Cubs: Making sense of the friction between Miguel Montero and Joe Maddon

Cubs: Making sense of the friction between Miguel Montero and Joe Maddon

MESA, Ariz. – "No," Miguel Montero said Wednesday morning, he didn't speak with Joe Maddon at Cubs Convention, directly contradicting what the manager said the day before during the welcome-to-spring-training press conference.  
That's Cub? A camp that's supposed to revolve around the themes of being "authentic" and "uncomfortable" – and "don't forget the heartbeat" – already has some interesting personality dynamics between the star manager and the $14 million backup catcher.
"We haven't talked," Montero said before pitchers and catchers ran through their first official workout at the Sloan Park complex. "But all I care about is my teammates right now. Other than that, I can care less about the rest, to be honest."
Maybe the 2017 season will be all blue skies and Arizona sunshine for the defending World Series champs and Maddon will be right in saying the media has overhyped this. But the obvious friction between Montero and Maddon misses a larger point about why a veteran player would go on WMVP-AM 1000 after the Grant Park championship rally and criticize the manager's communication skills, bullpen management and in-game decisions.
A professional athlete can't be misquoted on a radio station, but maybe there can be some room for misinterpretation. Whether these are simply internal tensions that drive every great team – or behind-the-scenes frustrations more specific to the methods in Maddon's madness – Montero didn't completely go rogue.
"It's not about me," Montero said. "That's what people probably misunderstood with my comments. It's not really about me. It's about my teammates. I care for them, man. And they know that. That's the beauty of it. They know that I stand (up) for them and I care for each individual in this room." 
Montero can be brutally honest, an old-school quality that stands out in a clubhouse filled with younger players who maintain polite relationships with reporters and cultivate their images on social media.

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"I have no problem" with Maddon, Montero said. "I'm here to do my job, simple as that. Whatever it is, I'm here to do my job. At the end of the day, I'm going to stick with my players, with my teammates. So whatever happens, I got their back."
Montero will always be a straight shooter with Willson Contreras, who cut into his playing time as a rookie last year and should be the everyday catcher in 2017 and beyond.   
"Why would I take it out on him?" Montero said. "It should be my fault that I didn't (do the job). That being said, I can't take anything for granted. I can probably help him get better. And it's going to make me feel pretty good about it when he (succeeds), because I was part of his development. 
"Willson's been fun to work with. He's got a lot of talent. He can be one of the best catchers in the big leagues. Obviously, he's still young, still got a lot to prove. But I don't see why he can't do it again even better."
The guess here is Montero might feel energized by not having to be part of Grandpa Rossy's yearlong retirement party. But he didn't roll with a softball question about helping fill a leadership void in the clubhouse.
"Not really," Montero said. "I'm not here to embrace David Ross' leadership (role) or whatever. I'm not here to replace David Ross' leadership or whatever. I'm here to be me and do whatever I think is the best to help my team to win." 
Maddon has taken the high road, pointing out how the Cubs won with Montero: blasting a pinch-hit grand slam against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series; helping Aroldis Chapman recover from an epic blown save and get through the ninth inning against the Cleveland Indians; driving in the winning run in a World Series Game 7.        
"I have nothing to clear the air about personally," Maddon said. "Like I've said before, at the end of last season, I know that he was not happy with the role that he had in the playoffs. However, like I said, we had discussed everything prior to that. So I am always open to discussions, but I honestly don't believe that he is all that upset about anything right now, either. 
"It's one of those things that I think sometimes gets over-made, overblown. I understand that it reads well. But at the end of the day, man, I have a lot of respect for him. He's a big part of what we're going to do again this year. And he was so large in our success at the end of last season. Listen, man, we do not win the ring without him."

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

With Anthony Rendon officially joining the Angels, the Nationals have a vacancy at third base.

Washington has options to replace Rendon; Josh Donaldson is still available in free agency, and Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant could potentially be had via trade.

The Nationals have reportedly inquired with the Cubs about Bryant, and while they “love” the 27-year-old, their focus is on Donaldson, according to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. The Cubs would likely seek center fielder Victor Robles in a deal, a holdup on Washington's end, Heyman said.

From the Cubs perspective, it would make all the sense in the world to ask for Robles. He’s 22 years old, plays excellent defense (22 DRS in 2019, No. 1 in MLB by center fielders) and is only scratching the surface as a big-leaguer. Robles is projected to be a star, but Bryant already is one. If the Nationals want Bryant badly enough, they’ll have to sacrifice talent in a deal.

On the other hand, it’s easy to understand why Washington would be unwilling to trade Robles, who's under team control through 2024. Bryant will hit free agency after 2021, but if he wins his ongoing grievance case, he'll hit the open market after next season.

Nonetheless, if the Nationals do engage in Bryant trade talks, you can bet the Cubs will at least ask for Robles in return. A trade could be worked out without him, but for a Cubs team searching for better center field production, you've got to wonder who could be more enticing than Robles.

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Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

It didn’t take long for Willson Contreras to introduce himself to Major League Baseball. On the first pitch he saw as a big-leaguer, the Cubs catcher cranked a two-run home run to center field — on Sunday Night Baseball, nonetheless.

That moment was a sign of things to come for Contreras, who has since established himself as one of the best catchers in baseball. The 27-year-old holds a career .267/.350/.470 line with a 117 wRC+ and 67 home runs in four seasons. He’s started back-to-back All-Star Games, the first Cubs catcher to do so since Gabby Hartnett (1937-38).

Contreras offers so much to the Cubs besides his bat. His cannon of an arm and athleticism behind the plate are integral to the Cubs controlling opposing run games. His pitch framing is a work in progress, and admittedly, he could improve in this area by throwing behind runners less, ensuring he gets strikes called.

However, back-picking is part of Contreras’ value. He may lose some strike calls by not sticking a frame, but there've been plenty of occasions where Contreras' arm has provided the Cubs with a spark. His boundless energy is unmeasurable, but its importance to the Cubs — who feed off of it — cannot be overstated.

There are areas where Contreras can improve, and that's a scary thought. But he's already is one of the best backstops in baseball and has earned the starting catcher spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Welington Castillo, Miguel Montero, David Ross, Geovany Soto