Cubs

Why Kris Bryant is such a money player for this Cubs team

Why Kris Bryant is such a money player for this Cubs team

PITTSBURGH — Dressed in a towel, Chris Coghlan walked through PNC Park’s visiting clubhouse late Monday night and saw the group of reporters around Kris Bryant. Coghlan wanted to get paid and talked over the interview: “Did you put it in my locker? I didn’t see anything when I got in.”

The Cubs had just won their 100th game for the first time in 81 years. Before that 12-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates, Bryant promised Coghlan all the cash in his wallet — the meal money for this entire road trip — if the leadoff guy scored on his 100th RBI.

“He still hasn’t paid me, by the way,” Coghlan said Wednesday afternoon, hours before hammering a Ryan Vogelsong pitch off the center-field wall for a bases-loaded triple in the second inning of a 6-4 win, looking like a solid role player for October. “I won’t take his money. He said he would, (but) I’m going to bust him. I just want to make him pull it out. That’s all.”

Coghlan understood how much it bothered Bryant to finish last year with 99 RBIs, how anxious he could get while being stuck on that same number again for almost a week. Once Bryant notched his 100th and 101st RBIs with his 39th home run, one of the first postgame questions was about getting No. 40.

“That’s how the world works,” Coghlan said. “Trust me, that’s on his list, to knock that off. Trust me, this guy wants to win the MVP, too.

“I think he’s going to win the MVP. But that’s how the world works: OK, now it’s 40 (homers). But if he hits like three in the next five games, (what about) 45? That’s just the way it is. You’ll never change that.

“You want to embrace that, because that’s how you don’t get complacent. But I think contentment is a wonderful attribute to obtain. And there’s a huge difference between contentment and complacency. In our society, we forget that and put the two together.”

Coghlan knows that he doesn’t have Bryant’s all-world talent, but he still recognizes the serious attitude and singular focus. At the age of 31, Coghlan has perspective as someone who became the National League’s Rookie of the Year with the Florida Marlins in 2009, got non-tendered four years later, had to sign a minor-league deal with the Cubs and got traded to and from the Oakland A’s within four months this year.

“KB is very goal-driven — that’s what makes him successful,” Coghlan said. “He has the highest expectations. What I joke with him about is (that) even when you accomplish what you want, there’s always something next that presents itself.

“But now that I’ve gotten a little older, I’ve realized: Man, there are some times I wish I would have enjoyed the moment a little bit more. Because now when you look back, you realize how tough it was.

“That’s what I try to tell him a lot — just enjoy it. I try to get him to laugh and smile because he doesn’t laugh that much. He doesn’t smile all the time.

“He’ll smile for a game-winner, but a regular one, it’s just, ‘Oh, you know, no big deal.’”

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Coghlan got an early scouting report on Bryant while having dinner with Scott Boras, the super-agent who represents several high-profile Cubs. Of course, Bryant probably would have hit the 100-RBI mark last season if the Cubs hadn’t stashed him at Triple-A Iowa for the first eight games, gaining an extra year of club control through 2021 and pushing back his free-agent clock.

“I remember talking about it with Scott,” Coghlan said. “They were like: ‘Yeah, this guy is off the charts with what he can do.’ But the No. 1 thing that we always heard was talking about how good of a kid he was. (Scott) was like: ‘You’re going to love him, because he’s just such a good kid.’

“That’s what the Cubs do so well. I think Theo (Epstein) does that so well (putting the pieces together). It’s not just about your skill set. It’s what type of teammate you are, and that stuff matters when you have to live with each other for seven, eight months a year.”

Ever since Epstein’s front office chose Bryant with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft out of the University of San Diego, Cubs fans expected a franchise player who would deliver the first World Series title in more than a century.

Bryant is following up his Rookie of the Year campaign with: a second All-Star selection at third base, the versatility to play all over the outfield and shift across the infield, 120 runs scored, a .295 batting average that’s 20 points higher than last season, a .953 OPS that’s almost 100 points higher than last season and almost 50 fewer strikeouts than his league-leading 199 in 2015.

“It’s phenomenal,” Coghlan said. “That second year, you have so many questions you have to answer. He’s in a big market, too. I was in a smaller market, but what does help him is there are so many other stars around and stories to talk about. I remember my second year, after every game — regardless of what I did — I had to answer for the team.

“What’s remarkable is his adjustments, and I don’t think people talk about it enough. They just think it’s because he’s so great and he’s always done it.

“(But) from watching, I can see his strikeout numbers are down. His swing and miss in the zone is down. He’s covering more pitches. Before, (you knew he would) have to keep making adjustments, because once they figure out his weakness, they’re going to expose that, and they did that at times last year.

“Now you look at him, you’re like: Bro, this is a whole ‘nother step forward. This is getting close to being epic.”

As Craig Kimbrel takes another step forward, Cubs know he won't be their savior

As Craig Kimbrel takes another step forward, Cubs know he won't be their savior

Before Pedro Strop served up the game-winning homer to former top prospect Eloy Jimenez in the ninth inning of Tuesday night's 3-1 loss at Wrigley Field, the Cubs got some good news on their bullpen as Craig Kimbrel took another step forward.

Kimbrel threw a perfect seventh inning in relief for Triple-A Iowa Tuesday, needing only 8 pitches to get his job done.

As he continues along the path to join the big-league bullpen, the Cubs also know they can't put too much stock in him to be the savior. After all, he can't help the offense and even had he been available Tuesday night, there's no guarantee he would've pitched in the ballgame and affected anything in that regard.

"We want him to come in and join us and help us win," said Cole Hamels, who was once again brilliant for the Cubs Tuesday as he also notched his 2,500th career strikeout. "If we're not winning right now, then it's just one little small piece. I think we all want to be a large piece and have him just fit right in and make it easier on him.

"I don't think we all the sudden want to turn to him hoping that he'll save us at the end of the day. We know who he is, what talent he is and what he's going to provide, but I think we all want to be a part of this team and helping win."

The Cubs have not been winning lately, as they are now 10-15 in their last 25 games. That has dropped them to 39-33 on the season and in second place behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central.

Who knows how many save opportunities Kimbrel will have once he arrives in Chicago, but there's no doubt he will give the team a shot in the arm whenever he does walk in the clubhouse. The Cubs aren't saying exactly when that will be, as they haven't set forth an exact plan on what his next steps are, instead deferring to see how he feels after Tuesday's outing.

He will probably throw another outing in Iowa Thursday or Friday.

"He's trending in the right direction," GM Jed Hoyer said Tuesday evening at Wrigley Field. "Obviously he's feeling good, but we're not gonna rush him or make judgment on any one outing. We're just gonna take this process as we planned it out and try to get him ready for the remainder of the season."

This was the first game action of any kind for Kimbrel since Oct. 27 when he appeared in Game 4 of the World Series for the Boston Red Sox. He signed with the Cubs nearly two weeks ago now and threw his first bullpen at Wrigley Field on June 8 before going to Arizona to throw another bullpen and face hitters in live batting practice.

As dominant as Kimbrel was in the one inning — Hoyer joked Kimbrel may have to purposely walk a guy next time out just to get more extended time in the rehab game — don't expect the Cubs to get aggressive and push him now. It's still hard to see any scenario in which he's in the big-league bullpen on this current homestand (that runs through June 27).

The Cubs didn't sign Kimbrel to rush him and risk injury when they want him to lock down the back end of the bullpen down the stretch in September and then in what they hope is a long playoff run in October. The original plan called for Kimbrel to throw in back-to-back outings in the minor leagues, and the Cubs haven't indicated any change to that.

"[I'm just looking for] good health," Joe Maddon said. "He felt good, velocity was there, the break on the breaking ball was good, the velocity on the breaking ball was very good. It's just about health. If the guy's healthy and ready to rock and roll, you put him in the ninth inning. That's pretty much what we're looking forward to."

Elsewhere in Cubs bullpen news, Brandon Morrow is still throwing as he works his way along the comeback trail that is approach the one-year mark.

Morrow — the former Cubs closer — has been out since last July, going on the shelf at that point with what was originally described as biceps tendinitis. It was later revealed to be a bone bruise and he actually had to undergo a minor surgery on his right elbow over the offseason. 

The Cubs knew they'd be without Morrow for at least the first month of 2019, but the veteran then experienced a setback and still hasn't gotten back in a game. But he's been throwing from about 135 feet, Hoyer said, and feeling OK at the moment.

"With Brandon, we've been down this road a few times where he feels good and he has a setback, so I don't want to be overly optimistic," Hoyer said. "I don't want to be pessimistic. This is where he is. Obviously getting him back would be such an incredible bonus for us at this point. 

"We just want him to be healthy. I feel awful for him. No one is more disappointed or more frustrated than he is. Hopefully this time through, it works for him.

"...It's hard — you have to build your way back up. You don't really get a true sense of what it's gonna be like until you throw in games or throw in live bullpens because that's when the real stress pitches come in."

Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here

kyle_hendricks_chatwood_alzolay_cubs_rotation_slide.jpg
AP

Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here

Kyle Hendricks' shoulder injury isn't opening the door for Adbert Alzolay to make his way into the Cubs rotation.

Not initially, at least.

The Cubs will hand Tyler Chatwood the ball in Hendricks' normal spot Thursday evening against the Mets at Wrigley Field, keeping Alzolay in the minors for the time being. 

When Hendricks hit the injured list over the weekend, many speculated it could be the Cubs' top pitching prospect who gets the call, as Alzolay has been on fire in Triple-A (1.93 ERA, 40 K in 28 innings over his last 5 starts). But the Cubs have two veteran starting pitching options hanging out in their bullpen in Chatwood and Mike Montgomery and it would send a bad message inside the clubhouse to pass over those guys and call up a starter from the minors to take a turn in the rotation.

The Cubs also felt like Chatwood has earned the chance to start after dealing with last year's struggles and having a resurgent season out of the bullpen and in his one previous spot start.

"He's been pitching a lot better," Joe Maddon said of Chatwood. "We believe he's earned this opportunity to pitch in the situation. ... It's an earned situation."

The Cubs made sure Chatwood was stretched out, as they held him back in case of extra innings Sunday night in Los Angeles and then had him throw in the bullpen after the game to help build his stamina back up to join the rotation.

But even if Alzolay won't be joining the rotation this week, that doesn't mean his opportunity isn't right around the corner. The Cubs have been discussing the potential for a six-man rotation in the near future, as they just began a stretch of 17 games in 17 days before their next break on July 5. 

"That's been something we've talked about a lot," GM Jed Hoyer said. "This is really the third time we've had 2-3 weeks in a row [of games]. No doubt, the starters wear down after 2-3 times through the rotation on four days rest and we're aware of their age and mileage on some of these guys. We want to make sure we take care of them. In general, getting extra rest is something we've talked about going into the break."

The Cubs have gone to a six-man rotation before and after the All-Star Break in past seasons and it makes sense to do so again this year, even with Hendricks on the shelf. Montgomery and Alzolay are both options and then Chatwood, of course, though Maddon insisted the Cubs have not come up with a concrete plan for the rotation beyond Thursday's outing.

The big question looming over the rotation is how long Hendricks will be out. He was in some kind of groove before experiencing shoulder issues in his last start against the Dodgers.

"All the test confirmed what we thought — he's kinda dealing with an impingement," Hoyer said. "I feel like we got ahead of it. We're not sure how much time he'll miss. We'll try to take it slowly and take the length of the season into account."

It's still only mid-June and the Cubs are hoping they're going to be playing baseball for another four-plus months, so they know how important Hendricks is to the overall goal of a second championship. 

They'll practice patience with him in his recovery, but right now, they can't say whether or not Cubs fans will be able to see him pitch again before the All-Star Game.