Cubs

Glanville: Kris Bryant and the small window a player has to make big money

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USA TODAY

Glanville: Kris Bryant and the small window a player has to make big money

The Chicago Cubs are quickly approaching an era where the young core of talented players is about to hit paydirt. It is the nature of the business that you play in the minor leagues to get seasoned, to make your game more complete before you earn your way to the top.

It is understood that you will not make much money in salary in the minor leagues, just as when Kris Bryant was sent down in 2015, he made a pro-rated $82,700. Of course, by non-pro sports standards, that is good money, but since he banked $10.85M last year, the difference is stark.

Bryant has entered the years where the power pendulum has swung his way. He has the hammer; once you hit three years of service, you get to arbitration, and now you can argue your value compared to your peers.

Players who have the same service time, put up the same numbers, same position, age…these are some of the “comps” to know who you will use as a reference to justify your asking price. The teams want to go low, and the player wants to go high. And arbitration has no gray area. Decisions are final and they pick one side.

When the Cubs sent Bryant down in 2015, they were making a long- term plan. By shorting him of that full season, they could have another year of control on the back-end (which led to a grievance filed by Team Bryant.) Theo Epstein was forthcoming about this standard strategy employed by teams.

But Bryant is represented by Scott Boras, who will file that away (literally) and do what he can to claw back that year in earnings. This could be done by a patient approach, putting up numbers year-by-year and maxing your value in smaller increments. Or, dangling the idea that his client will leave as soon as possible.

But this comes with risk. Injuries, bad years, anything can come up to make you wish you had the security blanket of a long-term contract. So you trade annualized max money for visibility and, let’s face it: at what Bryant will command, he will do well.

Yet in major league baseball, value is about what someone is willing to pay and the market that defines that value. There is a difference between $200 million and $275 million, even if you can buy a small island with either.

This is the economics of the game; balloon payments after paying your dues. You are represented by an agent who has institutional knowledge with a clear-eyed understanding of how short a career can be. Seize the day to get your value no matter what it says about your inflated place in society.

Baseball creates wealth as a business and players get paid out of that pool. But it is a pool that swims in relativity, which is why Kris Bryant is looking at Machado and Harper to see when the first big domino falls.

Let’s not dismiss who is representing Bryant in Boras. Someone with a long memory and the patience of a sloth. He will flood you with data, just as when he was recruiting me decades ago. Boras flew across the country to Philadelphia, dropped a nearly five-hour presentation on me which was complete with charts explaining why my signing bonus should be nearly three-times the standard.

His argument was that I was an engineer at an Ivy-league school who will be losing all kinds of income while toiling away in the minor leagues. It was compelling, to say the least. But I ended up choosing Arn Tellem as my agent, a Philly-guy. Boras does not play games. He will push you to the brink.

But the Cubs are not just dealing with Bryant and Boras, they are looking at arbitration eligible players in Schwarber, Hendricks and Baez, too — guys who will see some big pay hikes. Do you lock in these young players for a long time now or do you slowly work year to year, moving in and out chess pieces to adapt to an aging core of players? Who is your core?

Most players, once they get to the pay day, reference the minor leagues to lose the guilt of getting paid seven or eight figures to play a game. My $327 paycheck when I played with the Geneva Cubs certainly was a motivator to work hard and a reminder to take the long-term deal on the table I would ultimately get from the Phillies in stride.

Although Schwarber and Bryant had very brief minor league stints, they understand not to let youth blind you from how short your window is in baseball. Make your money. Their agents will remind them.

I remember that crossover moment from my career when the Monopoly money started get thrown around in contract talks. It was after my first year with the Phillies, a full year after the Cubs traded me. I had a partial season and two full seasons under my belt. I was similarly situated to Willson Contreras, who is not quite at the three-year mark, but in a position where the Cubs would consider locking him up before his price tag goes up from a big season.

It was surreal to see seven figure numbers thrown around remembering that a debate came up between my agent and the team over $50,000 or so dollars. A lot of money, but the discussion ended up framed as “Let’s not nickel and dime over it.” Really? Fifty grand is a nickel or a dime? That is the world that hits you literally overnight.

In my case, since my parents always emphasized investing one’s money and planning ahead, I had to think back to the year when my dad had me write down the price of a mutual fund every day in a little black book to get used to tracking investments. I was very fortunate for that guidance.

Good fortune also helps a player feel secure. My road was longer by today’s standards certainly, for a first-round college draft pick since it took me five years to arrive, but what mattered was appreciating the road that took me to Philadelphia as a starting player with a contract in hand that granted me three years of breathing room.

I still needed to get better and adapt to the rhythm of 162-game marathons, while finally playing without the anxiety of being one play away from being out of the game and finding a new line of work. At least, that is how it felt.

It also was validating to get this vote of confidence from a team. The naysayers, the setbacks, the years in winter ball, all could be reframed as a necessary part of the journey. It was an example of how you could truly change the past. My manager in Triple-A Iowa, who had my career buried for dead, would have been proven right if I somehow fizzled out after Triple-A. That would have been my story. I ran into a rough and tumble manager in the minor leagues who did not like me very much and I fell short.

As a mentor of mine (and coach that brought me to Puerto Rico for winter ball), Tom Gamboa said “If you didn’t make it to the show, and your bubble gum card ended after Triple-A Iowa, you would have had good reasons, but you would have cheated on your destiny.” Destiny. Powerful word.

This group of Cubs have one significant leg up on me in feeling established at a young age. They are world champions. They have defined destiny.

Destiny looks ahead, but that long-term commitment also makes you look back in time. Many names came to mind for how I got to that point. Coaches, family, friends, mentors, heroes. I was taught by some amazing professionals. Sandy Alomar Sr., Jimmy Piersall, Tom Gamboa, countless teammates, like Shawon Dunston who passed on wisdom on a daily basis. I also remembered Jim Riggleman, my first manager in the big leagues with the Cubs.

Riggleman would pull me aside and remind me that one day “You will be an everyday centerfielder. Maybe not here, but somewhere.” He would walk into the outfield during batting practice and plant the reminder. In a world of great talent all around us that fills up Major League Baseball, words mattered, words counted and these words came rushing back to me when I was about to sign a long-term contract with the Phillies that endorsed the belief that I was a big-league centerfielder.

Kris Bryant, like any player on the cusp of a financial windfall, will think back on key words and those who helped him along the way. There is something clarifying about truly arriving and being able to look at your craft through a lens that can see past tomorrow.

In 2015, when I was at ESPN, I interviewed Kyle Schwarber and Bryant at the same time in San Francisco (sadly I can’t find that tape), a day when Barry Bonds was hovering around the cage. I happened to talk to Bonds for a while at the cage and Bryant and Schwarber were in that wide eyed-stage. Open, optimistic, excited, new.

They shared a lot about adjusting to the life; they were in the midst of that childhood joy. I recall learning that Bryant was a big Bonds fan growing up and was torn between admiring his greatness (as his childhood did cartwheels) and being frustrated with the PED allegations after Bryant learned firsthand what it took for him to make it honorably.

Just fast-forward to today and Bryant is still a young man. But now he is a Rookie of the Year, an MVP, a World Champion, but he also went through a down year with injury, doubt, frustration and responsibility. The rollercoaster has begun.

Bryant is reaching the heart of his career. The eye of the hurricane in baseball when a player is at peak performance. As the late-Ken Caminiti said to me one spring “Baseball is a great when it is going well. Nothing better.” So true. Not so fun when on the bench hitting .176 going into a Chicago late April night game.

But with a long-term deal of the magnitude that Bryant will command, it helps that you are much more likely to have the time to get out of any slump. You are granted time in a long-term deal, but you are expected to produce more in that time. Fair enough.

Yet you have to come to grips with the fast-acting maturity that must reach before your 30th birthday. You must be ready to peak at a young age compared to most other professions. The team has made a long-term investment in you. That investment needs to pay dividends and generate interest, now. There is no more future potential and upside. It is now-side. Get it done so we can win.

Now the pressure really starts.

Alec Mills gave the Cubs what they needed, but they still couldn't find a way to win

Alec Mills gave the Cubs what they needed, but they still couldn't find a way to win

Someone capable of mixing pitches and having success without a high-velocity fastball delivered a stellar start for the Cubs on Friday. Sound familiar?

No, it wasn’t Kyle Hendricks’ turn in the rotation – though he did throw an 81-pitch, complete game shutout against St. Louis back in May. Rather, it was Alec Mills who stymied the Cardinals offense this time around.

Mills was thrust into action in place of Cole Hamels, whose turn in the rotation was skipped due to left shoulder fatigue. Despite being pressed into action, the 27-year-old Mills delivered, tossing 4 2/3 shutout innings, allowing just two hits and two walks while striking out six.

“He was outstanding. He gave us everything we needed,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after the game, a 2-1 Cubs loss and fourth-straight. “[He] pitched really that well, like we’ve been talking about the whole time.

“He really demonstrated what he’s made out of.”

Mills has been emerging as a quite a contributor for the Cubs as of late. He now holds a 0.84 ERA over his last four outings, which also includes two scoreless innings against the Reds on Tuesday.

Friday, he looked Hendricks-esque, making up for a lack of fastball velocity – he averaged 89.9 mph with his four-seamer – with a stellar slow curveball and sweeping slider. His curveball averaged 67.7 mph, even touching 65 mph at times.

Such fastball velocity might seem more hittable than something in the upper 90s. However, as opposing teams have seen time and time again with Hendricks, 89 looks a lot different when blended in with effective breaking pitches.

“I think every at-bat, I’m trying to be something different, cause I don’t have the stuff to just say ‘Here you go, here’s what it is,’” Mills said postgame. “If I can be something that keeps them off balance every at-bat, it’s what I want to do.”

Mills got four called strikes and four swinging strikes, respectively, with his curveball on Friday. None of those were for strike three, but when the Cardinals actually put Mills’ curve in play, they went 0-for-4.

“It’s one of those things where I feel like I can throw it for a strike at any point,” he said postgame about the pitch. “It’s something I can lean on when I need it, so it’s nice.”

Despite his personal success, Mills kept things in perspective after the game. Not only does Friday’s loss drop the Cubs to five games back of the Cardinals in the NL Central, but also 1.5 games back of the second Wild Card spot. This is pending the outcome of Friday night’s Brewers-Pirates, though.

“It’s always nice to throw well, but at the end of the day, a win is all that matters at this point,” he said. “Obviously a lot of guys are upset, but it’s one of those things where it’s definitely not over.

“I don’t think there will be an ounce of quit in here. We’re just going to come tomorrow ready to play and go for a win.”

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Cubs playoff race: Where is the offense?

Cubs playoff race: Where is the offense?

After a 2-1 loss Friday, the Cubs have dropped the first two games of this crucial series while giving up only 7 runs total across the 19 innings.

The Cubs are now 5 games behind St. Louis in the NL Central with only 8 games to play, essentially putting any thoughts of a division title to bed. It also means they will once again wake up Saturday morning out of a playoff spot.

This is the first time the Cubs have lost four straight home games since May 2018.

With the Brewers and Nationals also winning, the Cubs are 2 games out of the final playoff spot.

Quick thoughts

—Where is the offense?

The lineup that averaged 13.75 runs per game and hit .393 as a team in the first four games of this homestand is suddenly nowhere to be found. They're hitting just .180 total over the last four games and that mark dips to .111 with runners in scoring position (they hit .553 with runners in scoring position during the first four games of the homestand).

Outside of the 3-run rally in the bottom of the ninth inning Thursday, the Cubs have scored just 6 runs in the other 36 offensive innings since Monday.

"I've been saying it all year — the run's gonna be in the offense," Joe Maddon said. "Today, 1 run. Yesterday, we lost by 1 run and the two losses vs. Cincinnati were low-run scoring games for us, also. Whereas Pittsburgh, we pounded in that first game.

"We have to somehow get more consistent offensively. When the opportunities come up, we have to take advantage of them. We've had some good at-bats in those moments without any kind of luck, but we gotta figure it out.

"Obviously we are running out of time. To catch [the Cardinals] is becoming more difficult, but there's still a solid opportunity to be a playoff team. But you gotta keep playing the game as though you're going to catch St. Louis. You gotta go out there with that attitude."

The Cubs walked more than they struck out (4 to 3) Friday and one of those whiffs was by pitcher Alec Mills, so there’s definitely an element of bad luck at play here.

They hit into four double plays, including Kyle Schwarber bouncing into a twin killing with the bases loaded to end the third inning. He also watched his bunt single to lead off the eighth inning get erased by Willson Contreras' double play on the very next pitch.

Even Anthony Rizzo's return atop the order has not been enough to spark this offense and the lineup is continuing its Jekyll and Hyde ways at the absolute worst time.

Why is this offense so inconsistent? It's hard to make heads or tails of it. Even they have no answers for it, especially after out-hitting the Cardinals 9-4 on Friday.

"I mean, it's just one of those things," Nicholas Castellanos said. "I don't think there's really a rhyme or reason for it. I don't even know how many hits we got, but we got a lot more than they did. It's baseball."

"We have to figure it out somehow," Maddon said. "There's no question about it."

—Yadier Molina continues to come up with big hits against the Cubs.

The Cardinals didn't muster up much offense of their own Friday afternoon, going only 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position. But that one hit was a big one — a 2-run single from Molina in the sixth inning after a pair of Cubs relievers (David Phelps, Steve Cishek) combined to walk the first three hitters of the inning.

—Alec Mills pitched well once again, this time in spot start duty while Cole Hamels deals with an ailing shoulder.

Mills tossed 4.2 shutout innings and now has a 2.90 ERA this season. He's been extremely effective in limited big-league duty over the last two seasons, posting a 3.31 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 10.3 K/9 across 49 innings (15 appearances).

Maddon has compared him to Kyle Hendricks a couple different times and it's easy to see the comparison, especially when Mills is spinning a 66 mph curveball, 79 mph changeup and 91 mph fastball.

Next season is a long way off, but Mills has certainly pitched himself into the conversation for a spot in the 2020 rotation or bullpen.

—The Cubs bullpen walked 7 batters in 4.1 innings of work.

The back-to-back-to-back walks in the sixth inning wound up being the dagger, but overall, this was not the best performance from a unit that entered the day with the best bullpen ERA in the big leagues this month.

What's worse is the Cubs utilized eight different pitchers after Mills left the game, including most of the team's top relievers. That could leave some slim pickings for Saturday's game, especially considering Rowan Wick (32 pitches Friday) may be unavailable.

Brewers update

The Brewers beat the Pirates 10-1 Friday night and hold a 2-game lead on the Cubs for the second Wild Card spot.

Milwaukee lost Christian Yelich 10 days ago and their offense has been very similar to the Cubs over that entire time, but they're still somehow finding ways to win games:

Nationals update

After an off-day Thursday, the Nationals were back in action Friday and handed the Marlins their 100th loss of the season.

The Nationals currently own a 1-game lead for the top Wild-Card spot, meaning they're 3 games ahead of the Cubs at the moment to host the one-game playoff.

What's next?

The Cubs and Cardinals play another afternoon matinee game Saturday at Wrigley Field with Jose Quintana and Dakota Hudson facing off.

Quintana will be working on an extra day of rest after the Cubs opted to move him back to Saturday and inserting Mills into the rotation for a spot start.

If the Cubs thought the earlier games were "must-win," these next couple become even more important as they have now dug themselves quite the hole.

"That's all you can do," Rizzo said. "It's not gonna be easy, but you can't think about what's gonna happen and different outcomes. You just gotta come in tomorrow and win. That's what we'll be focused on doing."

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