Cubs

Which player on the 2019 Cubs has the best redemption story so far?

Which player on the 2019 Cubs has the best redemption story so far?

The Cubs woke up Thursday morning 11 games over .500, 2 games up on the Brewers in the division and sporting the best run differential (+63) in the National League.

But they wouldn't be in that position without some strong comeback seasons from a host of players. 

In the series finale of Game of Thrones this week, Tyrion Lannister made an impassioned speech about how stories bind people and "there's nothing more powerful than a good story."

We already know who had the best redemption arc in Game of Thrones (*cough* Theon Greyjoy *cough*), but who has the best comeback on the 2019 Cubs roster?

There are plenty of worthy candidates — all of whom have been on display in this week's series with the Phillies at Wrigley Field.

Tyler Chatwood

The impetus behind this idea, Chatwood has a very strong case as the Cubs' Comeback Player of the Year. 

After leading Major League Baseball in walks allowed and finding his way out of the rotation by Aug. 1 last season, Chatwood has bounced back in a huge way in 2019. He posted another clutch performance out of the bullpen Wednesday night, throwing 4 innings in relief and allowing only 1 run on a solo shot by Andrew McCutchen.

Chatwood picked up the win in the process and is now 3-0 with a 2.86 ERA and 1.34 WHIP in 28.1 innings. He's been even better of late, posting a 1.82 ERA in 24.2 innings since April 7.

"If he's throwing strikes, he can do anything, absolutely," Joe Maddon said. "But he's been valuable with the length, like he showed today. We needed to have a length guy today. He came through. 

"As we rectify [the bullpen] maybe you get other people that can provide those jobs, maybe you can spot him up a little bit. It's all about him, man. If he wants to go out there and do that, you can put him in anywhere, anytime."

Chatwood has been clutch for the Cubs in so many different roles, including tossing 6 shutout innings in a spot start on April 21, 4 shutout frames in extra innings against the Brewers on May 11 and then Wednesday night's performance to help pick up some of the slack after starter Cole Hamels was forced out of the game by the fifth inning.

"It was awesome," Hamels said. " ... You have him and he's got electric stuff and he's been able to come in after me a few times and just absolutely dominate. That's just great to see. To have that type of caliber guy coming out of the bullpen, it's a big sigh of relief because he can go multiple innings. 

"It definitely alleviates the amount of innings that the relievers are getting and the up-downs because myself not being able to go deep into 2 ballgames within a week is not helpful. So to see what Tyler was able to do, that was outstanding."

Kris Bryant

It took a while for the former MVP to really state his #ComebackSZN case, but he's certainly done that over the last month. 

Bryant has re-emerged as a viable candidate to take the crown as the Cubs' best player and has left no doubt that he's fully over his shoulder injury. 

After another multi-hit game Wednesday night, Bryant is now slashing .280/.404/.560 on the season (.964 OPS) and is on pace for 38 homers, 110 RBI and 138 runs scored.

Of all the guys on this list, Bryant's return to form might be the most important to the Cubs' overall success. 

It's not unheard of for teams to turn in successful seasons without their stars performing up to par or staying healthy, but it's so much easier to have a special season when your studs put up studly numbers.

Albert Almora Jr.

Almora smacked his first career grand slam Wednesday night and was rewarded with a chill-inducing curtain call by nearly 40,000 Cubs fans after the game-winning blast.

"Those are the things you dream about as a kid," Almora said. "That curtain call, all of that went by so quick. I wish I could've enjoyed it a little bit more, but it's something I'll never forget."

But what's even more impressive about the grand slam is that it was Almora's fifth homer of 2019 — the same total he had in all of 2018 when his power cratered in the second half. And we still have more than 2/3 of the season remaining.

Almora has always been a streaky hitter and he got off to a wicked cold stretch to begin this year, but he's been one of the most productive hitters in this Cubs lineup for the last month. 

He's also taken some major steps forward against right-handed pitchers, sporting a .312 average and .827 OPS in an area that was his biggest weakness coming into the season.

Willson Contreras

Speaking of last year's homer total, Contreras has already blown by his 2018 mark, drilling his 11th dinger in Washington D.C. last weekend. 

He once again looks like arguably the best offensive catcher in the game and leads the Cubs in on-base percentage (.421) and OPS (1.024) and is second in slugging percentage (.603).

Contreras is on pace for 38 homers and 103 RBI out of the catcher's spot and has helped solidify the lineup by lending protection for Javy Baez in the middle of the order.

Brandon Kintzler

The 34-year-old reliever has struggled a bit of late, but it's still safe to say Kintzler has been the MVP of the Cubs bullpen all season. 

After coming over to the Cubs in a midseason trade from the Nationals, Kintzler never found his form last year, posting a 7.00 ERA and 2.00 WHIP in 25 appearances. The Cubs declined their team option on the veteran, but he exercised his $5 million player option, much to the chagrin of a large contingent of the fanbase.

But where would the 2019 Cubs be without Kintzler? The bullpen has been a big point of contention for much of the season and the Cubs have been missing closer Brandon Morrow all season, interim closer Pedro Strop for the last few weeks and are still waiting on former top setup man Carl Edwards Jr. to get right.

Meanwhile, Kintzler has a 3.18 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and 8 holds. He's walked just 4 batters in 22.2 innings and is squarely in Maddon's circle of trust.

Jose Quintana

Quintana didn't have a horrible 2018 season, but he underwhelmed pretty much from start to finish. 

So far this season, he's shown exactly why the Cubs gave up so much to acquire him in July 2017. 

The veteran southpaw is tied for the team lead in wins (4), second in innings pitched (57.1), third in strikeouts (54) and third among starters in ERA (3.30) after quietly tossing 6 shutout innings Tuesday night.

Quintana has also given the Cubs some much-needed consistency in the rotation in a season in which Jon Lester has already spent time on the injured list, Kyle Hendricks got off to a shaky start, Hamels has scuffled a bit lately and Yu Darvish is just now starting to turn a corner. 

Over his last 8 starts, Quintana has turned in 6 quality starts and he's allowed more than 3 runs in just one outing so far.

So who has the best redemption arc on the 2019 Cubs?

Maybe it's none of the above. 

One fan brought up a great point — maybe it's Theo Epstein who should get some credit for sticking with the guys the Cubs already had:

Of course, Epstein's hand was pretty much forced this winter due to the budget constraints and guys like Kintzler and Chatwood were both under contract for a pretty hefty guaranteed price tag with essentially no trade value...but you get the point. 

The Cubs could've blown this thing up as an overreaction to the way 2018 ended and they didn't and now they're in first place with the season nearly 1/3 of the way completed. 

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Pregame focus, according to Javy Baez, is where the Cubs need to get better

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USA Today

Pregame focus, according to Javy Baez, is where the Cubs need to get better

While the Cubs’ decline has been talked about over, and over, and over, again, it’s always remained framed in relatively vague terms. Something wasn’t right over the last two seasons, and – perhaps in the interest of protecting a former manager that’s still clearly liked within the Cubs’ clubhouse – specifics were avoided. It was just that a change was needed, and Rossy knows what, etc. 

That is, until Javy Baez spoke on Sunday morning. In no unclear terms, Baez took a stab at explaining why he feels such a talented team has fallen far short of expectations in back-to-back seasons. 

“It wasn’t something bad, but we had a lot of options – not mandatory,” the Cubs’ star shortstop said from his locker at Sloan Park. “Everybody kind of sat back, including me, because I wasn’t really going out there and preparing for the game. I was getting ready during the game, which is not good. But this year, I think before the games we’ve all got to be out there, everybody out there, as a team. Stretch as a team, be together as a team so we can play together.”

Baez’s comments certainly track. Maddon’s widely considered one of the better managers in baseball, but discipline and structure have never been key pillars of his leadership style. He intrinsically trusts players to get their own work done – something that’s clearly an appreciated aspect of his personality, until, as you saw, it isn’t. World Series hangovers don’t exist four years after the fact, but given Maddon’s immediate success in Chicago, it’s easy to understand how players, maybe even incidentally, let off the gas pedal. 

“I mean I would just get to the field and instead of going outside and hit BP, I would do everything inside, which is not the same,” he added. “Once I’d go out to the game, I’d feel like l wasn’t ready. I felt like I was getting loose during the first 4 innings, and I should be ready and excited to get out before the first pitch.” 

“You can lose the game in the first inning. Sometimes when you’re not ready, and the other team scores by something simple, I feel like it was because of that. It was because we weren’t ready, we weren’t ready to throw the first pitch because nobody was loose.” 

Baez also explicitly promised that this year would feature far more organization and rigidity. They’ll stretch as a team, warm up outside as a team (presumably even during the cold months!), and hopefully rediscover that early-game focus that maybe slipped away during the extended victory lap. That may mean less giant hacks, too. 

“Sometimes we’re up by a lot or down by a lot and we wanted to hit homers,” he said. “That’s really not going to work for the team. It’s about getting on base and giving the at-bat to the next guy, and sometimes we forget about that because of the situation of the game. I think that’s the way you get back to the game – going pitch by pitch and at-bat by at-bat.” 

Baez was less specific when it came to his contractual discussions with the team, only going so far to say that negotiations were “up-and-down.” He’d like to play his whole career here, and would be grateful if an extension was reached before Opening Day – he’s just not counting on it. The focus right now is just on recapturing some of that 2016 drive, and the rest, according to him, will take care of itself. 

He may have lost the service-time battle, but Kris Bryant's got eyes on winning the war

He may have lost the service-time battle, but Kris Bryant's got eyes on winning the war

He always knew it was going to be an uphill battle. Kris Bryant just expected the climb to last a couple weeks, not a couple years. 

“Yeah, jeez. That took forever,” he said on Saturday, in regards to the grievance he filed against the Cubs back after the 2015 season. “It really did. At the beginning of it, I was told that it’d take maybe a couple weeks, so I was ready for it. And then the off-season kept going on and I was like, ‘All right, come out with it, let’s go.’”

Fast-forward 200 or so weeks, and the Cubs’ star third baseman got an answer – just not the one he, his agent Scott Boras, and the MLB Players Association was looking for. An independent arbitrator disagreed with the notion that the Cubs had manipulated Bryant’s service time in order to keep him under contract longer, and ruled that he would remain under team control until after the 2021 season. While many felt that what the Cubs did violated the spirit of the law, ultimately they didn’t infringe on the letter. 

“Obviously we had a disagreement. We handled it respectfully,” Bryant said. “I’m very thankful that Theo and the team saw it through. I saw it through to the end because it was something that I really believed in. My Mom and Dad told me to always stand up for what I believed in, and I was going to see the process through, and I saw it through. Respect on both ends, there’s definitely no hard feelings, so let’s definitely put that narrative to bed.” 

Despite one of the strongest cases in the history of these contractual disputes, there were ultimately too many ambiguities involved to reward Bryant with free agency one year earlier. Getting a substantial raise would have been nice, but much of Bryant’s motivation behind filing the grievance in the first place came from a sense of responsibility to bring to light what many feel are unfair labor laws within the current collectively-bargained agreement. It’s certainly not one extra year of market value salary, but as baseball barrels towards a contentious stretch of negotiations, bringing the issue to light – according to Bryant – is a win within itself. 

“I definitely felt that responsibility to take it on and be like, I want to be the guy that fights for this because I believe this is right,” he said. “And it’s going to help us in 2 years.

“I think it’s good for us to go through stuff like this. You identify the problems that you see, and you try to make it better. This last round, I think we, as players, really took a whoopin’. It’s up to us to fight for things that we think are right.” 

Don’t be surprised when Bryant continues to be a public figure throughout the next 24 months (or more) of discussions. He’s one of the game’s most recognizable faces, and from the very start, his five-year career has been tied to the hip of MLB’s service time manipulation controversy. He was vocal about squashing any idea that he held ill-will towards the Cubs front office, but did concede that the gray area which many front offices love to exploit has opened the door for uncomfortable, unnecessary friction. 

“The team doesn’t want to go through it,” he said. “I mean, Theo doesn’t want to have to make decisions like that, and cause … I wouldn’t say problems, but disagreements between players and the front office. I don’t want to be put in that situation either, so let’s just make it black and white. It’d make things a whole lot easier.” 

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