday, Maddon said it’s “weird” to hear Bryant and Contreras mentioned in trade rumors, adding that he likes both players. 

The Angels aren't definitively linked to Contreras and Epstein recently advised to take rumors with a "mouthful of salt." But considering the Angels are reportedly seeking a catching upgrade, it won't be a surprise to see that change soon.