Cubs

Jon Jay: The Cubs' Sixth Man

Jon Jay: The Cubs' Sixth Man

If the Cubs ever needed to make the transition into basketball, they already have two positions set.

Joe Maddon has already compared Javy Baez to a good point guard and Sunday night, he likened Jon Jay to a good sixth man coming off the bench.

Maddon has spoken highly of Jay all year, joking about how he'd like to adopt the veteran outfielder as a sidekick.

Jay came through again in the clutch Sunday night, collecting the game-winning hit in the seventh inning to help the Cubs sweep the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field.

Jon Jay is such a valuable baseball player," Maddon said. "It's kinda like John Havlicek — the sixth man in basketball becomes famous. He's the sixth man here. 

"You can pop him in there and it's like instant offense. You know something good possibly can happen. You know he's ready."

Maddon was asked prior to Sunday's game how he can work Jay and Albert Almora Jr. into the starting lineup more often now that Ian Happ has come up to the big leagues and emerged as the everyday centerfielder.

When revisiting the topic after the game, Maddon joked it's Jay's own fault he's on the bench because he's so valuable late in games.

Jay's knock Sunday now gives him the Major League Baseball lead in pinch hits and improve his average off the bench to .450 (9-for-20).

"Something I've learned — if you look at winning teams, they have a lot of depth," Jay said. "And that's what helps you get through the year. You never know when your name's gonna get called, whether it's starting, pinch-hitting, defense, stuff like that.

"That's what Albert and I have been doing — just trying to stay ready. We talk and are positive. You never know, you could come in like he did [Sunday], have a great at-bat and kind of jumpstart the team. That was a big momentum change in the game.

"Just being ready. Teams that win have a lot of depth and that's what the big picture is — to win."

As Jay said, Almora provided a spark off the bench for the Cubs, too.

Pinch-hitting for Kyle Hendricks in the fourth inning, Almora roped a two-out hit down the right-field line, driving in Miguel Montero. Cardinals right fielder let the ball get by him, allowing Addison Russell to score and Almora to motor around to third base.

Almora later scored on Ian Happ's go-ahead, three-run homer.

Almora is tied for third in all of baseball with six pinch-hits and pushed his average off the bench to .429 (6-for-14). What's even more impressive is he's doing this all in his first full big-league season.

"It's huge," Jason Heyward said. "I feel like you're only as good as your bench. If your bench is good and they can come off and produce and give people breathers and just be ready for any point in the game to come in and help, then it goes a real long way.

"It's awesome to see [Almora] go up there and find some comfort in that role. We're asked to do a lot of different things and I feel like that's another part of us growing as a team is realizing somebody's gonna be playing somewhere different every day and most likely in certain spots we didn't expect coming in.

"But we gotta find a way to get it done. Huge for him right there."

Jay has taken Almora under his wing this season and the two have stayed ready on the bench as they await the next opportunity.

"I feel like we have a good thing goin' on," Almora said. "I feel like we're never caught off guard. ... We each have our own routine, we're kinda always talking to each other, seeing what's going on, if you wanna go get some swings in. We're always helping each other out."

Cubs still trying to break through on extension talks with current players

Cubs still trying to break through on extension talks with current players

SAN DIEGO — While the rest of the baseball world is occupying their time with free agent signings and trades, the Cubs have been waiting for their number to be called.

They've been trying to nail down extensions with key players that are only a couple years away from free agency, though nothing appears imminent on that front. 

Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber are all free agents after the 2021 season, leaving the Cubs two years to work out a deal or trade the player before losing them for nothing but a compensation pick. Willson Contreras is a free agent after 2022. Theo Epstein's front office reached a four-year, $55.5 million deal with Kyle Hendricks in spring training, extending his team control through the 2023 season.

The Cubs won't comment specifically on the current extension talks, but they'd ideally hope to wrap anything before spring training this year, so the players can focus solely on baseball by then.

"We always take the position of not commenting on extensions, but are we having those discussions? Yes," Jed Hoyer said Tuesday. "People focus so much on trades and free agent signings at these meetings, but all the agents are under the same roofs, also, and allows us to have those kinds of discussions. I'm not gonna specify who or what, but yeah certainly those conversations are ongoing."

Bryant has long been thought of as the toughest of the group to lock up long-term given that his agent, Scott Boras, typically advises clients to hit the open market and maximize their value. Boras reiterated Tuesday afternoon at the Winter Meetings he and Bryant are still open to extension talks with the Cubs.

Baez and Rizzo loom as the two most likely to extend their Wrigley Field stays, with the two emerging as the faces of the franchise in their own ways.

As the Cubs try to navigate an offseason where they're "serving two masters" (trying to compete in 2020-21 while also enhancing the long-term future of the franchise), a potential extension would check both boxes in a major way. If Hoyer and Theo Epstein knew Baez would be locking down shortstop and the middle of the lineup for the next six seasons, they could breathe a bit easier thinking about the big picture and long-term health of the franchise. 

At the same time, they can't operate as if anything is a certainty. Bryant could decide he likes the Cubs' offer and make Chicago his baseball home forever. Baez could conclude the opposite. 

It's what makes this particular offseason so tricky for the Cubs.

"We have to be able to have parallel tracks in our mind," Hoyer said. "We have to be able to do multiple things at once. It doesn't make it more difficult. We have a lot of really good players. We've had them for a long time. When we talk to these players about contracts, there's no player that we talk to that we haven't had a conversation with at some point before about a contract. 

"We've talked about these players for five years in some way, shape or form. When we sit down with these players, we're not covering a ton of new ground. We've already been over a lot of it. I think we're able to have parallel tracks."

Two MLB moves that changed the landscape of Kris Bryant's trade market

Two MLB moves that changed the landscape of Kris Bryant's trade market

Two reported transactions Tuesday may not have drawn much attention from Cubs fans, but both directly impact the North Siders.

First, The Athletic’s Fabian Ardaya reported the Angels are trading third baseman Zack Cozart to the Giants for cash and a player to be named later. Soon thereafter, free agent shortstop Didi Gregorius agreed to a one-year deal with the Phillies, as Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported.

From a Cubs perspective, the Angels' and Phillies' moves impact a potential Kris Bryant trade market. According to Ardaya, the Giants are picking up the remaining $12.67 million on Cozart’s deal. This clears payroll space for Los Angeles to make a run at a superstar free agent, like third basemen Anthony Rendon and Josh Donaldson.

The Phillies inquired with the Cubs regarding a potential Bryant trade, according to multiple reports. However, Bryant’s unresolved grievance case is a holdup in any trade talks, should the Cubs entertain offers. If he wins, he'll become a free agent next winter. If he loses, he'll remain under team control through 2021.

Gregorius will slot into shortstop for Philadelphia, while incumbent Jean Segura will move to second base, according to NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jim Salisbury. The Phillies are less likely to pursue Bryant — should the Cubs shop him — than they were entering Tuesday. Things can change, but they have less of an infield need as they did on Monday.

On the other hand, the Angels and new manager Joe Maddon suddenly could be a candidate to pursue Bryant. Acquiring him would bring less certainty than Rendon or Donaldson, as Bryant is only under contract for two seasons more, max. Furthermore, acquiring Bryant will cost the Angels prospect capital, while adding Rendon and Donaldson will 'only' entail paying them handsomely as free agents.

In short, Philadelphia is less likely to pursue Bryant than they were entering Tuesday; the possibility of the Angels doing so is stronger than it was entering the day. The Angels haven't been directly connected to Bryant at this point, but that now could change.