Cubs

The Cubs' plan for Craig Kimbrel moving forward

The Cubs' plan for Craig Kimbrel moving forward

When the news broke that the Cubs had signed Craig Kimbrel, the happiest person in the world wasn't in Chicago or even affiliated with professional baseball.

It was Kimbrel's friend — a guy that works on the family property back in Alabama who can now rest easy knowing that he doesn't have to stand in the box for any more of Kimbrel's bullpens.

Kimbrel has spent much of this year working out at Montverde Academy in Florida — where Francisco Lindor attended — and throwing to a high school catcher there, but he did spend some time at home in Alabama, too, throwing into a net at his barn.

"One of my close friends and a guy that we have help us do a lot of work at our place — I was just throwing into the net one day and he was walking by and I was like, 'Hey man, you wanna stand in?'" Kimbrel said. "And he was like, 'Sure!' So I threw a couple pitches with him and the next day, he got a piece of plywood and carved out a batter and the batter was there instead.

"Not everybody likes standing in, I guess," Kimbrel chuckled.

It's hard to blame the friend, as Kimbrel has some of the nastiest stuff in baseball — including a fastball that has averaged 97.8 mph throughout his big-league career.

However, other than those few pitches, Kimbrel hasn't spent much time facing hitters over the past few months. He last appeared in a game on Oct. 27, during the Boston Red Sox run to a World Series championship.

While the rest of baseball was showing up in Arizona and Florida for spring training around Valentine's Day, Kimbrel was left to work out on his own as his free agency freeze continued. That carried into the first week of June here, though Kimbrel said he has done what he can to stay ready, including training in Florida and played as much long toss and thrown as many bullpens as he ever has.

In fact, he actually felt like he was working out too hard.

"I definitely feel great right now," he said. "I'm pretty strong — I had to back off my workouts because I was becoming a football player, in a sense. I had to back off a little bit. But I am healthy, I feel great, I'm ready to get out there and face hitters.

"It's tough to simulate that when it's the unknown — not knowing if I was gonna get a phone call the next day and be shipped out or someone was gonna want to come down and watch me throw the next day. And mentally, I'm not throwing my bullpens at 98 mph — at least I don't think I am."

Kimbrel understands he will have more soreness as his body and arm gets used to dialing it up in front of hitters and game-like situations.

The Cubs officially optioned Kimbrel to Triple-A Iowa Friday, and they'll have the closer throw a bullpen Saturday before shipping him out to Arizona to go through a condensed spring training. 

The initial plan is the Cubs will have Kimbrel throw a few bullpens and face some live hitters in Arizona and then if all goes well, head out on a rehab assignment in the minor leagues (likely at Iowa).

"We're not gonna rush it," Theo Epstein said. "It's gonna be tempting to get him here as soon as possible, but we're trying to plan this thing the right way so that he could be in a position to succeed not just immediately but in October. That's gonna be our guiding principle as we go."

The general line of thought around the Cubs is it will take at least three weeks for all that to play out, which would put Kimbrel in the big-league bullpen right around the end of the month. 

But nothing is set in stone. Kimbrel is 31 now with 694.1 professional innings and nine big-league seasons under his belt. So he understands what it takes to get his arm ready for game action, but he's also not used to going a full seven months without facing live hitters and rejoining a team halfway through a season.

The Cubs have their sights set firmly on another World Series run and they won't sacrifice that big-picture goal for a short-term fix. Plus, Kimbrel is under contract for at least two seasons after 2019, so it does no good for either side if they rush him and risk any sort of injury just so he can join the back end of the bullpen sooner than expected.

"We sat down and put a gameplan together — something to work off of," Kimbrel said. "But at the end of the day, it's based off how I recover, how I get ready. This isn't about getting back on the field as fast as I can. This is about being the best that I can be in October and down the stretch and doing what I came here to do for this team."

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.

Kris Bryant is better than ever

Kris Bryant is better than ever

If the season ended today, these would be all the categories Kris Bryant would set new career highs in:

Batting average
Slugging percentage
OPS
OPS+
Strikeout percentage
wRC+
wOBA
ISO

On top of that, he's on pace for a career high in runs scored and doubles and on track to approach career bests in homers, walks and WAR. 

Even if you don't know what some of those stats mean, the conclusion is clear: Kris Bryant is better than ever.

Yes, that includes his 2016 MVP campaign.

Consider this:

In '16, Bryant hit .292/.385/.554, good for a .939 OPS with 39 homers, 102 RBI and 121 runs scored.

In '19, he's hitting .299/.408/.565, good for a .973 OPS and on pace for 34 homers, 79 RBI and 125 runs scored.

The season isn't ending today, but there's actually a strong chance Bryant even improves on those numbers given the way he's been trending.

Since receiving a day off on June 12, he's slashing .369/.458/.660 (1.119 OPS) with 16 extra-base hits (including 7 homers) and 24 runs scored in 28 games. He's also reached base safely in 36 of his last 38 contests.

That includes a solo homer off Sonny Gray to kick off the scoring in Wednesday's Cubs victory.

"KB's been playing really well," Joe Maddon said. "Shoot, for a month-and-a-half now he's been kinda toasty. That ball was properly struck off Gray. Then he continued with base hits, good at-bats, his baserunning again is spectacular, a good play in left field. He's playing pretty much at the top of his game right now."

As Maddon alluded to, Bryant does so many different things to help the Cubs win, from his exceptional baserunning (like going first to third on an infield hit Wednesday) to playing solid defense all over the field. 

In the three-game series against the Reds, Bryant started at three different positions — right field (Monday), third base (Tuesday) and left field (Wednesday).

"It's not an easy thing to do," Jason Heyward said. "When you move around the field, it's not easy to keep the defense. It's gonna take time for anyone to settle in. He takes a lot of pride in offense, obviously, but he takes a lot of pride in being a winning baseball player — he runs hard, hustles and a lot of those things he does don't always show up in the box score. 

"The year he won MVP, obviously he had home runs, he had the numbers, but he hustles, he runs down the line. He wants to make good plays on defense and just gives us another opportunity to move people around and give somebody the day off — like [Kyle Schwarber Wednesday]."

Bryant can also hit just about anywhere in the Cubs lineup and he's been particularly..."toasty," to borrow Maddon's phrase...since he moved to the three-spot in the order just before the All-Star Break.

In those nine games where Bryant has hit between Javy Baez and Anthony Rizzo, he's posting a .424/.537/.909 line (1.446 OPS) with 4 doubles, 4 homers and 11 runs scored while walking more than he's striking out (8 to 5). 

Even with all Bryant has accomplished this season, he still might not finish any higher than third in National League MVP voting this year, as Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich are playing out of their minds.

Still, the Cubs will certainly take what Bryant's given them this season — a deserving All-Star after missing more than 60 games a year ago with a shoulder injury.

The Cubs offense still has some work to do to become more consistent, but a healthy and thriving Bryant has been a large step in the right direction.

"It's huge," Heyward said. "Anytime you don't have an MVP in the lineup and have him missing that kind of time is huge. Let alone, it's Kris Bryant. For him to bounce back — All-Star season, all those things is awesome, but just him being healthy, being out there and competing with us, it goes a long way."