The message from Cubs brass to players for final stretch of 2019

The message from Cubs brass to players for final stretch of 2019

The Cubs didn't have a team meeting in San Diego to hash things out the way they did back in June 2017

But that didn't stop the leaders of the organization from delivering their message to the players ahead of the final homestand of the 2019 season — and the Cubs' last shot at working themselves back into an enviable spot in the race for October.

The Cubs narrowly escaped San Diego with a series split this week and returned home to Wrigley Field feeling like they let the 3-5 road trip get away from them. Road woes are nothing new for this year's team, but with the season on the line, the last thing the Cubs wanted to do was give the Milwaukee Brewers life or drop back-to-back games to a rebuilding Padres club. 

Before Friday's contest against the Pirates, manager Joe Maddon said he didn't like the energy his team had in the final game in San Diego and felt his guys were putting too much pressure on themselves.

They responded with their best offensive showing since April 30, 2008 — scoring at least 5 runs in three separate innings en route to a 17-8 win.

"Everybody's playing a little bit too tight and that's the one thing I'm just trying to get across to these guys," Maddon said. "When you play uptight, it's very difficult. Play with your hair on fire, play the game, don't worry about all this information. Our guys care so much. ... I want us to loosen up and play baseball and I think if we're able to do that over the next two weeks, we'll get the result that we're looking for."

Maddon and the Cubs didn't get the result they were looking for in the top of the first inning Friday, as back-to-back throwing errors from Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. led to 4 runs for the Pirates. But the offense stormed back with an impressive power display in the bottom of the inning, scoring 5 runs on dingers from Nicholas Castellanos, Contreras and Nico Hoerner (playing in his first career game at Wrigley). 

The lineup didn't stop there, scoring 5 more runs in the third inning and then sending 12 batters to the plate in a 7-run fifth inning that was all started by Kris Bryant's hustle.

Maddon said he has been "infiltrating the group" in his own ways as he tries to get the Cubs back to playing loose and free. 

Jon Lester — who pitched around the poor defensive showing from his teammates to earn his 13th win of the season Friday — agrees that this squad has put too much pressure on themselves at times this season.

"I think we're all trying too hard sometimes," Lester said. "I'm guilty of it; I think everybody in that clubhouse is guilty of it. You want to win the game before the game is even played. That's part of the grind of playing 162 games. You get into those funk sometimes. I think a game like today can help guys loosen up a little bit. I think whenever you struggle, whether it be the pitching side of the game or defensively or offensively, you always try to make up for that in that one instance.

"For us, it's that one pitch — 'I'm gonna make this perfect pitch, I'm gonna get him out and it's gonna be over with and move on to the next guy.' Well, sometimes that puts you 1-0 as opposed to being 0-1 just with a quality pitch. Same thing with hitting — 'oh I'm gonna try to hit a 4-run homer with nobody on right here.'

"You get into those funks where you just almost have to play yourself out of it. Hopefully today is a day where we can all kinda move on from that. It was a big team win for us, all-the-way-around. ... Hopefully we can just continue that and use that momentum from today."

Theo Epstein took to the radio waves to deliver his message to the masses of Cubs fans, but he's also been talking to players behind the scenes and trying to help his team get on the right track with only two-plus weeks remaining in the season.

"The guys have been really frustrated because I think they look around at the other names and how they feel about themselves — 'We have so much talent, how come we're not winning? How come we're not performing?'" Epstein said before Friday's game. "It's just frustrating because they care. So I think it's gonna come.

"We haven't been hot in four months or so. Just frustrating that we seemingly can't get going in certain spots — on the road, especially. But I have not seen any quit by any individual players. I don't see guys who think we can't get it done. I see a team that can certainly play really well down the stretch and change the script and that's what we intend to do."

Epstein is referencing the Cubs' 54-53 record since May 14, a four-month stretch that has seen them drop into a tie with the Brewers for the final playoff spot in the NL with only 16 games to go. 

A lot can happen in 16 games — the Brewers made up 5 games in the standings on the Cubs in the span of a week.

With seven games remaining against the division-leading Cardinals and a 4-game deficit in the division, there is still a scenario here in which the Cubs can avoid facing Max Scherzer and the mighty Nationals in the Wild-Card Game.

But in order to do so, they have to find what's eluded them all season — a consistent brand of winning baseball.

"I think we all feel like this is a team that should be winning," Epstein said. "The players aren't happy with how we're playing. Joe, coaches, managers, front office — we all have different ways of expressing it. But I don't believe in hiding the ball and saying everything's great when things aren't. 

"I still believe in this group. I still think most importantly we have a chance to write our own story here. Sometimes it's better late than never. You'd like to have a season where things really go your way and you can separate a little bit. That hasn't been our path this year. [We'll have] a lot of time after we're done playing — hopefully in November — to talk about why. 

"I'm the first one accountable for it. I run the baseball operations here, so if I'm upset with anything, I'm upset with myself. But that's not the story. The story is we're tied for a playoff spot. We have seven games left against the team we're chasing in the division. And we have a really talented group of guys that hasn't put it all together yet. But we can and we're planning on making that happen."

Friday was a great start if the Cubs are going to change the script and rewrite the story of their season.

Now the key will be carrying that over into Saturday.

And then Sunday.

And then Monday.

And then...

Scott Boras' history lesson illustrates why Cubs are unlikely to trade Kris Bryant


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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