Cubs

Kris Bryant talks playing with Bryce Harper again, the next megadeal and Cubs building a super-team

Kris Bryant talks playing with Bryce Harper again, the next megadeal and Cubs building a super-team

This isn’t the NBA, where a few superstars can decide which teams will rise and which franchises will fall, instantly shifting a multibillion-dollar industry’s balance of power. But, yes, Kris Bryant and Bryce Harper have at least floated the idea of joining forces after the 2018 season

Unless the Cubs and Washington Nationals collide during the next two Octobers, that would be a fascinating next chapter in a rivalry that began while they were growing up in Las Vegas, playing with and against each other. Combined, the last two National League MVPs have gotten 59 out of 60 first-place votes, setting super-agent Scott Boras up to negotiate record-shattering megadeals.  

“I think we might have talked about it, just like messing around,” Bryant said Monday inside Wrigley Field’s state-of-the-art clubhouse. “Like it would be cool to play with you again.” 

Bryant doesn’t do distractions or create unnecessary drama or worry about the defending World Series champs. An unflappable face of the franchise went out and blasted Dan Straily’s 90-mph fastball halfway up the left-field bleachers for his 13th homer, a two-run, first-inning shot that set the tone in a 3-1 victory over the Miami Marlins that pushed the Cubs into a first-place tie with the Milwaukee Brewers. 

Bryant had heard something about Hall of Fame writer Peter Gammons appearing on WSCR-AM 670 last week to promote his Hot Stove Cool Music event with Cubs president Theo Epstein and mentioning: “I have people tell me that Bryce Harper really would prefer to play for the Cubs.” Within the same response, Gammons also quickly cautioned: “I don’t think it’s ever going to happen.”

Especially when the Cubs might need to add three legitimate starting pitchers this winter and will have to account for huge arbitration paydays for their young hitters. For Bryant – a player the Cubs drafted with the expectation that he would hit free agency after six-plus/almost seven seasons in The Show – the speculation illustrated a larger point about the organization.  

“Honestly – obviously I’ve never been an outsider looking in here – but who wouldn’t want to play here?” Bryant said. “Especially now, with everything going on around here, the renovations, winning, it just seems attractive to any player. A lot of the guys that have come over from other teams are like: ‘This is unlike any other team I’ve played for.’”  

That doesn’t necessarily mean Bryant – a player with a sharp business sense and an extensive off-the-field portfolio – is interested in signing a long-term extension now. Bryant confirmed Jon Heyman’s recent report on FanRag Sports that summed up the attitude inside the reigning MVP’s camp with two words: “We’re good.”

“Just take it as it comes,” Bryant said. “Nothing’s happened.”

Boras also didn’t automatically agree that Bryant’s big contract would have to wait until after Harper sets a baseline and potentially becomes baseball’s first $400 million player.

“I don’t put time clocks on this,” Boras said, pointing to Stephen Strasburg’s seven-year, $175 million commitment to the Nationals, a megadeal done roughly six months before he could have become the top pitcher on last winter’s free-agent market. “I did something with Strasburg. Everybody said: ‘Well, you have to wait for this time.’ I don’t look at it that way. 

“I certainly study and understand markets. I understand revenues. I understand team needs and that kind of thing. So the time when it happens, for me, is not as relevant as whether or not the criteria for a proper evaluation is met. That’s all. That’s what you have to do.”

So Bryant will become a free agent after the 2021 season then?

“That would depend on their evaluation, wouldn’t it?” Boras said with a laugh.   

The 2018 winter meetings will take place at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, where Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Clayton Kershaw, David Price and Dallas Keuchel are just a few headliners who could also be part of that star-studded class of free agents.

“Wow,” Bryant said. “It just adds to the whole thing. What a set-up.

“Gosh, I mean, I’m certainly going to enjoy that offseason where I’m just watching the free-for-all. Bryce seems to be the guy that is probably going to set that bar, seeing what age he’s at (24 now) and what he’s done so far. Good news for players.”

Harper becoming a partner in Bryzzo Souvenir Co. would be must-see TV, creating a different kind of fire-and-ice dynamic in Wrigleyville. But this isn’t about “want to” as much as economics and how the Cubs will prioritize needs and allocate resources for what could be a super-team. 

“Like I said before, we talked about it,” Bryant said. “It would be really cool to play with him, but that’s something that they’re going to have to talk about it. Baseball’s a crazy business. You could want to play somewhere, but they might not want you, or they might not need you.”

Bryant laughed and referenced the Golden State Warriors: “(It’s not) like Kevin Durant: ‘I want to play there.’ But I would say if that were able to happen and work out like that, gosh, it would be exciting.”

Left-handed pitching has been the Cubs' Kryptonite this year

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AP

Left-handed pitching has been the Cubs' Kryptonite this year

The Cubs have a left-handed problem.

No, not in the bullpen (though they could use another lefty there even with Kyle Ryan's emergence).

The Cubs' issue is that their Kryptonite this year has been left-handed pitching. Considering they were one of the better teams against southpaws a year ago, this has been an unsettling development for their hopes of getting the offense on track consistently.

That changed for one day, at least, with one big swing of the bat from Anthony Rizzo Friday — a two-out grand slam in the third inning off San Diego southpaw Eric Lauer. 

But in general, facing lefties has been a major issue for this lineup.

"We've been terrible. we have to be better," manager Joe Maddon said. "We have guys that are really good against lefties that haven't shown that yet. of course, Albert [Almora Jr.] and [Addison Russell] and [David] Bote — those are the three guys, if they get back to their normal methods against lefties, that's really gonna help us a lot.

"That's the one element — talking about the offensive side of things — I really think for us, we have to get better vs. the lefty."

Entering play Friday, the Cubs ranked 28th in Major League Baseball in runs scored off left-handed pitchers and 29th in batting average (.234). They rank 15th in OPS vs. southpaws this season, but that mark — .752 — is actually better than they posted last year (.730) when they hit .260 against lefties.

On the one hand, the Cubs have not faced left-handed pitchers much — only one other team (Detroit Tigers) has faced southpaws less often than the Cubs this season.

On the other hand, the Cubs are trending in the wrong way against lefties. 

Since June 1 (entering play Friday), here are the OPS of Cubs players with at least 10 plate appearances against southpaws:

Willson Contreras — 1.379
Kris Bryant — 1.376
Addison Russell — .821
Anthony Rizzo — .639
Javy Baez — .579
Albert Almora Jr. — .558
David Bote — .455
Kyle Schwarber — .389
Jason Heyward — .221

Yikes.

That's three guys who are above average offensively, and one of those guys — Contreras — is currently on the injured list. 

It's encouraging for the Cubs that Russell has started to show more signs of life against lefties given his slow start in that regard and his typical solid production against them. But the other two Cubs lefty mashers — Almora and Bote — are way down at the bottom of that list. 

All three players were in the lineup Friday — Almora leading off, Russell hitting fifth and Bote hitting seventh — and Almora kicked off the Cubs' scoring by reached on an infield hit with two outs a few batters before Rizzo's blast. But outside of that, the three Cubs combined to go 0-for-6 with 5 strikeouts against the left-handed Lauer.

Even with a positive result in Friday's game, the Cubs still need to figure it out more consistently against southpaws. If they have hopes of going deep into the playoffs, they're going to have to contend with a bunch of lefties along the way, especially with the Dodgers (Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-jin Ryu, Rich Hill, Julio Urias etc.).

Whether that means the Cubs need to add another hitter to combat LHP or not remains to be seen, but with the trade deadline less that two weeks away, we'll have our answer soon enough.

Mike Montgomery is going where the Cubs couldn't take him in Kansas City

Mike Montgomery is going where the Cubs couldn't take him in Kansas City

Tonight, former Cubs pitcher Mike Montgomery makes his debut with his new team, the Kansas City Royals. The Royals are 24.5 games out of first place, even after they won seven out of their last 10. The Cubs are riding a nice stretch in the second half and expect nothing short of a division title and a championship.

So, why would Montgomery want to leave Chicago and go to a team that is going nowhere?

Because he believes his career can go somewhere the Cubs weren’t taking him.

After throwing the golden pitch that clinched the World Series for the Cubs in 2016, he has filled many roles for the team. He starts, he relieves, he closes, he sets up, he is situational, he waits, he pitches hurt, he does what the team needs to be done to help. And for two years, he appeared in 44 and 38 games respectively, with 14 and 19 starts in those years. 

For his entire minor league career, he was a starter and when he broke in, he also started for a while in Seattle. Then in 2016, he went to the pen. But he never lost the confidence that he could be a consistent starter in a major league rotation. 

Montgomery just turned 30 years old, a new father, and there is nothing like age and family to provide clarity about how short and temporary a career can be, especially for a pitcher. 

He got hurt this year, and probably wondered if being endlessly available contributed to his health issues. It takes a toll to always be ready, especially as you get older. Predictability can be comforting, helpful at times to gaining a rhythm, and a way to take care of your body knowing you have some recovery time built in. 

At 30, the window starts to close slowly but inevitably. His time to establish himself as a starter is yesterday and because he has struggled in a utility role in 2019, he is going the wrong way for his career. He is now getting a label as a lefty that can’t get lefties out, but is not a starter either. The pigeonholing has begun.

He has to fight it, quickly and he can with this bold move. Asking out.

Not from the Cubs, but from how the Cubs are using him in 2019. He has decided that he can’t afford to sit back for the glory of oneness and hope they will take care of him on the other side. By this time in his career, he knows how expendable players are in the grand scheme. That the phone will not ring one day, you will become a memory, and even being a great memory can’t stop you from being inevitably sent home.

He knows that it is not a fair exchange to sacrifice health, opportunity and long-term security to be an insurance policy that may never get claimed. Being in that role is casting a shadow over getting handed the ball every fifth day with a chance to eat up innings and waltz into longer term security for his career and his family. It starts to not add up, especially when you already have a ring in your trophy case.

In 2003, I was traded to the Cubs from the Texas Rangers on July 30th. After recovering from an injury, I hit .389 with a .528 slugging, and a .925 OPS in July. I was on absolute fire. At 32 years old, the turnaround was happening, my one-year free agent contract was about to grow into something more if I got my 200+ at bats in the second half. 

While I was rolling along, the Rangers were 44-63 on July 30th, going nowhere, but I was going somewhere up. So I thought. 

The phone rang and the general manager of the Rangers, John Hart called to let me know he had traded me to the Cubs. Poof. Just like that. By the time I got to the locker room to get my stuff and say good bye to my Rangers’ teammates, my boxes were packed, my jerseys were gone. Poof.

Sure, the Cubs were in the race, but they were around .500 when I arrived. They had signed a bunch of veteran players whose starting days were behind them. In my case, Kenny Lofton was the guy in centerfield, which turned me into a bench player from an everyday centerfielder instantly. Not because I wasn’t doing the job in Texas, but because the Cubs needed me to do a lesser job. Lofton played almost every day and in the second half of that season, after the trade, I got 51 at bats. In 28 games. 

Not a great way to find another job after the season. But I had bought in, Dusty Baker communicated well to me and since I had never been in the playoffs, I kept my mouth shut and followed. 

We would go all the way to Game 7 to the NLCS and despite the ending, it was an exhilarating experience. Once in a lifetime. Truly special, but along the ride, no one could guarantee me any of that. Just as easily, the Cubs could have collapsed and I would have been on the bench for a team on the road to rebuilding. And they wouldn’t do it with a 33-year-old veteran centerfielder with a bad hamstring.

I did get my magic hit in the NLCS after sitting on the bench for weeks and when the season ended, Dusty Baker called me personally to express that he wanted me back. I was hoping the silver lining was that some free agent team would see that I could be a clutch performer when it counted. I was happy to get his call, but when all was said and done, he did not have the power to grant me that wish. The phone never rang from Chicago again and I ended up making the Phillies squad in 2004, barely hanging on to my career. 

At 33, I was now a caddy to Marlon Byrd and other young outfielders for the entire season. 162 at bats in 87 games. My career was dead in the water, my coaching career seemed to be growing in front of my eyes, against my will.

Of course, I thought about how I could have played better, I could have made a different decision in free agency and stayed in Philly or signed with Tampa. Those were options, but I bet on myself to go to Texas and regain starter status and after I came back from injury, I did just that. But my age was creeping up and the Rangers had little incentive to keep an aging singles hitter on a team that was fighting for last place. 

Two years after that trade, the phone stopped ringing and by the time it did ring after the Yankees released me, I had taken it off of the hook anyway. I saw the game passing me by. I wanted to start a family. It still stung to see a couple of players get rewarded with multi-year deals who I later learned were in the Mitchell Report for being associated with PEDs, one of which I helped get back to health while I was in Texas. 

So it is a tough question to ask yourself. Would you take the slim chance of winning a World Series as a bench player knowing your career may be shortened 2-3 years? Or would you seek an opportunity to keep playing every day or frequently with a chance to extend your career and have more time to find a way to be on a contender later? 

We only get one career, one shot at it. The greater glory matters, the ring is king and I will always long for the ring I never obtained. But I also learned about what can happen after you are that hired gun, or after you stay silent and accept the role the team thinks is best for them when it starts to run counter to what you believe you can do. It can sound selfish, true, but a player watches how other players are treated, not just how they are personally treated. I played with Ryan Howard when he first came up with the Phillies and years later, covering him with ESPN, he came over and said “Now, I know how you felt in 2004 at the end of your career.” Long memories.

Once a season ends where you were marginalized (even when it is because you played poorly), your career may not recover. So with the Cubs trading Montgomery, they were looking out for him in a way, something they did not have to do, and it is a funny game, he could be back one day.

Only time will tell, but as Montgomery expressed. “It’s bittersweet.” 

Bitter because he wanted to stay and have it all. Be on a contender and be a starter. That was no longer an option. 

Sweet because it was a great chapter in his career, he won, and now he can focus on being the pitcher he believes he can be, not what a team needs him to be. 

In baseball, there is nothing like proving someone wrong …

Or proving yourself right.