Cubs

What if the Cubs had the No. 1 pick in 2013, didn't draft Kris Bryant?

What if the Cubs had the No. 1 pick in 2013, didn't draft Kris Bryant?

Any 2013 MLB re-draft would naturally put Kris Bryant ahead of Mark Appel. Bryant’s meteoric rise and Appel’s anticlimactic bust have naturally piqued revisionist historians’ imaginations. But in reality, the Cubs’ good fortune that draft began long before June. 

With the summer hurtling toward the 2020 draft, it’s worth looking at one of the Cubs’ most successful draft picks in the last decade from a different angle. Under different circumstances, the selection easily could have been one of the club's biggest busts.

Musing on what would have happened if the Astros had selected Bryant first overall, rather than Appel, is all well and good. But the Astros’ selection fell in line with conventional wisdom. It’s no secret that Appel had been at the top of the Cubs’ draft board as well. Instead, the question becomes, what if Chicago had actually had the choice between Bryant and Appel that fateful summer? What if, in the race to the bottom of the standings, the Cubs had won, securing the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft?

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein both understood that in order to pull their respective clubs out of mediocrity, their teams would have to get worse before they could get better. In 2012, the Cubs and Astros were both bad. but Houston’s tank job was particularly masterful. 

Houston came in last by a comfortable margin, ending the season six games back of Chicago. Winning just 55 games, the Astros set a new low for the franchise. (The next year, the team would go 51-111.) 

But what if the Astros hadn’t committed so ardently to starting over, or the exhaustion of a losing season had weighed on the Cubs a little more heavily?

Let’s imagine an alternate universe in which Chicago slips into last place. With the No. 1 overall pick, the Cubs select Appel, widely considered a low-risk, high-reward choice. Instead, Appel’s career plays out much the way it did in reality. Plagued by injuries, Appel retires in 2018. He’s 26 years old and has never pitched in a big-league game.

The first-round miss slows the Cubs’ rebuild. They barely miss the playoffs in 2015. So, there’s no upset of the Cardinals in the NL Division Series. Ownership doesn’t see value in spending extra ahead of the 2016 season.

In 2016, the Cubs make the postseason but have to face the Giants in a Wild Card game. San Francisco eliminates them in a close game -- those one-run playoffs games between the Cubs and Giants remain a constant between these two parallel universes.

So, a 108-year drought stretches to 109. The rebuild continues.

When the Cubs pick Appel No. 1 overall, the Astros may not select Bryant, the best position player in the 2013 draft. They may take another pitcher, right-hander Jonathan Gray, who Houston was also reportedly considering in 2013. Bryant may fall to the Rockies and reap the benefits of hitting at Coors Field, in the thin Colorado air.

But it’s even more interesting to imagine the Astros drafting Bryant.

“We loved him,” Luhnow said in 2016 of Bryant. “And we had him very high on the board,”

Bryant thrives as part of a young Houston core. With a batting order of George Springer-Bryant-Jose Altuve-Carlos Correa, the Astros take momentum into the playoffs and win the 2016 World Series.

In the real world, MLB’s investigation this year found that in 2017 the Astros began using the live feed from a center field camera to steal opposing teams' signs. In our alternate universe, Houston’s World Series victory remains untainted. Even more optimistically, maybe the rings on the Astros’ fingers keep them from stealing signs and banging on trash cans all together.

So, Bryant ends up raising a World Series trophy whether he’s selected by the Cubs or Astros.

As for the Cubs, when former Chicago manager Joe Maddon was asked in 2016 about the Astros selecting Appel No. 1 overall, Maddon had two words for Houston: “Thank you.”

Former Cubs pitcher Dan Straily, now in KBO, details games without fans

Former Cubs pitcher Dan Straily, now in KBO, details games without fans

Cubs fans may remember Dan Straily. The right-hander pitched for the club in 2014, making seven appearances (one start) before getting dealt to the Houston Astros the ensuing offseason in the Dexter Fowler trade.

Straily now pitches for the Lotte Giants in the KBO, South Korea's highest level of pro ball. The league kicked its season off earlier this month without fans in attendance, a model MLB will likely follow for most (if not all) of its potential 2020 season.

Jon Frankel, a correspondent for HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel," recently interviewed current and former KBO players about the league's return during the coronavirus pandemic. In an excerpt made available via press release, Frankel asked Straily if he misses playing in front of a crowd.

MORE: Why one medical expert remains skeptical of MLB's COVID-19 precautions

"Of course. Like, even if you're on the road, and people are just telling you how much you suck — you thrive off it," Straily said. "You feed off that energy.”

Crowd noise obviously plays a big part in an athlete's adrenaline. Not having that factor will be an adjustment for MLB in 2020, and Straily took things a step further regarding the circumstances players face without fans in attendance.

“My shortstop dove for a ball. And he missed it by, like, an inch," he said. "Like, it was an incredible effort. When he hit the ground, I heard the air leave his lungs. And we've talked about that in the dugout. Because I've never once in my life heard that.”

Not having crowds to drown out on-field noise could make for a unique viewing experience for fans at home. UFC returned on May 9, and many punches and kicks were audible on ESPN's TV broadcast.

MLB teams could play proxy crowd noise in games, but nevertheless, fans may pickup noises on their TVs previously unavailable from home.

The full episode will air Tuesday at 9 p.m. CT on HBO.

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How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

The cheer master’s whistle echoed through the ballpark, and dinosaur mascots wearing giant face masks danced on top of the dugout.

With fans absent due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sunday’s scene didn’t quite do the Korean Baseball Organization experience justice. But it was still the league that taught Ryan Sadowski how to let loose on the field.

"I found that as a player I didn't allow myself to enjoy my success the way I should have because it's the game of baseball,” Sadowski told ESPN in 2016. “You're not supposed to show that you enjoy your success. I think it's something I learned here (in Korea), that I would take to younger kids in the States."

Major League Baseball is well aware that its status in the United States will continue to slip if it can’t figure out how to reach a younger audience. This summer presents an opportunity. If the players and owners can agree to a deal that makes the league’s early July target date a reality, for weeks it will be the only major sport on television.

Sports fans are clamoring for action after a months-long drought. What better time to draw in new fans? In that regard, the KBO could have something to teach MLB.

Sadowski is in a unique position to compare the KBO and MLB. He played in both leagues before becoming a KBO scout. Sadowski’s support for on-the-field expression is one Cubs shortstop Javier Báez would likely get behind.

Báez had a message similar to Sadowski's on MLB’s YouTube channel recently. In a show taped during Spring Training, Báez chatted with Puerto Rican recording artist Residente while running the Grammy Award-winner through baseball drills.

“In my personal opinion, I would like to teach young people growing up to enjoy [the game],” Báez said in Spanish. “And if they fail, fail having fun. And keep doing what is right. Let the kids play.”

Báez has been criticized for his playing style, most famously in 2018 when he bat-flipped after a popup. Afterward, former Pirates manager Clint Hurdle questioned Báez's “respect for the game.”

But Báez's huck wouldn’t have been out of place in Sunday’s KBO game between the NC Dinos and Hanwhu Eagles. The broadcast didn’t feature the kind of ostentatious bat flips that have become so popular on social media. But still, in consecutive innings, players on both teams tossed their bats several feet up the baseline to punctuate base hits. No uproar ensued.

The rate at which KBO bat flips have spread through Twitter speaks to a hunger for showboating among young baseball fans. Why not embrace it?   

“It’s not that it is not the correct way of doing it,” Báez told Residente of his playing style. “It’s just not the way many coaches teach it.”

In the United States, the NBA is the poster child for attracting millennial fans. In 2017-18, young adults led the league’s growth in ratings, according to Forbes. TV viewership among 18- to 34-year-olds was up 14 percent.

The NBA does an especially good job marketing its stars. Admittedly, the game lends itself to that strategy in a way that baseball does not. LeBron James can take over any game down the stretch, but Mike Trout isn’t going to get an at-bat every time the winning run is in scoring position.

But there are other ways NBA stars capture the fascination of young fans. Kids across the country grew up shrugging like Michael Jordan or pumping their arms and pounding their chests like LeBron James.  They take deep dives into YouTube, watching the most devastating dunks of all time – the more embarrassing for the defender, the better. None of that disrespects the game. The NBA and KBO have that in common.

MLB doesn’t have to adopt the KBO’s use of specific chants for each batter and embrace bat flipping for everything from home runs to ground outs – even though, by all accounts, those elements create a delightfully raucous atmosphere.

MLB doesn’t have to abolish baseball’s unwritten rules in one day. But an amendment is in order.

What if demonstrative zeal was instead embraced as a sign of respect for the game? After all, it might be MLB’s best hope of connecting to the next generation.