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CHICAGO — If Kris Bryant played like this a year ago, he wouldn’t be in Chicago today.
If Bryant wasn’t playing like an MVP candidate right now, he and several of his talented friends would be on the trade block and dumped off to the highest bidder by the trade deadline.
Well, Bryant has messed up all of the Chicago Cubs’ plans of rebuilding, reloading, reconstructing, refurbishing, or whatever teams call it these days to appease their fanbases.
Bryant, almost singlehandedly, has extinguished the Cubs’ plans for a fire sale, with shortstop Javy Baez, closer Craig Kimbrel, catcher Willson Contreras and first baseman Anthony Rizzo all now looking likely to stay in Chicago the rest of the summer.
It’s a 180-degree change of plans from the winter.
The Cubs, who dumped ace Yu Darvish in December in a seven-player trade with the San Diego Padres to cut payroll, let teams know during the winter that virtually every high-priced player was available. If they didn’t want them during the winter, or spring training, they’d be available in the summer.
These days, the Cubs are living out the movie, “Major League.’’ They’re simply playing too well to be torn down.
“I think we're pretty damn good,’’ Cubs manager David Ross said. "I think these guys believe that. I think they know that.’’
The Cubs, 32-25, even in a stretch of playing 25 of 28 games against teams with a winning record, appear to be in no danger of falling out of the NL Central race.
And no one is more responsible than Bryant, who attracted so little interest last winter after hitting .206 with a .644 OPS and missing half of the season with injuries, that the Cubs were second-guessed for even tendering him a contract that wound up paying him $19.5 million.
Now, Bryant is playing so well the Cubs have no choice but to keep him all summer – and perhaps no choice but to bid farewell when he hits free agency this winter.
Bryant should receive a contract worth at least the seven-year, $245 million deal the Los Angeles Angels gave third baseman Anthony Rendon after the 2019 season, several GMs and executives predict.
No one is expecting him to join the $300 million club considering he’ll be 30 in January and has been nagged by shoulder, wrist and hand injuries, but there’s a whole lot of teams salivating at the chance to grab him.
In a survey of baseball executives and scouts, there are seven teams that could be involved in a bidding war for Bryant’s services: the San Francisco Giants, Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox and Washington Nationals.
Bryant’s value has soared this year playing all over the field, while ranking among the league leaders in virtually every offensive category with a slash line of .316/.397/.607 for a 1.004 OPS through Friday. He has 13 homers and 38 RBI, ranking second in the league with 30 extra-base hits, third in total bases, sixth in RBI and seventh in runs.
Bryant, who changed his swing, stance and timing this winter, drastically lowering his launch angle from 20.7 to 13.9, is hitting .342 (53 for 155) since April 17, with 12 doubles, one triple, 10 homers and 32 RBI. He barreled the ball just 5.5% a year ago compared to a career-high 12.3% this season.
Even more impressive, he hits and plays solid defense wherever you put him. Through Saturday, Bryant had started 14 games at third base, 14 games in right field, 11 in left field, eight at first base and six in center field.
“To me, it says how good of a baseball player he is,’’ Ross says. “He’s showing that it doesn’t matter what he does, where you move him to, he’s going to go out and do his best. He’s a great luxury to me.’’
The way he’s performing, the Cubs can’t possibly trade him, but has been so superb, they likely won’t spend the money to keep him, either.
The way Bryant figures it, that's the Cubs’ concern, not his.
‘‘I feel like I’m just in a good place for me,’’ Bryant says, “to just not worry about anything out there.’’
Bryant, didn’t bask in the limelight when he won the NL Rookie of the Year, NL MVP and a World Series championship in his first two seasons, and refused to fall in a sea of despair when injuries made him a lightning rod for his hometown fans to turn on him.
“I don’t know if everybody goes through huge successes and then failures,’’ Bryant says, “getting to the top of the mountain and then kind of falling down a little bit and working your way back up. But it’s just kind of a natural career arc for me so far.’’
So, considering Bryant’s career path as a three-time All-Star, it’s only fitting that he would be on the All-Star ballot once again as a third baseman.
A position he hasn’t played since April 20.
But no matter what position he’ll be playing, you’ll surely be seeing him next month in Denver at the All-Star Game, and perhaps a city near you come next spring.
For now, he’s doing everything in his power to keep the band together in Chicago this summer for one final ride.
While MLB informed owners that it will start cracking down on the blatant use of foreign substances by pitchers, including automatic 10-game suspensions, no one is being looked at more than the Los Angeles Dodgers, one person with direct knowledge of the study told USA TODAY Sports.
“I’m not trying to claim ignorance,’’ Dodgers manager Dave Roberts says, “but I haven’t seen anything. And to be quite honest, I don’t get involved in that stuff. Trevor (Bauer) is a grown man who is very intelligent. But as far as that, once it all kind of comes out in the wash on how they’re going to handle it, I have no concern that we will all follow protocols.”
Well, try telling that to Minnesota Twins third baseman Josh Donaldson, who’s sick and tired of seeing the blatant cheating.
“Here's the deal, hitters have never really cared about sunscreen, rosin and pine tar," Donaldson said. "We haven't cared about that because it's not a performance enhancement. What these guys are doing now are performance-enhancing, to where it is an actual superglue-type of ordeal, to where it's not about command anymore.
"Now, it's about who's throwing the nastiest pitches, the more unhittable pitches. …This is going to be the next steroids of baseball ordeal, because it is cheating and it is performance-enhancing. The only way they get through it and to get it out of the game is if they get checked every half-inning. If a new pitcher comes out, they get checked immediately by the umpire.
“A lot of these guys that are not as good as their numbers are saying will be out of the game, They’ll be done. And that’s where it should be because guys are blatantly cheating and it’s not even funny. You’re talking about guys whose careers hitting-wise are going down as well.”
And the pitchers who are the best in the business, well, perhaps won’t be quite so dominant.
“Is it coincidence that [Yankees pitcher] Gerrit Cole's spin rate numbers went down after four minor leaguers got suspended for 10 games?" Donaldson said. "I don't know. Maybe. ...
“In 2017, there were four pitchers that had a spin rate on their fastballs of 2400 rpm or more. Now, that's league average. Think about that. You think everybody before 2017 was throwing the baseball wrong? No. In 2012, I think there were 700 sliders that were thrown at 90-mph or more. The league is on pace right now for 4,000. So, the better you can grip that thing, the harder you can throw it.’’
One GM says that the foreign substance abuse is so out of control that one of his pitchers even asked him: “Where can I get this stuff? Everyone else is using it.’’
The GM refused to help, saying it’s illegal, and that soon, plenty of pitchers could be exposed if they don’t cease and desist.
“Once they start doing that, it'll be gone,’’ Donaldson says, “and you're going to start seeing offense come back into the game.’’
A snakebitten plan
The Diamondbacks decided to rebuild and shed payroll two years ago at the July 31 trade deadline when they sent ace Zack Greinke and $21.5 million to the Houston Astros for four prospects – first baseman Seth Beer, right-handed pitchers J.B. Bukauskas and Corbin Martin, and infielder Josh Rojas.
The deal saved the D-backs $53 million, reloaded their farm system, and they stayed competitive through the 2018 season, finishing in second place with a 85-77 record.
Their finish gave them false hope, and the money they saved with Greinke, they turned around and gave to Madison Bumgarner with a five-year, $85 million contract.
The results have been disastrous.
Bumgarner is 5-9 with a 6.04 ERA since joining the Diamondbacks and is back on the injured list with an inflamed shoulder.
And, for the D-backs, they’ve been an absolute mess.
They are 45-74 since signing Bumgarner, and entered Saturday with the worst record in baseball at 20-39, having lost 26 of their last 31 games and a franchise-record 15 consecutive road games.
President Derek Hall and GM Mike Hazen say that the blame should be spread throughout the organization, and that manager Torey Lovullo’s job is safe, but Lovullo is on the final year of his contract, and future Hall of Fame manager Bruce Bochy told USA TODAY Sports that he’s open to a possible managerial return.
D-Back speaks out on Brenly
Jon Duplantier, the only current Black player on the Diamondbacks, which has not had a Black player on its opening-day roster since 2019, had the courage to speak out about broadcaster Bob Brenly’s remarks on New York Mets starter Marcus Stroman’s headgear.
“For somebody who is a coworker in any capacity to make comments like that, that are racially insensitive and culturally insensitive,’’ Duplantier said, “is disappointing to me. The reason it’s disappointing is because from my viewpoint, growing up where I did in the suburbs, playing baseball as a Black man in America, as a Black kid in America, there has been a lot of pressure for me to show up authentically as myself while walking the tightrope of remaining acceptable and appealing to society and people who may be making important decisions regarding my future.
“The most disappointing part is that though there has been a ton of progress and work done so that I, Marcus and other guys that look like me can show up authentically like ourselves and be ourselves on a big stage, comments like the one that was made, they put us back.
“The youth, the future ballplayers that are coming up that are watching Diamondbacks games, that are watching Mets games, that are watching MLB games in general, and hearing that comment and potentially look at baseball and think they cannot be themselves and that hurts. That hurts me.’’
The Yankees thoroughly dominated the Red Sox the past two years, going 23-6 – the most lopsided record against one another in their 118-year rivalry.
Well, times are changing quickly.
The Red Sox beat the Yankees in their first game on Friday, ending their 12-game losing streak dating back to Sept. 17, 2019.
They also exposed the Yankees’ putrid offense, averaging 3.71 runs a game and ranking 27th in MLB. The Yankees have scored two or fewer runs in 22 of their 58 games this year. They rank last in the AL in doubles, triples and stolen bases. The team slash line: .228/.317/.372.
It’s so ugly that they have six regulars with an OPS below .700. My God, the Seattle Mariners, who have been no-hit twice and are batting .208, have outscored the Yankees.
And, yes, that was Ryan Yarbrough of the Rays who not only won his first game in 24 starts against the Yankees last week, but threw the first complete game by a Rays pitcher since May 14, 2016, snapping a major-league record of 731 starts without a complete game.
Around the basepaths
– The Minnesota Twins have no choice but to start trading away players. The two-time defending AL Central champions are going nowhere with a 22-35 record, 13 games behind the first-place Chicago White Sox. Teams will soon start checking on the availability of DH Nelson Cruz, shortstop Andrelton Simmons, and pitchers Michael Pineda, J.A. Happ, Jose Berrios, Matt Shoemaker, Hansel Robles, Taylor Rogers, Miguel Sano and Alex Colome.
– If they make the postseason, the Milwaukee Brewers could be one of the scariest teams in baseball with that three-headed monster of Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta. Peralta nearly became the first Brewers pitcher since Juan Nieves in 1987 to throw a no-hitter on Friday against the D-backs, but he has been spectacular all year, going 6-1 with a 2.25 ERA, while yielding a .133 opponents' batting average. He has given up more than three hits in just three of his 12 starts, striking out 92 batters in 64 innings.
– Remember the fears that Fernando Tatis Jr. would be a shadow of himself after his dislocated shoulder in April, relegated to using a two-handed follow-though to protect his shoulder? Well, he’s tied for the major-league lead with 17 homers after being the Player of the Month in May, hitting .353 with an .824 slugging percentage, including nine homers, 26 RBI and 21 runs scored. Remarkably, 44% of the time he hits a fly ball this year it clears the fence. “Every time I see a pitch,’’ Tatis says, “I want to destroy the ball. It’s who I am.”
– The Oakland A’s are desperately looking for help at shortstop, where they have the lowest OPS in baseball. They are keeping an eye on the Rockies’ Trevor Story. Geez, you think maybe they should have just kept Marcus Semien, who never wanted to leave Oakland in the first place? Semien was the AL Player of the Month hitting .368 with eight homers and 22 RBI for the Blue Jays. The A’s instead traded for Elvis Andrus, who’s hitting .211 with no homers, seven RBI and a .528 OPS. Ouch!
– The most stunning aspect of the Giants’ success is that they rank third in the league in runs scored playing in the most friendly pitching park in baseball. And they are second in the league in home runs.
– The most underrated manager in baseball is Bob Melvin of the Oakland A’s, who became the club's all-time winningest manager this past week, eclipsing Tony La Russa. “He’s been a better manager for Oakland than I was,” said La Russa. “I was loaded with talent, and he’s done it with good talent, but not like some of the clubs I had. There isn’t anybody in the major leagues, for years now, that does it better than Bob Melvin.”
– You think the free-agent market has been slow the past few years? Get ready for a dead winter until there’s a new CBA, which expires Dec. 1. “How can you sign a free agent,’’ one GM said, “without knowing the new rules?"
– Remember Francis Martes, the former Astros’ prized pitching prospect who last pitched in the majors in 2017? Well, after missing two years with Tommy John surgery and another two years with PED suspensions, he is now back with the Astros’ Triple-A Sugar Land team and is eligible for reinstatement on June 19.
– Jeff Conine, who helped the Miami Marlins win two World Series, is the latest MLB star to hit the college ranks. He was hired as the Florida International University head coach.
– The Yankees are 0-16 this season when yielding five or more runs.
– Strange but true: Teams actually have a lower winning percentage at home this year with their fans in the ballpark (.533) than they did a year ago without fans (.557)
– Albert Pujols may not be playing much these days, but his presence in the clubhouse has played a huge boost in the Dodgers’ resurgence. “When you get a guy like Albert, I think everybody wants to play well around him,’’ three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw says, “because he carries himself the way he does and has the stature that he does in the game. I think everybody might feel like they want to do something around him. If that makes sense. And then just the way he embraces guys and talks to guys about hitting. He’s just really all in and it’s really cool to see from a guy that’s accomplished as much as he has.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kris Bryant making Cubs' impossible trade deadline decision an easy one