- Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks’ fastball velocity so far this season has been in the 86 MPH range, about two MPH slower than usual, and he’s struggled so far, with 11 runs and four home runs allowed over 16 innings. The Cubs aren’t yet concerned about him, however, as Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune writes. They feel that when his velocity returns, he’ll have enough separation to make his usually devastating changeup effective again. “When he gets back to 87-88 (mph) then you’re going to see that greater separation,” says manager Joe Maddon. “There’s not a dramatic separation between the two pitches, and that’s where the disconnect for him is now.”
The Cubs made an effort to lock up National League MVP Kris Bryant on a long-term extension this offseason but “got nowhere” in their efforts, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated reports. Verducci notes that the Cubs made efforts to lock up several of their young players, in fact, though they weren’t able to push any of them over the finish line. Chicago’s lone offseason extension was a one-year extension for excellent setup man Pedro Strop — a nice move for the club but not the sort of franchise-altering move that a long-term pact for Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell or any of the team’s other young talents would have been.
Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, has a reputation for eschewing contract extensions and pushing his clients toward free agency — long-term deals for Carlos Gonzalez with the Rockies and Stephen Strasburg with the Nationals notwithstanding — though he spoke to Verducci at length about that perception and about extensions in general.
“My first rule [on extension offers] is that I tell the player, ‘Do not look at the team as if they’re trying to steal you. They’ve made the decision that is the right decision. The question is, What is the investment worth? What is the value?'” Boras explains to Verducci. In the case of Bryant, Boras adds that he was on the same page with Cubs president of baseball operations in terms of Bryant’s fit on the team but not when it came to appropriately valuing that fit.
Perhaps most interesting in the column is that Boras paints Epstein as somewhat of a tough negotiator. While Boras doesn’t indicate any ill will toward the iconic executive, he suggests to Verducci that there was never much progress when discussing Jacoby Ellsbury during Epstein’s days as GM of the Red Sox, where Ellsbury starred for the first seven seasons of his career. Ellsbury went year-to-year through the arbitration process and ultimately signed with the Yankees on a seven-year, $153MM contract as a free agent.
“Theo does not settle on certain things,” says Boras. “He offers a very limited range. You’ve got to give up an option year, a free agent year and he can move you whenever he wants to move you.”
While it’s hard to argue with the results for Epstein, who in the past 15 years has broken two of the three longest World Series droughts in baseball (World Series wins with the Red Sox in 2004 and 2007 and, of course, with the Cubs last year), those words may nonetheless be discouraging for Cubs fans. That’s due not only to the fact that Boras represents Bryant but also due to the fact that his company represents Russell and Jake Arrieta. The lack of traction in Arrieta extension talks has been an oft-covered topic here at MLBTR, and Boras’ comments certainly don’t paint a promising picture when it comes to securing long-term deals with either Bryant or Russell. While Arrieta is a free agent at the end of the current season, both Bryant and Russell are controllable through the 2021 season.
That leaves ample time for the Cubs to strike a deal with either Bryant or Russell, but arbitration is also looming for each player. Both entered the season just days (or, in Bryant’s case, a singular day) shy of two years of Major League service time, meaning each will be eligible for arbitration as a Super Two player next offseason. And it’s worth noting that it’s almost certainly not an accident that the pair fell just days shy of qualifying for free agency a year earlier, though the Cubs are hardly the only team to leverage the current service time structure in order to delay free agency by a full year.
In Bryant’s case, the NL Rookie of the Year Award and NL MVP that are already under his belt could very well allow him to topple Ryan Howard’s longstanding record of $10MM for a first-time arbitration player. Howard, much like Bryant, had a Rookie of the Year and an MVP on his record when he received that staggering sum. Russell’s earning capacity is understandably lower, though as a shortstop that could hit arbitration with multiple 20-homer seasons already in his back pocket, he should be paid handsomely over his four years of eligibility.
As Verducci suggested in reporting that Indians star Francisco Lindor turned down an extension offer of “around $100 million” within this same column (more on that decision here), the increasingly strong market for top-tier free agents is likely to continue pushing forward the price for extending top-tier young players such as Bryant or Lindor. Verducci points out that the 2018-19 free agent class stands to be headlined by a pair of players (Bryce Harper and Manny Machado) that could sign contracts which eclipse Giancarlo Stanton’s current 13-year, $325MM record and could crack the $400MM barrier. And at this point, with Bryant just a year from reaching what could be a record-setting arbitration payday, I’d imagine that any offer that does not top Stanton would be a non-starter in extension talks.
Boras, unsurprisingly, had plenty to say on the notion of escalating free agent prices as well. After revealing that former client Alex Rodriguez turned down a $120MM extension offer from the Mariners before signing a then-record-setting $240MM contract with the Rangers all the way back in 2001, Boras tells Verducci:
“Rule number one in baseball is that no team has ever gone broke. Rule number two is that there’s never been an owner who didn’t make money when he sold the team. And rule number three is that there are no recessions in baseball.”
Suffice it to say, Verducci’s full column qualifies as a must-read not only for those who follow the Cubs and Indians but for all fans. The column is stuffed with quotes from Boras, other agents and executives about the rapidly escalating valuation of players and provides a good idea of what could be in store for baseball’s financial landscape.
- With Jake Arrieta and John Lackey scheduled to become free agents after the season, the Cubs could dangle second base/outfield prospect Ian Happ for pitching help, says FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal (video link). On the other hand, Rosenthal notes that Happ’s versatility likely means he isn’t as expendable to the Cubs as now-Royal Jorge Soler was. Happ, Law’s 46th-best prospect, has begun the year with a red-hot .293/.356/.683 line and five home runs in 45 plate appearances at Triple-A.
Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago tells the interesting tale of how Kyle Schwarber put himself on the Cubs’ radar — with a big assist from longtime scout Stan Zielinski, who unfortunately passed away recently. Zielinski drew quite a picture of Schwarber upon seeing him in person, invoking none other than Babe Ruth and calling Schwarber “the best college bat I’ve seen in a long time” — adding, “and remember I’m so old I’ve seen a lot of them.” It’s an interesting read that’s well worth your time.
Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta handled the Brewers on Sunday in a seven-inning, 10-strikeout showing, after which he downplayed concerns about his diminished velocity. “Where I’m at now in my career, I don’t worry about it, because I know that I’m smart enough to work around that,” Arrieta told reporters, including Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago. “The velocity’s still good enough to get it by guys and to do certain things in certain situations with it.” The 31-year-old is clearly confident in his current stuff, but he does expect to regain his lost velocity. “When the 95-to-97 comes back, it’s going to be tough for teams. And it still is,” declared Arrieta, who has posted sterling numbers through two starts this year as he continues to make his case for a massive contract. Arrieta stands as arguably the majors’ top soon-to-be free agent.
- Although there has been skepticism toward Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward’s remade swing, the early returns on his offseason work have been promising, writes Jesse Rogers of ESPN.com. Heyward picked up a pair of hits, including a triple, in five at-bats Sunday, and he managed to put the ball in play with 95 mph-plus exit velocities in each trip to the plate. “I like his hands,” observed manager Joe Maddon. “I like his hands more involved right now. He’s getting started sooner, staying through the ball longer.” Heyward’s previous swing yielded a highly disappointing .230/.306/.325 line in 592 PAs last season, which came as a shock after the normally solid hitter inked an eight-year, $184MM contract in free agency.
Ben Zobrist started the majority of the Cubs’ regular-season games at second base in 2016, but Javier Baez is now in the process of becoming the team’s everyday option at the keystone, writes Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago. Baez started all 17 of the Cubs’ playoff games at second last fall and has opened 2017 by lining up there in four of five contests, which has pushed Zobrist into a super-utility role. Manager Joe Maddon isn’t ready to declare Baez the Cubs’ starter at second, largely because of “all the versatility” the team’s position players possess. However, he admitted that “pretty much what you’ve seen to this point, I think, is like a good indicator of what we’re going to be able to do with everybody being healthy.”
In an appearance on the podcast hosted by C. Trent Rosecrans and Zach Buchanan of the Cincinnati Enquirer, Reds president of baseball operations Dick Williams shared some interesting thoughts on his team and possible areas for innovation. (You can find a writeup of Williams’ comments and a link to the podcast right here.) Williams spoke in particular about the notion of “breaking down the barriers between roles,” both for pitchers and position players. Especially for a small-market team, he said, it’s necessary to question traditional thinking. While it’s hardly clear that the Reds will be tinkering just for the sake of experimentation — Williams says that creative approaches will be attempted “in the context of the talent we have coming” — he did note that it’s intriguing to imagine the possibility of a staff made up mostly of multi-inning pitchers who aren’t strictly classified as starters or relievers. It’s a fun and worthwhile listen.
Here’s more from the NL Central:
- Cardinals GM John Mozeliak expressed some displeasure with recent comments from second baseman Kolten Wong, as ESPN.com’s Mark Saxon writes. Wong had stated rather forcefully that he was uninterested in sharing time at second — a possibility that has been discussed (externally, at least) due both to his continued struggles at the plate this spring and the presence of Jedd Gyorko. Though Wong softened his initial statement, making clear he wants to remain in St. Louis, Mozeliak said he felt the “comments were a little tough given the fact we have other players playing well.” The veteran executive took a measured tone, but made clear where the organization stands. “Starting Sunday, we’re playing to win,” he said. “Whenever a player is trying to accomplish something in spring training, that can’t be an excuse for why things aren’t going well.”
- Righty Drew Hutchison was officially removed from the battle for the Pirates’ final rotation spot, with the team announcing that he has been optioned to Triple-A. That leaves righties Trevor Williams and Tyler Glasnow fighting for the fifth starter’s job. Both reached the majors last year after strong showings in the upper minors, though neither established himself at the game’s highest level. The young hurlers have each staked their claim in differing ways this spring, with Williams posting a 2.63 ERA with a dozen strikeouts against just two walks over 13 2/3 frames and Glasnow racking up 23 Ks — but also allowing nine runs on 19 hits and six free passes — over his 14 1/3 innings.
- The Cubs have made their final Opening Day roster decisions, as Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times reports. Outfielder Matt Szczur and infielder Tommy La Stella are both slated for reserve roles. Szczur, who’s out of options, had been mentioned as a possible trade candidate had he ended up missing out on the Chicago roster. Meanwhile, lefty Brian Duensing will open the season on the DL after being slowed earlier in camp due to back spasms.
The 25-year-old Smith potentially could have made the Cubs’ bullpen as a southpaw swingman, but they’ll instead go with Mike Montgomery and Brian Duensing as their lefty relievers. Smith didn’t see much spring action with the Cubs, having tossed 6 1/3 innings and given up three earned runs on eight hits. Impressively, he struck out seven batters and only issued two walks.
Smith, whom the Yankees chose in Round 14 of the 2013 amateur draft, ascended to Triple-A in 2015, though he has only thrown 4 1/3 innings at that level. In 367 1/3 Double-A frames (94 appearances, 69 starts), he has logged a 3.41 ERA with 8.3 K/9 and 3.4 BB/9. Smith is the second Rule 5 pick the Yankees have gotten back in the past few days – the Diamondbacks returned righty Tyler Jones to them last Friday – and will now head to their minor league camp.
The Cubs have released infielder Munenori Kawasaki, Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times was among those to report on Twitter. In addition to avoiding Article XX(B) obligations, the move allows Kawasaki to look for a shot at making another organization’s Opening Day roster.
If Kawasaki isn’t able to find greener pastures, says Wittenmyer, the Cubs would like to bring him back. That’s not surprising given that the veteran utilityman, a noted clubhouse character, accompanied the team on its successful journey to the World Series even though he wasn’t on the postseason roster and had appeared in just 14 regular-season games.
That’s not to say that Kawasaki doesn’t have his uses as a player. He has only seen limited action over the past two MLB seasons, but has taken 738 trips to the plate at the game’s highest level. While Kawasaki has hit just .237/.320/.289 in that span, he is known as a good and versatile defender.
Unlike last season, when he took nearly three weeks to accept a summer demotion to Triple-A, Cubs infielder Tommy La Stella would be willing to head to the minors without incident this year, according to manager Joe Maddon (via Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago). A season-opening role with Triple-A Iowa is a possibility for La Stella, who’s battling outfielder Matt Szczur for the Cubs’ final bench spot. Szczur is the only one of the two who’s out of options, which could bode poorly for La Stella. The Cubs “haven’t decided everything or anything yet,” per Maddon, but he believes Szczur is a major league-caliber player and an ideal teammate.