For anyone who has wondered if the Chicago Cubs could actually go through with trading a former league MVP and one-time face of the franchise in Kris Bryant, this week’s Mookie Betts blockbuster served as an important reminder about the lengths a team is willing to go to make its payroll work.
Now they have proof that dealing a player of this caliber can — and most likely will — happen. If Betts can get traded, anyone can.
“This is as cutthroat as ever now,” Bryant teammate Anthony Rizzo said of the business side of baseball. “We’re talking about trading the MVP of the league a couple years ago, who’s done a lot for this franchise.”
As for when Bryant could move, that question has been unclear since the offseason began. With just days until spring training opens, the timing takes on additional importance.
“The activity of our offseason isn’t indicative of how much we’ve been on the phone and have been working,” general manager Jed Hoyer said recently of the Cubs’ lack of moves. “The major free-agent market just wrapped up. There’s been a lot of activity. I expect that up to and into spring training, that’s going to continue. The trade market will continue to be an active place well into February.”
Those comments were made before Betts was dealt, so Hoyer has already been proved right. But even after the Cubs won the service time grievance Bryant and the players’ union filed against the team, there has been no movement with a Cubs roster that clearly needs a change. The front office has talked to just about every team in need of a hitter.
Here’s a look at the Bryant trade market:
The (original) contenders
Are the Atlanta Braves done adding after signing Marcell Ozuna? Will the Washington Nationals go to camp with Asdrubal Cabrera taking over for Anthony Rendon? Are the Texas Rangers comfortable with their offense heading into their new stadium? The Los Angeles Dodgers are out of the Bryant market after landing Betts, but where do the Philadelphia Phillies stand in all this? All four of those contenders are potential fits and while this sort of thing typically is answered by now, this trade market has developed later than normal.
Seeing what the Red Sox got back for Betts — who, granted, has just one year under contract to Bryant’s two — could help restart a conversation, with teams now having a better idea how to value the return for a superstar. A healthy Bryant, with two years of arbitration-controlled salary, landing on a contender, at this time of the winter, could be a difference-maker for his new team. But which team — if any — will step up to meet the Cubs’ asking price?
It sounds like the craziest of scenarios, Bryant going to the Colorado Rockies for the disgruntled Nolan Arenado. But is it just crazy enough to work? Star third baseman for star third baseman?
The Rockies would have to pay a portion the $234 million due over the seven years remaining on Arenado’s $260 million contract — assuming the third baseman opts into the rest of his deal to come to Chicago. And the Cubs would still have to figure out a way to get below the $208 million payroll threshold to avoid paying the luxury tax for a second consecutive year.
Colorado would get out from under a player who has expressed concerns about staying there — and could force the franchise’s hand by opting out of his contract after the 2021 season — while acquiring a good player in return who gives them more flexibility. They could keep or trade Bryant at that point.
The Cubs would end up with a cornerstone, franchise player already under contract, with some of his salary paid for by his old team. Maybe it’s not so crazy after all, and the teams have talked about such a deal, according to multiple league sources.
Bryant stays put … for now
With every passing day, this scenario is gaining steam. It would be the ultimate irony if the Cubs can’t get any deals done, but end up competing for a title anyway.
Perhaps new manager David Ross will unlock what’s held back the team the past couple of seasons. The front office knows this is a possibility, but what’s good for now won’t be for the future unless several players sign extensions and some young players emerge from a farm system that has produced nothing since the World Series win in 2016.
One thing certain, the Cubs aren’t paying the luxury tax three years in a row (which would kick in more severe penalties), so finding a way to reset for 2020 is their best bet.
That’s how a lot of this Bryant talk began, even though it’s not all about the team’s payroll. The Cubs knew exactly the position they were going to be in this offseason — two years away from a core group of players becoming free agents.
So their goals became threefold: Get under that tax, trade for some young players who could extend a window for winning, and shake up a stale lineup. Those factors — along with a belief that Bryant will go to free agency no matter what — are the reasons for him being in more trade discussions than any other Cub. A Bryant trade can kill three birds with one stone.
What has been left unstated is the question of just where Bryant ranks among baseball’s elite. Until two injury-prone seasons, Bryant was on track with the best in the game. He still has produced at a near All-Star level, but not at an untradable level.
So where does that leave the Cubs? In the same place they’ve been all offseason: trying to get the most for a player who — after the arbiter’s decision — has one more year of team control than Betts did. The Red Sox didn’t exactly get a haul for one of the best players in the game, but two years of Bryant and no need to attach an expensive player like David Price to the deal should net the Cubs more than Boston got. Or perhaps it will be 1½ years of Bryant, if the Cubs wait until July to make a move. That might be their very best chance to shake things up, but doing some of that now would at least check something off their winter to-do list.
“This is obviously likely to be one of our less active offseasons,” Hoyer said just before the Super Bowl. “We’ve had some incredibly active ones. That said, the offseason is not over. For the Cubs, things probably got pushed back a little bit. We’re probably at a different place in the offseason, calendar-wise, than we normally would have been. We’re not necessarily finished making moves going into spring training.”
New OF Shogo Akiyama singles, tries steal in Reds debut
GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Shogo Akiyama gave Cincinnati Reds fans a small taste of what he can provide at the top of the batting order and in the outfield Sunday in his first spring training game with the team.
Akiyama, hitting leadoff and playing center field, lined the second pitch he saw from Chicago White Sox starter Dylan Cease into right field for a single. In the top of the third inning, he made a running catch going to his left on a sinking line drive from Nicky Delmonico.
The five-time Pacific League All-Star is the first player from Japan to sign a major league contract with the Reds. At least a dozen Japanese media members tracked his every move before and after his day at Goodyear Ballpark in the Reds’ spring training opener.
The perception of Akiyama in Japan is that he isn’t on the same level as Los Angeles Angels two-way player Shohei Ohtani or former Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, both of whom took the majors by storm when they arrived in the U.S. But Akiyama holds the Japanese league record for hits in a season with 216, set in 2015.
“I was very nervous, but definitely relieved that I got my first hit,” the left-handed-hitting Akiyama said through a translator. “It was also good that I was able to see a lot of pitches.”
After four innings in the field, he grounded into a fielder’s choice in his third and final at-bat. But reaching first allowed him to try stealing a base, which he’d done 112 times in his nine-year career in Japan.
“It wasn’t a goal, but I just wanted to see if I could do it,” Akiyama said. “To see if I have a chance. It was good that I was able to run it out.”
Akiyama was thrown out at second base to end the fourth inning and his day.
The Reds signed the 31-year-old Akiyama to a three-year, $21 million contract in the offseason, winning the bidding for his services as part of a roster makeover that the team hopes will help it contend in the National League Central.
While it’s not a certainty that Akiyama will be the Reds’ regular center fielder, his ability to get on base is something Cincinnati was seeking at the top of its order.
He’s clearly still learning and adjusting both on the field and off. After his single, he was almost picked off when leaning too far off first base.
Reds fans are adjusting to Akiyama, too. He got light applause when introduced in the starting lineup, slapping hands with the Reds mascot as he took his place next to manager David Bell along the third-base line.
“He looked great. He looked comfortable,” Bell said. “I know it’s just spring training, but it’s kind of nice to get a hit in your first at-bat to kind of take the pressure off. He said he was nervous before the game. I didn’t really see that. There’s some extra feelings there for him, I’m sure, but it was nice to get into the flow of the game really quick.”
The Reds hope Akiyama can provide the kind of production — or close to it — that he put up in Japan. His career numbers include a .301 batting average, 116 home runs, 513 RBIs and 1,405 hits.
Madison Bumgarner reveals rodeo hobby
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Arizona Diamondbacks left-hander Madison Bumgarner has been competing in rodeo events under the alias Mason Saunders and even won $26,560 in a team-roping competition in December, according to a story published Sunday by The Athletic.
Bumgarner told the website he has discretely competed in rodeos for a while, including in March of last year two days before pitching for the San Francisco Giants in a Cactus League spring training game. He has been roping since he was 15 or 16 years old and said he’s been at it so long that “it’s just part of who you are.”
The 2014 World Series MVP agreed to an $85 million, five-year contract with the Diamondbacks in December, about two weeks after winning the rodeo competition in Wickenburg, Arizona.
Bumgarner infamously injured his shoulder in 2017 in a dirt bike accident and missed three months of San Francisco’s season. He apologized at the time and called it a “stupid” decision that likely violated his contract, although the Giants are not believed to have pressed the issue with the four-time All-Star.
Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen told The Athletic he was “not going to get into discussing specific contract language” when asked about Bumgarner’s hobby.
Photos of Bumgarner roping were posted to the Facebook page for Rancho Rio in Wickenburg. Bumgarner — a right-handed roper — said he’s often recognized at rodeo events, but he’s maintained the alias to keep his profile low. He formed the Mason Saunders moniker by shortening his first name and adopting his wife’s maiden name as the surname.
“Something for my wife to call me when we were out in public to keep people from recognizing me,” Bumgarner said. “But you’re going to ruin that for me.”
Bumgarner disputed a widespread narrative that he signed with Arizona “just to have my horses,” but did acknowledge it was a benefit. He also said he may pursue roping more rigorously after his baseball playing days are done.
Phillies unveil revamped Phanatic amid legal wrangling
CLEARWATER, Fla. — He’s 42 years old, a little out of shape and clearly no spring chicken. But clearly there’s no one more popular on the field for the Philadelphia Phillies than the Phanatic.
Which is why all eyes at the ballpark were on the furry mascot Sunday for the big reveal: He has gotten a makeover this year amid a legal fight between the team and his creators.
The revamp, unveiled before the Phillies played the Pittsburgh Pirates in their spring training home opener, includes flightless feathers rather than fur-colored arms, stars outlining the eyes, a larger posterior and a powder-blue tail, blue socks with red shoes, plus scales under the arms.
Don’t look for any change, though, in the Phanatic’s prankster approach, a point the team reiterated with a tweet Sunday afternoon.
He has evolved, but clearly hasn’t matured. pic.twitter.com/Tmo5jHNQOB
— Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) February 23, 2020
Tom Burgoyne, the man behind the mascot, told The Philadelphia Inquirer that “he’s still the same old Phanatic, just with a little more sashay in him.” He noted that the mascot’s fur color, jersey, hat and overall look have “changed a little bit over the years.”
Early reviews were mixed. Some eagle-eyed fans liked the old version more, others said the changes weren’t that big of a deal.
The team and the mascot’s creators have been sparring in court ahead of the June 15 expiration of a 35-year-old copyright agreement. Designers Bonnie Erickson and Wayde Harrison — who also created the famed Muppet Miss Piggy — say they alone made the Phanatic’s character and backstory when they were contracted to create the costume in 1978.
The Phillies argue that the baseball franchise is just as responsible for the success of the mascot as the puppet-making pair.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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