- In addition to kicking around some ideas with Kris Bryant, which didn’t seem to gain much traction, the Cubs held some talks over the winter with catcher Willson Contreras, according to Heyman. It seems that the backstop’s reps weren’t keen on Chicago’s ideas, which would’ve included “multiple options” — no surprise, given that Contreras has just 108 days of MLB service under his belt.
Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts acknowledged after last night’s game that there’s a chance top prospect Cody Bellinger won’t be optioned back to Triple-A when Joc Pederson is ready to return, as Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register was among those to report. The 21-year-old has only 32 plate appearances under his belt, but he is batting a robust .345/.406/.655 with three walks to go with five strikeouts. “I think I belong,” said Bellinger. His manager seemingly agreed, praising the youngster and noting that “things can change” when addressing the question whether Bellinger would be sent back as planned. The question remains one of playing time, as the organization no doubt prefers that Bellinger play more or less every day. Unless first baseman Adrian Gonzalez is sent to the DL to rest his forearm or the club decides to reduce the playing time of its existing group of outfielders, that might be difficult for the Dodgers to arrange.
Here’s more from the National League:
- While Mets players and coaches say Matt Harvey has been on the rebound in terms of his stuff, the results just haven’t been there, as MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo explores. Both Harvey and manager Terry Collins say they believe the issue is command, especially with his secondary offerings. Whatever the cause, it’s concerning. While Harvey’s average velocity isn’t too far from his typical range, he is managing only a 7.4% swinging-strike rate. That has left him with as many earned runs as strikeouts (5.14 per nine apiece) over his 35 innings this year.
- Meanwhile, Mets catch Travis d’Arnaud left yesterday’s game when his recent wrist injury “acted up,” in the words of Collins and as DiComo further reports. It’s not immediately clear whether he’ll miss any time; presumably, that’ll depend upon how the joint responds today. The 28-year-old has rebounded somewhat after a rough 2016 season at the plate. Over his 66 plate appearances, he owns a .203/.288/.475 batting line with four home runs and six walks against just 11 strikeouts — and a .182 BABIP that could suggest some misfortune.
- Though Cubs star Kris Bryant was forced out of last night’s game with a calf issue, it doesn’t sound as if it’s much cause for concern. Bryant told reporters, including Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times (via Twitter), that he is very confident of returning to the lineup today. Unsurprisingly, the 25-year-old has continued to rake in his third MLB campaign. Over 122 plate appearances, he’s slashing .291/.393/.553 — a near-exact match for the 2016 batting line that helped him to the NL MVP award.
- The Cubs had their eyes on Andrew Benintendi in the 2015 draft, and the Boston Globe’s Alex Speier writes that Chicago “seemed likely” to take Benintendi with the ninth overall pick. “His agent heard from the Cubs that he was the guy they wanted,” Chris Benintendi, Andrew’s father, said. Before the Cubs could make their move, however, the Red Sox snagged Benintendi with the seventh overall pick. Though the Cubs took highly-regarded prospect Ian Happ with their selection, this could be an interesting what-if scenario for Cubs fans if and when Benintendi’s star continues to rise.
- On the flip side of the “one that got away” coin, Speier also examines an alternate reality where the Red Sox didn’t trade Anthony Rizzo to the Padres as part of the blockbuster that brought Adrian Gonzalez to Boston in the 2010-11 offseason. At the time, Rizzo was just a promising first base prospect sent along with first-rounders Casey Kelly and Reymond Fuentes in exchange for an established star in Gonzalez. That trade, of course, had enormous long-reaching implications on the recent pasts of the Red Sox, Cubs, Padres, and Dodgers, to name just a few teams that would’ve been impacted had that trade not been completed. (For instance, if the Red Sox had re-signed Adrian Beltre that winter and moved Kevin Youkilis to first base rather than acquire Gonzalez, then obviously the last six years of Rangers baseball is greatly different.)
There was little traction between reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant and the Cubs in their extension talks earlier this winter, so it perhaps isn’t surprising that Bryant doesn’t seem to be in any particular rush to lock up a long-term commitment.
“I guess it’s a little early,” Bryant told Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times. “I still feel super young. I’m still getting used to all of this playing at this level. I’ll listen to whatever they have to say, but I just think that it might be in my best interest to just play it out and see where things go….I’d rather just now focus on baseball and playing and not have any other distractions off the field like that, just because it’ll take away from my play on the field.”
Bryant, of course, has already pulled down a couple of notable paydays in his brief but outstanding professional career. The 25-year-old signed with the Cubs for a $6.7084 bonus after being drafted second overall in 2013, and he will be paid $1.05MM in 2017, a record sum for a pre-arbitration player. He will also be in line for a very enriching trip through the arbitration process beginning next winter, as Bryant is a virtual lock for a fourth year of arb eligibility as a Super Two player.
Given that Bryant entered tonight’s action with a .290/.396/.495 slash line over his 111 PA, he looks well on the way to matching or topping his superb numbers from his first two seasons, when he won NL Rookie of the Year honors in 2015 and followed it up with an MVP Award in 2016. Bryant may well set another arbitration-related record in the offseason by earning the highest amount ever given to a player in his first year of arb-eligibility; Ryan Howard’s $10MM salary from the 2007-08 offseason is the current benchmark. Barring injury or a significant downturn in performance, Bryant looks to be on pace to bank over $50MM through his four arbitration years before reaching free agency after the 2021 season.
Besides his comments and the lack of a driving financial incentive to sign a multi-year extension, there’s also the fact that Bryant is represented by Scott Boras, whose clients generally end up testing the open market rather than pursuing extensions with their original teams. Boras recently discussed the Bryant talks, negotiating with Theo Epstein, and his general outlook on extensions in a wide-ranging and fascinating interview with Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci.
From the Cubs’ perspective, obviously they would like to keep one of the game’s best players in the fold, though there is also a case to be made that the Cubs may have no issue with going year-to-year with Bryant. Extensions that cover arbitration years usually lock in some type of cost certainty for the team, though that is of less import with the Cubs given their payroll capacity.
The Cubs also have such a wealth of talent both on their current roster and in the minor league pipeline that, while losing Bryant would certainly be a blow, Chicago is much better-equipped than most franchises to withstand the loss of a superstar. Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer could instead focus on extensions with other young stars like Kyle Hendricks, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber or Javier Baez — more urgently, the team will have to address big names like Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis and John Lackey hitting free agency this winter. With Bryant still under control for four-plus seasons, inking him to an extension isn’t an especially pressing need for the Cubs, and of course quite a bit could change on either side between now and the end of the 2021 season.
- 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.”