Cubs

By passing on Kris Bryant, Astros handed Cubs a superstar

By passing on Kris Bryant, Astros handed Cubs a superstar

Kris Bryant, a self-motivated, process-oriented student with an overall resume that made him a Rhodes Scholar candidate, still likes to write down his goals as a daily reminder, even during a dream season that might make him the National League’s MVP. 

Bryant reached almost all of those statistical benchmarks during his junior year at the University of San Diego, leading the nation in homers (31), walks (66), runs scored (80) and slugging percentage (.820), earning national player of the year awards from USA Baseball, Baseball America and Louisville Slugger. 

But Bryant never put this down on paper: Become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft.

That, ultimately, would be out of Bryant’s control, so he would not focus on it or stress about a decision that forever changed the course of franchise history, maybe making this The Year the Cubs finally win their first World Series since 1908. 

The Houston Astros will get an up-close look at the face-of-the-franchise player they could have had in the middle of their lineup during this weekend’s series at Minute Maid Park, where only the Cubs come in as the team living up to the 2017 World Series hype Sports Illustrated once predicted, only a year ahead of schedule.

“Not to take anything away from the Astros,” Bryant said, following the Derek Jeter playbook for media interviews. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. But, yeah, who wouldn’t want to play here? Especially now, with everything that’s going on, the (Wrigley) renovations and the city of Chicago – there’s just so much going for it that it’s the perfect spot to play.”

To be fair, even the Cubs didn’t have a unanimous opinion within their draft room as Theo Epstein’s front office discussed what to do with the second pick in the 2013 draft, even after the Astros grabbed Stanford University pitcher Mark Appel.

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But this much is clear: The Cubs have repeatedly chosen hitters over pitchers, making offense their priority in the draft, in trades and on the free-agent market, viewing that as a much safer and stronger investment than the inherent risk that comes with throwing a baseball 95 mph over and over again.    

The Cubs also wondered about Appel’s ceiling and competitive streak, not sure how he would perform outside the Palo Alto bubble, concerns that have played out in professional baseball.  

Houston packaged Appel in a December trade with the Philadelphia Phillies for hard-throwing reliever Ken Giles. Appel – who has a 5.04 career ERA in the minors – made eight starts for Philadelphia’s Triple-A affiliate before undergoing season-ending surgery on his right elbow.

“Honestly, I don’t remember having any conversations with the Astros or sitting down with them,” Bryant said. “I feel like they had their mind made up way in advance.”

While the Astros are known as a secretive, unconventional organization, Bryant had inside information, because he and Appel share the same agent: Scott Boras.  

Boras Corp. almost operates as a 31st franchise, a full-service agency with legal, marketing, scouting and training operations. Clients are programmed to say whatever enhances their leverage – how happy you would be just to get an opportunity to play baseball for a living – and pretend that every team is equal.    

Bryant met with Cubs executives Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod in a hotel lobby in Stockton, California, during the West Coast Conference tournament. Bryant believed he wouldn’t drop past the Colorado Rockies at No. 3. Imagine Bryant’s numbers – .302 average and 36 homers and 91 RBI already this season – if he played half his games at Coors Field. The Rockies wound up with Jon Gray, a University of Oklahoma flamethrower the Cubs also scouted heavily and considered taking at No. 2. 

“I was a little biased towards the Cubs, just because I grew up watching WGN,” Bryant said. “I watched Cubs games and you see Wrigley Field and the history. It’s the fact that you could come here and win a World Series. All that stuff is very attractive. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? 

“Of course, going through the draft process, you got to say the same thing to every team and that type of thing. But, I mean, playing here (and) wearing the pinstripes – you can’t go wrong with that.”

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Bryant has also capitalized on the platform he never would have gotten in a football-crazy state like Texas. Walk around a mall in San Diego or suburban Chicago and you see his face on advertisements for Express and adidas. 

“I never expected that stuff,” Bryant said. “I remember having conversations with my mom – one of my friends got drafted and they’re like giving him free clothes and stuff. I’m like: ‘Mom, that would be so cool if I could get free clothes.’ And now it’s like you have to do photo shoots and (then) get the free clothes.

“No, I never expected that. It’s awesome opportunities for myself. And, obviously, Chicago has a huge role in that, (along with) the Cubs and the fans and the whole city, so it’s hard for me not to be grateful for that. 

“But like I said (before), I enjoy it. It’s fun. I couldn’t be in a better spot for that type of stuff. Nothing against any other city out there – I just think (with) Chicago, people want to go there. People want to be there.”

The Astros still won a wild-card game at Yankee Stadium last year and find themselves back in a crowded American League playoff race this season. Houston nailed the No. 1 overall selection in the 2012 draft – reigning AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa – but wasted the same pick two years later, failing to sign high school pitcher Brady Aiken.

Whatever resentment general manager Jeff Luhnow ignited during the extreme rebuild – with his Ivy League/MBA background and all-access pass that landed the Astros on a 2014 Sports Illustrated cover as “Your 2017 World Series Champs” – has to be flickering now after the St. Louis Cardinals committed white-collar crime and hacked into the “Ground Control” database.   

But in passing on Bryant, the Astros handed the Cubs a superstar already on a Hall of Fame trajectory at the age of 24. 

“Looking back on it, I wouldn’t change a thing that has happened,” Bryant said. “I’m in the perfect situation here. Nothing against the Astros or anything – they’re a great team and they’re fun to watch. But playing for the Cubs is something special.”

Cubs expressing interest in free agent second baseman Scooter Gennett

scooter_gennett_kris_bryant.jpg
USA TODAY

Cubs expressing interest in free agent second baseman Scooter Gennett

The Cubs are expressing interest in free agent second baseman Scooter Gennett, according to WSCR’s Bruce Levine.

Gennett only played 42 games last season after suffering a severe right groin strain at the end of spring training. He made his season debut on June 28 and the Reds dealt him to the Giants at the trade deadline. San Francisco released him a month later.

Gennett, who turns 30 in May, posted a .226/.245/.323 slash line with two home runs and a woeful 44 wRC+ last season. He fared much better from 2017-18, slashing .303/.351/.508 with a 124 wRC+. He hit 27 and 23 homers those two seasons, making the All-Star team in 2018.

The Cubs don’t have a definitive starting second baseman entering spring training, though Nico Hoerner will get the chance to win the job out of camp. The 22-year-old turned heads during his 20-game call-up last September, hitting .282 with a .741 OPS and 17 RBIs.

Adding a veteran like Gennett could serve as a safety net in the event Hoerner struggles in spring or to open the season. Hoerner, the Cubs first-round pick in 2018, only has 89 minor-league games under his belt, so the Cubs may determine he needs a bit more seasoning to begin 2020.

There’s also the chance Gennett struggles in spring training, should the Cubs sign him. However, he’s yet another example of the type of low-risk, high-reward players they’ve accumulated this winter. If he’s fully healthy, he could be one of the biggest steals of the offseason.

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How the Cubs stack up in the NL Central after Nick Castellanos signs with Reds

How the Cubs stack up in the NL Central after Nick Castellanos signs with Reds

The NL Central featured more parity in 2019 than any season of this current era of Cubs baseball. The Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers were locked in a three-way battle for the NL Central crown deep into September, while the up-and-coming Reds tallied their most wins (75) since 2014 (76).

On the heels of a disappointing, 84-win season, the Cubs have yet to make a significant splash this winter. Kris Bryant’s ongoing grievance case is a factor, as is the club’s proximity to the luxury tax threshold.

After missing the postseason in 2019 for the first time in five years, the Cubs are set to return largely the same roster in 2020. Bringing that group back has been misconstrued as the Cubs suddenly not having a talented team.

The NL Central is up for grabs and the Cubs will be a contender, though they realistically could finish anywhere from first to fourth in the standings. A look at the state of a competitive division:

Pirates

The division is up for grabs, but the Pirates won’t be in contention for the crown. After holding a 44-45 record at the All-Star break last season, Pittsburgh entered a freefall in the second half, going 25-48 the rest of the way.

The collapse cost manager Clint Hurdle and general manager Neil Huntington their jobs with two years remaining on their contracts. Monday, the Pirates traded center fielder Starling Marte to the Diamondbacks. Ace starter Jameson Taillon underwent his second Tommy John surgery in August and could miss the 2020 season.

Closer Felipe Vazquez’s career is likely over, as he's in jail stemming from statutory sexual assault charges. He now faces counts of child pornography and unlawful sexual contact with a minor.

New manager Derek Shelton and general manager Ben Cherington face an uphill climb towards relevancy. The Pirates have solid young pieces — first baseman Josh Bell, shortstop Kevin Newman, outfielder Bryan Reynolds — but won’t be a contender for the foreseeable future.

Brewers

The Brewers are coming off back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time in team history, but a chunk of the 2019 team won’t be back this season, including:

-Catcher Yasmani Grandal
-Infielder Mike Moustakas
-Infielder Hernan Perez
-Infielder Travis Shaw
-First baseman Eric Thames
-Outfielder Trent Grisham
-Starter Jordan Lyles
-Starter Zach Davies
-Starter Chase Anderson
-Starter Gio Gonzalez
-Reliever Drew Pomeranz

That’s a lot of production to replace, highlighted by Grandal and Moustakas — 2019 All-Stars. Grisham, a promising 23-year-old outfielder, was sent to the Padres with Davies for infielder Luis Urías, a former top prospect, and starter Eric Lauer.

Lauer, former Cub Brett Anderson and Josh Lindblom — whose career was revitalized in Korea — are new starting options. Adrian Houser was better as a reliever (1.47 ERA, 30 2/3 innings) than starter (4.57 ERA, 18 starts) in 2019 but will get an opportunity at the latter in 2020.

There’s potential in that rotation, led by ace Brandon Woodruff, but the group will again be a major talking point.. The Brewers have been successful in recent seasons relying on a cast of starters and their bullpen, especially closer Josh Hader. They will do so again in 2020.

Christian Yelich is an annual MVP candidate; Lorenzo Cain is one of the best defensive center fielders in the game and is a bounce back candidate after being hampered by injuries last season. Ryan Braun is 36 but coming off his best season is several years. Second baseman Keston Hiura is an ascending force at the plate.

The Brewers’ must replace a ton of talent and hope their rotation moves pay off. They won’t be projected to win the division, but manager Craig Counsell has proven the past two seasons to never count his squad out.

Reds

The Reds are one of the most improved teams this winter and a candidate for champions of the offseason. Cincinnati has added four impactful free agents in Moustakas, starter Wade Miley, and outfielders Shogo Akiyama and former Cub Nicholas Castellanos, the latter officially joining the club on Monday

Miley sported a 3.98 ERA last season, though a rough September (16.68 ERA in five starts) hurt him. He joins what already figured to be one of the best rotations in baseball, featuring Luis Castillo, Trevor Bauer and Sonny Gray.

The Reds’ have put the NL Central on notice but winning the offseason doesn’t guarantee success on the field. Longtime first baseman Joey Votto didn’t have a bad 2019 offensively (.261/.357/.411) but it was his worst as a big leaguer. Jose Iglesias isn’t known for his bat, but he and his phenomenal defense are now with the Orioles.

With Castellanos in the fold, the Reds have a conglomerate in the outfield. There isn’t enough playing time for Castellanos, Akiyama, Aristides Aquino, Phillip Ervin, Nick Senzel and Jesse Winkler. The Reds are reportedly considering trading Senzel, a former top prospect entering his sophomore season.

Even with the odd outfield dynamic, the Reds are greatly improved from 2019, when they were a thorn in the Cubs’ side (11-8 against the North Siders). For the first time since 2013, the Reds are a true threat to win the NL Central.

Cardinals

Like the Cubs, money has been a factor in the Cardinals’ offseason. Owner Bill Dewitt Jr. said in November he didn’t anticipate a major bump in the team’s payroll.

The Cardinals added starter Kwang-Hyun Kim in December to fill out their rotation. Earlier this month, they dealt slugger Jose Martinez and young outfielder Randy Arozarena to the Rays for pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore, the No. 16 pick in the 2018 MLB Draft.

St. Louis reached the NLCS last season and they’ll return a similar squad in 2020. Cleanup man Marcell Ozuna recently signed with the Braves, creating a void in the heart of the Cardinals lineup.

Yadier Molina is one of the top catchers in the game, though he turns 38 in July. Setup man Andrew Miller turns 35 in May and sported a 4.45 ERA last season. Longtime starter Adam Wainwright is back to eat up innings but turns 39 in August. Paul Goldschmidt and Matt Carpenter had the worst seasons of their careers in 2019. Closer Jordan Hicks will miss at least a chunk of the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last June.

Goldschmidt and Carpenter are good bets for some positive regression. Jack Flaherty is a 2020 Cy Young Award candidate, and Dakota Hudson is a solid No. 2. The bullpen features up-and-coming arms in Giovanny Gallegos and Ryan Helsley. Youngsters Tyler O’Neill and Tommy Edman will take on larger roles.

The Cardinals are always a factor in the division and that won’t change in 2020. They just won’t be heavily favored and will face stiff competition to defend their title.

Cubs

The Cubs are hoping David Ross replacing Joe Maddon as manager will change the dynamic of a team that hasn’t ascended to dynastic status after 2016. The group has question marks — jobs up for grabs include five in the bullpen, one in the rotation and the starting second base and center field roles.

The rotation is another year older and lost Cole Hamels, who signed with the Braves. Jon Lester surrendered a league-high 205 hits in 2019, sporting a 4.46 ERA and 1.50 WHIP. However, he said at the end of last season he and the Cubs found some helpful adjustments and wished they found them sooner, though didn’t elaborate on what they found.

The Cubs are counting on Yu Darvish to continue where he left off last season and Kyle Hendricks to remain his consistent self. Jose Quintana is good for 30+ starts each year and had the third-highest WAR (3.5) among Cubs pitchers last season. He’s shown flashes of brilliance as a Cub while also struggling at times. The Cubs need more of the former in 2020 — the last of Quintana’s deal.

The pitching staff is a concern, but the position player core is chock full of talent. Like Darvish, the Cubs need Kyle Schwarber to carry over his torrid 2019 second half. Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. ascending offensively would go a long way.

If Bryant isn’t traded by Opening Day — a deal looks increasingly unlikely as the grievance case drags on — the Cubs will once again challenge for the division’s crown. That will require internal improvements, as the division is too strong for them to start off slow and fall behind their rivals.

It will be up to Ross to ensure the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, which wasn’t the case in 2019.

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