Cubs

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 37th homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 37th homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Sosa's 37th homer of the 1998 season was a big one, an opposite field blast off the front row of fans in right field and into the basket at Wrigley Field.

The eighth-inning 3-run shot gave the Cubs some insurance in a game they ultimately won 9-5 and the Wrigley faithful responded by throwing a bunch of trash on the field.

Earlier in the contest, Sosa tied the game with an RBI single in the fifth inning. He finished with 4 RBI, giving him 93 on the season with more than 2 months left to play.

Fun fact: Vladimir Guerrero was the Expos' No. 3 hitter for this game an dhe also hit a homer (his 20th). Now, Guerrero's son is nearing his MLB debut as a top prospect in the Toronto Blue Jays system.

Fun fact No. 2: Mark Grudzielanek - who later played for the Cubs in 2003-04 - was Montreal's No. 5 hitter for the game at Wrigley. He was traded 10 days later from the Expos to the Los Angeles Dodgers for another fellow Cub - Ted Lilly.

The Reds are putting the NL Central on notice

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USA TODAY

The Reds are putting the NL Central on notice

We're less than a month before spring training begins and as it stands right now, the National League Central is the only division in baseball where every team is truly "going for it."

Everybody knows the Cubs and Brewers are aiming to contend after playoff appearances last year and the Cardinals clearly are hoping to end their three-year October drought after acquiring Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller. The Pirates have been quiet this winter (as they are every offseason), but remember, they traded for Chris Archer and Keone Kela last July.

But the Reds? The Reds have low-key had the best offseason of any team in the division.

That's not to say Cincinnati will be contending for the division crown in 2019, but they've certainly addressed their biggest two weaknesses this winter — starting pitching and overall depth.

The Reds acquired Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig to bolster their lineup and outfield, but the work they've done to the rotation could be a real game-changer. 

Cincinnati acquired a trio of starting pitchers this winter in trades — Sonny Gray, Alex Wood and Tanner Roark. All three guys have varying levels of concerns based on past performance or health, but it's very clear they're all improvements over what the Reds had to work with as starters in 2018. Only five teams had a rotation with a worse ERA than the Reds last season (5.02).

Here's Cincinnati's 2018 Opening Day rotation:

Anthony DeSclafani
Homer Bailey
Brandon Finnegan
Luis Castillo
Sal Romano

Here's the 2019 projected rotation:

Sonny Gray
Alex Wood
Luis Castillo
Tanner Roark
Anthony DeSclafani

You don't have to be a baseball expert to know the latter rotation is a more desirable 1-through-5 and has the potential to be significantly better. 

Castillo has flashed top-of-the-rotation potential but has struggled with consistency. DeSclafani went 18-18 with a 3.74 ERA and 1.30 WHIP from 2015-16 before missing all of 2017 with an elbow injury and working his way back in only 21 starts last year.

Wood has barely topped 150 innings the last two seasons with the Dodgers, but he went 25-10 with a 3.20 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 8.5 K/9. Gray — the latest acquisition — has been an ace at various points in his career (2.88 ERA, 1.13 WHIP from 2013-15) despite a tough 2018. Roark was the most overlooked guy in the Nationals rotation the last few years and while he's certainly not a No. 1, he's 59-50 with a 3.61 ERA and 1.21 WHIP as a starting pitcher.

Who knows how the three new guys will perform in a hitter's environment like Great American Ballpark and in front of a new defense, but the improvement in talent and potential is undeniable. Plus, only Roark is over 30 and only he and Wood are free agents after 2019.

Everybody knows the Reds can swing it and Puig and Kemp are solid factors to supplement a lineup that already features one of the best hitters in the game (Joey Votto), two of the more underrated stars in baseball (Eugenio Suarez, Scooter Gennett) and an up-and-coming speedster (Jose Peraza). Plus, young outfielder Jesse Winker is proving more and more that he's making the most of his time learning from Votto, as the 25-year-old has a .299 average and .397 on-base percentage in 136 games over his big-league career.

The Reds also feature an underrated bullpen that is returning every major piece that contributed to a No. 16 ranking in MLB in reliever ERA last year. 

Oh yeah, and the Reds have the sixth-best farm system according to FanGraphs, so they have some impressive young talent coming up through the system that can either help augment the big-league club or be dangled as trade headliners.

Also consider this — from May 8-July 31 in 2018, here's how each team in the NL Central fared:

CHC: 44-29
MIL: 43-32
CIN: 40-32
PIT: 37-36
STL: 34-40

This was a stretch in time after the Reds made a managerial change and before the trade deadline. Sure, it's cherry-picking a point in the schedule, but this is nearly half a season's worth of recent data that shows the Reds can hang with the top of the division.

And they've very clearly improved this winter. That doesn't always translate to on-field wins, but the Reds can't win any games in December or January. All they can do is try to improve their roster and increase depth and they've certainly done that.

If nothing else, the Reds could loom as a serious spoiler down the stretch. They play the Cubs and Cardinals 7 times each from August to September and face off against the Brewers three times in the final two months.

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Bryce Harper to the Cubs is so 2018, so let's turn our attention to Mike Trout

Bryce Harper to the Cubs is so 2018, so let's turn our attention to Mike Trout

Bryce Harper to the Cubs is, like, so 2018.

It seems more and more unlikely Harper will be looking for housing on the North Side of Chicago anytime soon, with several Cubs throwing cold water on the rumor in the last week, including Kris Bryant (though he also said he hasn't talked to his buddy in a couple weeks and claimed he and Harper never discussed where he might sign).

So let's turn our attention to the next big free agent crush that could occupy Cubs fans' attention.

No, not Nolan Arenado. 

Mike Trout.

Is it far too soon to be thinking about Mike Trout's free agency when he's still under contract with the Angels for the next two years? Of course. But this is the internet and this place was made for random, way-too-early thoughts and debates on interesting topics.

Bleacher Report came up with odds for which team would sign Trout in the winter of 2020-21 and the Cubs came in with the 8th highest chance (19/1 odds) of inking the game's best player to a deal. The rest of their list included the White Sox, Dodgers, Nationals, Yankees, Red Sox and Angels with better chances than the Cubs, but that all makes sense given the lofty spending habits of those teams and the financial flexibility of the White Sox. Even the Angels would have a ton of money then with Albert Pujols' awful contract about to expire after 2021. 

But focusing on just the Cubs' perspective on the matter, it'd be hard to see the team handing out what may be the loftiest deal in MLB history at that point in time.

Yes, the Cubs may have money, as only Jason Heyward and Yu Darvish have guaranteed contracts for 2021, but they also have $13 million in buyouts owed to Jon Lester ($10 million), Anthony Rizzo ($2 million) and Daniel Descalso ($1 million) even if they don't pick up the respective options of each player. So the team already has $58.5 million committed to the 2021 payroll and only two actual players on the hypothetical roster. Picking up the options for Lester ($25 million), Rizzo ($14.5 million) and Descalso ($3.5 million) would bring the grand total of committments to $88.5 million for only five players.

Then there's the matter of all the arbitration, which would include Kris Bryant's final year under team control and a contract that may well climb over $20 million for 2021. Plus, the final year of arbitration — and thus, the most expensive years — for Javy Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell (if he's still around), Mike Montgomery and Carl Edwards Jr. (It stands to reason the Cubs would obviously like to retain at least a couple of those players beyond 2021, so they'd need to earmark money for the winter after Trout, too.)

Willson Contreras, Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ will all be in their second year of arbitration in 2021 and even David Bote would be in his first year of a non-rookie contract. 

So sure, the Cubs will have Tyler Chatwood's contract coming off the books after 2020 among other salary reductions, but every guy that we know could be on their roster in 2021 is slated for an expensive contract. 

Theo Epstein (or whoever's in his position two years from now) will have to focus an awful lot of resources on fixing a pitching staff that currently has only Darvish, Montgomery, Edwards and Kendall Graveman under contract for 2021. You know, unless the organization actually starts developing young pitchers through the system — something that has been the black eye of this front office in the near-decade they've been running the Cubs.

The Cubs' payroll will certainly undergo changes between now and then with the new TV deal and a potentially new CBA that may shake up free agency as we know it (especially after the last two winters).

Either way, it's two years out and so much can happen in two years.

Two years ago, many Cubs fans wanted their favorite team to land Harper and that only intensified all the way through the month of October last fall. Yet we've seen how that's played out.

But hey — Mike Trout is a free agent in November 2020 so...maybe? Or maybe not?

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