Cubs

Kris Bryant to Eric Thames: ‘Dude, we got to hit together’

Kris Bryant to Eric Thames: ‘Dude, we got to hit together’

Eric Thames now has an open invitation to "The Bryant Man Cage" this offseason.
 
Thames had been so far off the baseball map that Kris Bryant didn't realize they both live in Las Vegas and used to play in the West Coast Conference. But where Bryant's fast track made him a Rookie of the Year, National League MVP and World Series champion within three-and-a-half years of leaving the University of San Diego, Thames has bounced around since the Toronto Blue Jays grabbed him in the seventh round of the 2008 draft out of Pepperdine University. 

Traded to the Seattle Mariners and Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Selected off waivers by the Houston Astros and released three months later. Putting up 124 homers and 382 RBI in the Korea Baseball Organization led to a three-year, $16 million commitment from the Milwaukee Brewers. 

If they had no idea who this guy was, the Cubs know now after clawing back for a 7-4 victory on Wednesday afternoon at Wrigley Field, where Thames looked like the Triple Crown candidate for small sample sizes.

"I was talking to him at first," Bryant said. "I was like: ‘Dude, we got to hit together.' But he's on some type of run right now. It's impressive to watch.

"Everybody has a story. He had to go to Korea for three years. And it's hard not to feel happy for a guy like that who's worked his butt off to get back to this point and things are paying off for him."

Maybe Thames will stop by the house where Bryant grew up and his father, Mike, gives lessons and passes on what Ted Williams once taught minor-leaguer hitters in the Boston Red Sox organization. Dexter Fowler has worked out there and Shane Victorino lives in the neighborhood. 

Against the defending World Series champs, Thames went 6-for-11 with three doubles, three walks, a homer and six runs scored during this three-game series. There will be cynical reactions.  

After Thames homered in his fifth straight game on Monday night, USA Today reported a representative from Major League Baseball's drug-testing program approached him in the visiting clubhouse.  

"Random, right?" Thames told USA Today, laughing. "Guess it comes with the territory, right?"

Manager Joe Maddon called the production "Bonds-esque" and compared Thames to the zone Daniel Murphy got into when he became a new Mr. October and the New York Mets swept the Cubs during the 2015 National League Championship Series.

"If you want a guy that's really disciplined and knows the strike zone, you probably have to draft it or buy it," Maddon said. "It's hard to create it or nurture it. My experience is that with a guy that's more of a swinger, it's easier to get him to not strike out as opposed to accept the walk. That's just in their nature.

"You could get them somewhat better. But to go from being an absolute free-swinger to a disciplined hitter, that's rare. That's absolutely rare. Maybe it's his situation, going away from the limelight and just getting into a little bit more secluded area that he could test things."         

Until Opening Day this year, Thames, 30, last appeared in a big-league game on Oct. 1, 2012, the end of a season that saw him generate nine homers and a .672 OPS and 87 strikeouts in 290 combined plate appearances for Toronto and Seattle.

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Veteran catcher Miguel Montero – who never played in the American League – had the same reaction as Bryant: Who is this guy?

"He's swinging a hot bat," Montero said. "He doesn't really have a lot of holes in his swing. We went in, he covered inside. We went away, he covered outside. We went breaking ball, he covered breaking ball. 
 
"When you're swinging good, it doesn't matter what they throw you, you're going to hit it. Obviously, we need to find a way to pitch him better next time."

Imagine what some time in "The Bryant Man Cage" might do to Thames' game.

"I think we're just excited when we get him out," Bryant said. "We all go through runs like that where you feel like you just hit everything on the nose – outs, hits, homers – and you just got to ride the wave because they don't happen all the time."

Cubs Talk Podcast: Winter Meetings recap

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Winter Meetings recap

When nothing happens in Vegas, it stays in Vegas. Luke, Kap and Tony talk about the Cubs lack of moves during the Winter Meetings.

In this episode of the Cubs Talk Podcast with Luke Stuckmeyer, David Kaplan and Tony Andracki:

00:10 - What happen in Vegas stays in Vegas and this year that means nothing. Luke, Kap & Tony talk Cubs lack of moves at Winter Meetings.

00:50 - Where the heck is all the money? This was supposed to be a wide-open window - we step on the accelerator.

01:25 - Cubs keep throwing money at the problem (Chatwood, Darvish) and it has become a cautionary tale.

02:50 - Are the Cubs playing at the shallow end of the kiddie pool?

03:50 - Tony talks about the volatility of the relief market.

05:15 - Where is the bullpen market? Brewers are making moves, but it's still "crickets" for the Cubs.

06:20 - Tony: Other than bullpen - Cubs have to address backup middle infielder most of all.

06:57 - Daniel Descalso rumors. Kap describes him as a grinder who fits the leadership mold.

07:47 - Luke is a little worried about Steve Cishek. He threw a career-high 70 innings last season.

09:34 - The guys talk about the possibility of a "second deadline" for the Winter Meetings to force clubs to make more moves.

11:06 - Luke: "I wanted to see Machado and Harper walking down the strip and making it rain!"

12:45 - Cubs still have so much to address. Some Cubs fans are starting to get a little itchy. Teams in the division are making moves. What about us?

14:45 - Question: Is Anthony Rizzo the third-best 1st baseman in the Central Division?

15:50 - Prediction time: What's biggest move the Cubs will make before opening day? Kap believes that Ian Happ will not be a Cub before the regular season starts.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

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7 Cubs takeaways from the MLB Winter Meetings

7 Cubs takeaways from the MLB Winter Meetings

The Cubs didn't leave Las Vegas with a new superstar to add to their lineup or even a new arm for Joe Maddon's bullpen.

In fact, the Cubs are actually heading back to Chicago with one fewer person in the organization than they began the week, as bench coach Brandon Hyde is expected to be officially announced as the Baltimore Orioles' new manager soon. 

However, the Cubs front office insist they had a productive week even if they don't have any moves to point to.

Part of that production, apparently, is the organization's desire to improve communication with all their millennial players. So much so that Maddon is actually reading a book called "Managing Millennials for Dummies" and that's not a joke. 

But it's not just that. Theo Epstein's front office is trying to find ways to help all their young players develop and improve and digest the insane amount of information baseball teams have at their disposal nowadays. 

Here are 7 other takeaways from the 2018 Winter Meetings:

1. Yawwwnnnn

The 2018 Winter Meetings had the potential to be the most exciting December event yet with Bryce Harper — maybe the biggest free agent ever — possibly announcing what team he was going to spend the next decade of his life with while in his hometown of Las Vegas.

Instead, the Meetings wound up becoming the baseball version of the sloth from "Zootopia."

Case in point:

Take away waiver moves and that's only 6 free agent signings, 3 trades and the release of Troy Tulowitzki. Over what has historically been a week filled with a mind-bending flurry of deals.

That's...something.

Now, there were more moves on Thursday (including the Brewers' trade for a reliever) and there are still deals that have yet to be made official (including Hyde becoming the new Orioles manager), but this is as slow as it gets.

Even Cubs GM Jed Hoyer acknowledged the snail's pace of the market:

"The dialogue has been good for the whole industry, I just think it's been slow," Hoyer said Wednesday evening. "I think sometimes, it probably takes a couple deals to break the ice and it hasn't happened yet."

2. Maybe that means it's time for a change in how we approach MLB's offseason.

Baseball is the only major American sport with an offseason market that truly lasts months. In the NFL and NBA, most deals are done in the first day or two once free agency is open while MLB teams can be talking and negotiating from the first week of November all the way until early March (as we saw last spring). Even trades take a long time to come together. 

Former MLB GM Jim Bowden threw out an idea on Twitter at the end of the meetings and honestly, it's an interesting thought:

The other American professional sports leagues don't have trade deadlines in their respective offseasons, but they don't have the same issue of slow-moving markets, either.

Maybe MLB should take one or two weeks in early January as the official "offseason" where that's the only time moves can be made. That would allow teams plenty of time to prepare for their offseason, give everybody the holidays off in both November and December and then also still leave plenty of time for players to get acquainted with their new teams.

The free agenty market crept along at a record-breaking slow pace last winter and the 2018-19 offseason somehow seems to be surpassing that.

MLB has a problem with a lack of action during games with fewer balls being put in play than ever before and now the league has a problem with a lack of action during the offseason, too.

3. The relief market could eventually start moving quickly, which is good for the Cubs.

While the market has been slow to date, we may soon see a flood of moves in one particular area — bullpen additions.

In the wee hours on the morning of the final day of the Winter Meetings, a few relievers finally started to come off the market with Joe Kelly going to the Dodgers and Jeurys Familia headed back to the Mets.

That's good news for the Cubs, who are absolutely looking for another reliever or two this winter. But Theo Epstein and Hoyer will not be shopping at the top of the bullpen market (more on that later), so they had to see how things played out before truly jumping into the pool.

As more of the top relievers come off the board, expect the Cubs to make a move or two to add more arms to compete for high-leverage spots in Joe Maddon's bullpen.

We could even see a move before the week is over, but maybe that's just wishful thinking...

4. Maybe the trade market could be a better avenue for the Cubs this winter.

We've already talked a lot about the slow-moving market, but it's also understandable. In the history of the sport, we've never seen anything like two of the best players in the sport available on the open market at the same time in the midst of their prime (age 26). 

So until Bryce Harper and Manny Machado sign, free agency is still going to be held hostage by those two guys given the amount of money they're about to command. 

That means we've actually seen quite a few trades this winter...thanks to Jerry Dipoto. The Mariners GM has been wheeling and dealing like a fantasy baseball owner this winter and even made a trade with the Indians and Rays Thursday from his hospital bed. (Which, ironically, was the first Winter Meetings move made from a hospital bed since Cubs GM Jim Hendry signed Ted Lilly in 2006.)

The Cubs haven't made any moves yet on either front, but with such an active trade market over the last few weeks, maybe that's the avenue Epstein and Co. utilize to add to the roster or free up some payroll. 

It certainly doesn't seem like the Cubs will be outbidding many teams on the free agent market...

5. Either the Cubs are serious about their budget constraints or they deserve Oscars.

The Epstein family already has an Academy Award (Theo's grandfather, Philip, wrote "Casablanca") and they should add another if the Cubs somehow shock the world and sign Harper this winter.

Over the last 6 weeks, Epstein and Hoyer have maintained a lack of payroll flexibility at every turn. If this is all a smokescreen or an act to throw competitors and agents off, then they seriously deserve an Oscar. 

Don't put all the blame on Jason Heyward and his $184 million contract for that, either. Sure, all the money he's owed over the next 5 years is a huge factor, but there are so many other reasons, too. 

Chief among them is the failures of last offseason, as Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood and Brandon Morrow are combining to eat up a huge chunk of payroll while entering 2019 as major question marks and forcing Epstein's front office to pick up the $20 million option on Cole Hamels to boost the rotation.

The money issues continue to make it seem as if the Cubs will have a quiet offseason and will spend most of their time trying to improve from within.

6. The NL Central is going to be the best division in baseball in 2019.

The Reds were one of the most active teams in the rumor front this week, even if the only major move they pulled off was trading for pitcher Tanner Roark. 

Cincinnati has been competing for the worst record in the division the last few years, but they sure seem like they want to form a new narrative and are exhausting every avenue to try to improve a pitching staff that has ranked among the league's worst recently.

That means there are currently zero teams rebuilding or "retooling" or tanking in the NL Central which is the only division in baseball that can make that claim.

7. Chicago baseball could be very fun in 2019 and beyond.

People seem to forget the 2005 World Series championship a surprising amount, but make no mistake — the White Sox are not under the radar any longer.

The South Siders have been listed as the "frontrunner" for the services of Harper this winter and they were linked to just about every available player this week at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. 

The White Sox have money, young talent, one of the best farm systems in the game and clearly seem motivated to join the ranks of baseball's contenders sooner rather than later.

All told — this could shape up to be a fun next few years in Chicago baseball...especially if the Sox can somehow land Harper or Machado.