Cubs

With NL Central suddenly bunched up, a reminder it won't all be sunshine, lollipops and rainbows for Cubs in second half

With NL Central suddenly bunched up, a reminder it won't all be sunshine, lollipops and rainbows for Cubs in second half

So that six-game winning streak was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it?

The Cubs’ perfect second half came to a crashing halt Friday in the series opener with the visiting St. Louis Cardinals, an 11-4 drubbing low-lighted by a never-ending eighth inning in which the Cards torched the Cubs’ bullpen for nine runs.

It was a screaming reminder that the second half, even with its 6-0 start, won’t be all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows for the defending champs.

One nasty result after a six-game stretch of hot bats and hot pitching shouldn’t send Cubs fans panicking about a falling sky — even though the heavens opened up and poured a gigantic, watery metaphor down on the Friendly Confines after Friday’s bullpen implosion.

But it also looked like an indication that the troubles of a sub-.500 first half might not be totally exorcized from Wrigley Field’s home clubhouse. Not that that’s denting the team’s confidence in any way.

“I don’t think we’ve gotten too high or too low, even throughout some slumps where we weren’t very happy about the way we were playing,” starting pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “I feel like we’ve been able to maintain an even keel and stay focused. While there has been some frustration, that’s just kind of the nature of not playing up to your potential and knowing you’re better than you’re playing. But having said that, we are positive and will remain to be so throughout the near future and stretch of games we have coming up. We look forward to playing some good baseball.”

Most importantly, perhaps, Friday’s result showed that it’s not just the first-place Milwaukee Brewers that the Cubs have to be concerned with in what is suddenly a tight and crowded race in the National League Central.

The Cubs might have gotten within a game of the Brewers, but the Cardinals and the surging Pittsburgh Pirates are right there, too. After Friday’s game on the North Side went final, the four teams were within four games of each other. A Brewers loss Friday night in Philadelphia could make things even closer.

“Baseball’s crazy,” outfielder Kyle Schwarber said. “You’ve seen a lot of races, I’m sure, and this is just the way that this division’s playing out. It’s really competitive between all of us.”

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Not dissimilarly from that up-and-down first half, Friday’s contest had signs both positive and negative for the team still on a quest to repeat as World Series champions.

Arrieta might’ve been relatively unremarkable, but he only gave up two runs in six innings, bettering numbers that were downright ugly earlier this season and perhaps signaling that his second half will be far more consistent than his first. In four July starts, he’s got a 2.13 ERA after posting ERAs above 4.50 in each of the first three months of the season.

Willson Contreras continued his torrid July with a first-inning home run. He’s batting .363 on the month with five homers and 12 RBIs in 14 games.

But the negatives were gaudier and more directly involved in the result. In addition to the offense going 3-for-12 with runners in scoring position and stranding nine base runners, a bullpen that had been incredibly reliable fell apart in can’t-look-away fashion. Carl Edwards Jr., Hector Rondon and Justin Grimm combined to allow the first 11 batters of the eighth inning to reach. The first nine of them scored. Five of them walked.

Theo Epstein’s front office likely won’t answer the call of fans on Twitter howling for the team to trade for relief help. There’s no need to do that. Only the seemingly unbeatable Los Angeles Dodgers have a better bullpen ERA in the NL than the Cubs’ 3.51 mark.

“I trust our guys,” Maddon said, reacting to Friday’s nightmarish eighth. “The right guys are out there. C.J. was the right guy for the moment, it didn't play out. Rondon’s been throwing the ball great, but I really put him in a no-win situation. That’s my fault. And finally, Grimmer just had to suck it up.”

Maddon’s not wrong in singing the season-long praises of the three guys who got lit up Friday. But undoubtedly those three relievers provided some evidence that the final two and a half months of the regular season might not feature the Cubs sprinting away from their division-mates.

No, this could be a knock-down, drag-out fight to the finish. And the Cubs have 26 games remaining against the Brewers, Pirates and Cardinals.

So buckle up.

“That’s what you get when you play these kinds of teams that have a shot to reach the postseason,” Arrieta said. “We’re all within a few games of each other, so in our minds it’s up for grabs, it’s ours to take and we look forward to the opportunity to do so.”

Scott Boras' history lesson illustrates why Cubs are unlikely to trade Kris Bryant

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AP

Scott Boras' history lesson illustrates why Cubs are unlikely to trade Kris Bryant

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — As the Cubs move into a new era, the Kris Bryant Decision looms large over the entire organization.

Should they trade him now, two years out from free agency (or one year away if he actually wins his service time grievance)? Or is now the time for the Cubs to deliver a huge offer and lock him up long term?

Bryant's agent, Scott Boras, has been one of the most powerful men in baseball over the last couple decades and he's seen many teams go through the same dilemma the Cubs are currently weighing.

In encountering similar situations with players of Bryant's caliber (a former MVP and Rookie of the Year), Boras shed some light on how unlikely it is that the Cubs would actually wind up dealing him.

"Certainly every player I have that is at that level, they're always asking the question about, 'will they? Won't they? Will they trade him? Will they do it?'" Boras said. "And the answer to that is always: I can give you a percentage over a decade of how many of those players get traded and the answer is very low. If you think that much of him and to get something back for him with a limited period of time is always very hard."

He's got a strong point there. Bryant has a career .901 OPS and averages 32 homers, 92 RBI and 112 runs scored per 162 games over his five years in the big leagues. He proved that the lack of power and production in 2018 was injury related with a strong bounceback season this past year, finishing 14th in WAR in the National League while battling through a lingering knee issue. 

Bryant provides a ton of value to the Cubs and his presence on the roster increases the likelihood of winning another World Series over the next two seasons. In order to trade him, they would need a huge haul in return — a package of players that sets the franchise up for success the future without completely sacrificing the short-term and current window of contention. Will some team actually meet the Cubs' asking price?

The service time grievance is a major issue here, as the difference between one and two years of Bryant would be vast. Red Sox star Mookie Betts is a free agent a year from now and Boston is in a similar situation in that they're weighing a potential trade now rather than risk losing Betts to the open market and getting only draft pick compensation in return.

Boras pointed to how the Red Sox and Cubs both won World Series with Betts and Bryant earlier in their careers, leveraging the star players on cheaper deals to allow more resources to augment the roster around them. But now both guys are due a hefty sum of money in 2020 (MLB Trade Rumors estimates the arbitration figure to be $18.5 million for Bryant and $27.7 million for Betts) and it's time for each team to decide which path to go down.

The prevailing thought around the game is that Bryant won't win his grievance, which puts the Cubs in a different spot than the Red Sox in that they have two years of control left. That's key to either dangle in a trade or to allow more time for the two sides to reach an agreement on an extension.

"I've seen clubs take this decision on and it's often been a decision that they regret — whether they've kept him or whether they've traded him," Boras said. "Again, because they're great players, they're really key decisions."

If no team is able to — or decides to — meet the Cubs' price for Bryant in any trade talks, how likely is it the two sides would work out an extension that keeps him in Chicago beyond 2021?

Both sides waved off any notion that the service time grievance has done anything to damage the relationship between Bryant and the club, with Boras emphasizing that this was a "union matter" and was more about being an "advocate for the rights of players." Even if the arbiter rules against Bryant's grievance, it could still be a major step forward in changing the structure of free agency and service time for the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.

In the matter of extension talks, Bryant and Boras are all ears.

"Look, we're open to talking with them and we've always said that to them," Boras said. "It's always been Kris' philosophy with the team. 

"I would certainly keep the terms and conditions of the contract negotiations private with the Cubs, but obviously it's always a fairness standard. You want what's fair for him and where he stands in the industry and that's true of any player." 

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Cubs continue behind-the-scenes makeover by hiring new scouting director

Cubs continue behind-the-scenes makeover by hiring new scouting director

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - The Cubs are close to the point of the offseason where their sole focus will be on the roster.

As the final coaching staff comes together, the organization also announced their scouting director Wednesday, adding Dan Kantrovitz as the VP of scouting.

Kantrovitz, 41, spent the last five seasons as the assistant general manager to Billy Beane with the Oakland A's and previously served as the director of scouting for the St. Louis Cardinals for three seasons (2012-14). He is a Brown University graduate and also got his Master's Degree at Harvard.

Kantrovitz is a St. Louis native and was reportedly discussing a return to the Cardinals this winter before he took the job with the Cubs:

He was part of the Cardinals scouting department that drafted Jack Flaherty 34th overall in 2014, plus current Cubs reliever Rowan Wick in the ninth round (300th overall) in 2012 and has other successful high picks on his resume (Michael Wacha, Stephen Piscotty, Luke Weaver).

"We're really excited to be able to bring Danny Kantroviz on board," Theo Epstein said Wednesday at the MLB GM Meetings. "To be able to hire somebody to run our drafts who's already held that position and already run successful drafts in the past, it's a unique opportunity. Guys don't usually go back once they reach the assistant GM level. But in Dan's case, he has just discovered that his passion is running the draft.

"It really fits the exact profile we're looking for. He can scout - he goes out and sees 200 players a year when he's running the draft - and he can really relate very well to scouts and he's also got experience building advanced analytical models and combining both those worlds in a really effective manner. I think he fills a big void for us and look forward to working with him for years to come."

Epstein also called the Kantrovitz hire a "best case scenario" for the Cubs as they reshape their front office infrastructure. In September, Epstein moved Jason McLeod from head of scouting and player development (the position he held since coming over to the Cubs after the 2011 season) into a special assistant role in the big-league front office and shook up the player development department.

They wanted a fresh perspective and new insight into the draft and developing players given the organization's inability to produce homegrown pitchers in the eight years under Epstein's reign. Kantrovitz is the guy they've chosen to now lead the scouting department and the hope is he's able to find more success in the draft.

"Dan is as qualified as maybe anyone out there in baseball to do [balance all the information on draft day] since he has scouted extensively and is on the road the entire draft season seeing players and has done so for many years," Epstein said. "He also is one of the top quants [quantitative analyst] in the game as well. Builds his own models and understands it on a granular level - not just to the R & D department, but being a part of it and not just relating to scouts but being one. He brings a really unique skillset and set of experiences to the position."

That's another big hire to check off the list for the Cubs as the offseason starts to heat up. Epstein and Co. can now turn their attention to fine-tuning the roster to ensure the whole is greater than the sum of the parts in 2020. 

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