Cubs

Cubs playoff race: Cardinals deliver a devastating gut punch

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AP

Cubs playoff race: Cardinals deliver a devastating gut punch

Each game of the final week-and-a-half of the season holds enormous ramifications for the National League playoff race.

The Cubs missed a golden opportunity to make up more ground in the hunt for October against the Reds, losing both Tuesday and Wednesday night. However, they still woke up Thursday morning in control of their own destiny with seven of their final 10 games coming against the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals.

That still wasn't enough to jumpstart the Cubs, as they lost 5-4 to the Cardinals in 10 innings Thursday evening to fall 4 games back in the NL Central with only nine games remaining.

The Cubs have now lost three straight games at Wrigley Field, where they've typically been lights-out this season. It was only the second time all season they lost three games in a row at home.

This also marks the first time the Cubs are out of a playoff spot of any kind since April 30. 

Quick thoughts

—That one hurts. Big time.

The Cubs offense couldn't do much against Jack Flaherty all night, but broke through with a wild rally in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game and send it into extra innings. 

The 3-run inning had Wrigley rocking as 39,524 fans were on Cloud 9, thinking they were on the verge of the biggest win of the season.

Then Matt Carpenter happened. 

He drilled the first pitch he saw from Craig Kimbrel into the center field bleachers for a go-ahead homer and an absolutely devastating gut punch to the Cubs.

—It was a story ripped right from Hollywood — Anthony Rizzo returning from a badly sprained right ankle to enter the starting lineup just 20 minutes before first pitch

Rizzo was wearing a huge boot on his right foot and had to use a scooter to get around Wrigley Field for a couple days, yet was out in left field Thursday evening in full uniform, running and jumping around on his ankle.

Oh yeah, and he also homered, tying the game with a blast into the left-field bleachers in his second at-bat.

Somehow, all that wasn't enough to spark his teammates until the ninth inning. Rizzo eventually left the game in the sixth inning after his third at-bat, with Ian Happ taking over at first. It remains to be seen if Rizzo will be able to play at all the rest of this series, but the Cubs lineup certainly needs him.

"Yeah, it's tough to swallow," Rizzo said. "This is a big weekend for us. We gotta win. We have to win games. Fell short today, but gotta bounce back tomorrow and play a good baseball game."

—This is the first time the Cardinals have won a game at Wrigley Field since Sept. 29 of last season. They were swept in both of their previous trips to "The Friendly Confines" this season.

It's also the worst start Kyle Hendricks has had against the Redbirds in more than two years:

Hendricks entered the game with the best home ERA in baseball and had allowed only 1 run and 19 baserunners in 23 innings against the Cardinals this season, but wound up charged with all 4 runs on 8 hits in 5.1 innings.

The Cubs felt really good about their chances to start this series off on the right foot behind their home ace, even with Flaherty going on the other side.

But things don't always play out according to plan, which might as well be the tagline for the 2019 Cubs season.

—Flaherty is a legit stud and going to be a serious problem for the Cubs over the next few seasons.

He's been on a Jake Arrieta circa 2015 run since the All-Star Break, entering play Thursday with a 1.05 ERA and 99 strikeouts in 77.1 second-half innings. He continued that trend by allowing only 3 hits and a run in 8 strong innings, striking out 8 Cubs.

Brewers update

The Brewers beat the Padres 5-1 in Milwaukee, so they leapfrog the Cubs for the second Wild-Card spot. 

They welcome the hapless Pirates into town Friday and get to finish their season playing another pair of teams with losing records (Reds, Rockies) on the road.

Nationals update

Washington did not play Thursday, so the Brewers moved to 1 game behind the Nationals for the top Wild-Card spot. The Cubs are now 2 games behind the Nationals.

One of the saving graces for the Cubs is the fact that they have a tough remaining schedule — five against the Phillies (including a doubleheader next Tuesday) and three against the Indians to end the season.

But the Nats do get to head to Miami this weekend to take on the Marlins, owners of the worst record in the NL.

What's next?

The Cubs and Cardinals have a quick turnaround as they play again Friday afternoon at 1:20. It'll be Alec Mills pitching for the Cubs against St. Louis' Michael Wacha. 

The Cubs still have life left in this season, but they are now out of a playoff spot for the first time in months and need to turn things around in a hurry. They essentially have to win each of the next three games at Wrigley this weekend to even have a shot at chasing down the Cardinals in the division.

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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