Cubs

No, the Cubs are not trading Kris Bryant

No, the Cubs are not trading Kris Bryant

Breathe easy Cubs fans - the Cubs are not trading Kris Bryant this winter.

ESPN's Buster Olney made waves Friday afternoon when he published a story entitled, "Cubs open to trading 3B Kris Bryant" and wrote: "the Cubs have indicated to other teams they are willing to discuss trade proposals for almost all of the players on their roster, including Bryant."

The 2016 NL MVP is under team control for another three years, but the Cubs' championship window is firmly open for each of those seasons and dealing away a player of Bryant's caliber would certainly not make the team better in the short term.

Apart from Olney's sources, the impetus behind the rumor Bryant may be on the market is Theo Epstein's quote from Wednesday evening at the GM Meetings this week.

The Cubs are expected to be active on the trade market this winter and the president of baseball operations was asked by a Chicago reporter if any of the players on the current roster are considered "untouchable."

"No, we've never operated with untouchables," Epstein said. "I just think it sends the wrong message. There are guys who - given what we're trying to accomplish - it would be virtually impossible to envision the deal that would make sense to move them.

"I just don't believe with operating with untouchables - because why limit yourself? There are players who are so important to us on the field and in the clubhouse that you'd be going backwards through whatever lens - narrow view, long view - by moving those guys. Players who have almost made themselves untouchable. It's semantics, but we don't talk that way."

So what does that mean?

It means guys like Bryant and Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez and Willson Contreras are not "untouchable" but only in the true definition of the word. Essentially, those three guys are "untouchable" as they fit the second part of Epstein's explanation as players who are so important to the Cubs on and off the field.

The only reason Epstein doesn't use the word "untouchable" because if some team offered an absolutely ridiculous package for a guy like Bryant, the Cubs would be silly not to listen. But that would have to be a downright insane return for an MVP-caliber player who is also one of the faces of baseball, boasts impressive intangibles and can help the team win in so many ways beyond his bat - including defensive versatility unmatched by other superstar players around the game.

At the GM Meetings in Southern California, Epstein also admitted the Cubs front office has quietly tried to sign some of their young players to extensions, but have failed to do so. He declined to talk about any specific player, but it's fair to assume Bryant may have been one of those guys.

Bryant's agent is Scott Boras, who notoriously advises his clients to avoid signing extensions early and prefer to let his star players hit the open market and create a bidding war - like we're seeing right now with Bryce Harper.

The Cubs spent most of 2018 without a healthy and productive Bryant in their lineup and we saw how that worked out for the offense. Why would they willingly enter into that same situation for the next three years by dealing away Bryant?

The Cubs are not a rebuilding team. They're firmly in contention for a World Series in 2019 (you don't pick up a $20 million option on a starting pitcher like Cole Hamels if you're not aiming for the game's top prize) and it's near-impossible to see how trading away Bryant would get the Cubs another championship ring in 2019, 2020 or 2021.

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Cubs' all-time saves leader Lee Smith elected to National Baseball Hall of Fame

Cubs' all-time saves leader Lee Smith elected to National Baseball Hall of Fame

Lee Smith is headed to Cooperstown.

Smith, the Cubs' all-time saves leader, was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Today's Game Era Committee on Sunday night. 

Smith, 61, pitched in 18 MLB seasons, eight with the Cubs. He posted a 3.03 ERA in 1,022 career games, saving 478 games. At the time of his retirement, Smith was was MLB's all-time saves leader, though he now ranks third behind Mariano Rivera (652 saves) and Trevor Hoffman (601).

After spending the first eight seasons of his career (1980-87) with the Cubs, Smith went on to pitch for the Red Sox (1988-1990), Cardinals (1990-93), Yankees (1993), Orioles (1994), Angels (1995-96), Reds (1996) and Expos (1997). He is a six-time All-Star, making the team with the Cubs twice (1983, 1987). 

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If Bryce Harper wants to live up to his upcoming mega-deal, here's how he can improve

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USA Today

If Bryce Harper wants to live up to his upcoming mega-deal, here's how he can improve

Someone, somewhere, sometime soon is going to give Bryce Harper a *lot* of money. 

Whoever decides to pay Harper $330-350 million over the next 6-8 years will also look for a *lot* of return on investment, which stands to reason. Gone are the days of 10-12 guys getting massive, above-value contracts per offseason. Love it or hate it, fiscal prudency is all the rage in baseball, and teams are going to look long and hard before handing out the type of contracts that they were throwing left and right only half a decade ago. 

Because Harper exsists in the 1% of pro baseball players that are still going to get nine-digit contract offers, whichever fanbase he ends up playing in front of for 82 games a year will dissect his performance in a way that few players before him have experienced. Want to get Cubs' or Yankees' or Phillies' or Mystery Teams' fans off your back? Here's what Harper can improve upon during the first year of his new deal. 

Strike out less 

It's the goal of every pro baseball not named Mookie Betts or Jose Ramirez to cut down on the strikeouts, and while may be obvious to point out that it'd be nice if Harper K'd less, it should be noted that Harper was especially free-swinging last season. His K% was all the way up at 24.3 percent, his highest since 2014. He had 169 strikeouts in 2018, which is far and away his worst season in that regards. Ironically enough, his next-worst season was the 2015 campaign, when he notced 131. He also notched the MVP that season, so. 

Power hitters are going to strike out, especially in the increasingly-infamous Three True Outcome era. Minus a radical change to plate approach -- which NO team that's about to give someone 300 million dollars wants to hear about -- Harper's strikeout percentage is always going to sit in the low-20s.  With that said, there's a big difference between 20-21% and 24%, as you know, and only two hitters with higher wRC+'s than Harper also had higher K% -- Paul Goldschmidt and Brandon Nimmo. Even getting back close to his career average (21.2%) would be a win for him next year. 

Get better on the bases again  

Harper's bat grants him baserunning leniency, but it'd be nice if he got back at least not having a negative impact on the basepaths. According to FanGraph's baserunning metrics, it's been two years since Harper's been worth even one run on the bases. In his first five years with the Nationals, he was worth at least two runs four times - and even got above three twice. How active Harper is on the basepaths has a lot to do with whoever's his manager next summer, but he has the speed to at least be a plus runner. Does he need to haul down the line to beat out a grounder to 2nd in a late-August game in Texas? No. But considering only eight guys got on base more often than Harper did last year, it'd be nice to see him take some more chances with all the opportunities he's given. 

Get luckier 

This one only kind of counts, because obviously Harper has no ability to control the type of luck he gets. A lot of Harper's bizarre 2018 season stems from the fact that he was historically unlucky, especially in the first half of the year. His .226 BABIP during that stretch was 18th-worst in all of baseball, putting him with the likes of Texas' Joey Gallo and Baltimore's Chris Davis. He posted a .378 BABIP in the 2nd half, which is even better than his career average (.318). Not convinced yet? Harper hit .249, slugged .496 and posted a .376 wOBA. Per Baseball Savant, his expected results in those categories were .270, .506, and .398, respectively. He was a much better hitter last season than he gets credit for, and suffered because of a prolonged slump that looked bad in all the wrong categories. Even being a smidge more lucky over the first eight weeks of next year will go a long way.