One year early? Belief in young players pays off for Cubs


One year early? Belief in young players pays off for Cubs

Who says this young Cubs team arrived a year ahead of schedule?

A team infused with young talent and four rookies playing almost every day has found itself clinching a playoff spot with more than a week left in the regular season.

There is no clear-cut timeline for when a team is "supposed" to be a contender.

Joe Maddon talked seriously about the playoffs at his opening press conference. He really believed it was possible for a franchise that had recorded five straight fifth-place finishes entering 2015.

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"Coming through this baseball thing like I have, from the minor leagues on up, I've had a lot of young, good players," Maddon said. "I've always believed our teams are going to do well. Maybe it's just a positive nature. I don't know.

"But then it's accelerated with the skill level of these young guys. They're an unusually skillful group of young players."

On Saturday, Maddon discussed a lineup he filled out earlier in the week that featured four rookies in Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber and then Javier Baez (who is not technically a rookie despite his lack of major-league experience).

In late September, most teams that play five young players like that are out of the postseason race. The Cubs are right in the thick of it.

"We're in this position and a lot of it is built on them," Maddon said, while also crediting veterans like Jon Lester and David Ross for leading from within the clubhouse.

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The Cubs understand the "one-year-too-early" angle, but they're not exactly adopting that as the next T-shirt slogan.

"It would have been impossible to expect this group of young players to play at this level," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "We're not suprised we've done it, but certainly expecting it would have been difficult.

"If it means we exceeded expectations, that made this summer a little bit more improbable. I think that's great. No individual player has done anything we know they can't do. And we think all these guys will do this going forward.

"I understand this narrative that we're one year too early. But I think Joe and this coaching staff really believed in this group all year and they proved him right."

Bryant has been touted as a possible Rookie of the Year candidate since he tore up the minors last year, but Russell wasn't expected to make his big-league debut on April 21 or supplant Starlin Castro as the franchise shortstop in August.

Schwarber wasn't supposed to be able to hold his own as a catcher in the majors, let alone mash the ball at the ridiculous pace he accomplished in his first two months in "The Show."

Baez had his season almost completely derailed by the death of his sister and then a finger injury, but he emerged on Sept. 1 as a factor with his defense all over the infield as well as his speed and more mature approach at the plate.

"It is amazing," Jake Arrieta said. "Being around for a while and knowing how difficult it is to play this game and to play it at a high level consistently and seeing Addy, Schwarbs, Bryant, all these guys do it at such a high level and continue to progress and learn on a daily basis, it's tremendous."

Russell isn't surprised by the production from the Cubs rookies this season.

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"I think we're doing what we need to do," Russell said. "Just looking around, it's clear this clubhouse is different. There are a lot of young guys, but we're young guys ready to win, willing to fight.

"Joe's giving them an opportunity and Theo [Epstein] and Jed are giving them an opportunity as well. I think we're all hungry and we're all blessed to be here and to get to this point.

"Now we just need to have fun and come out with some wins."

Even with the playoff berth, Maddon is keeping the Cubs focused on the big picture.

"It's an exciting time for all of us," Bryant said. "But we've got a lot of work to do. 

"We kind of had a feeling we were gonna get [a playoff spot]. But it's not over there."

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


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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