Cubs re-thinking stance on FielderPujols sweepstakes?

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Cubs re-thinking stance on FielderPujols sweepstakes?

OK, now the Cubs may be in on the Prince FielderAlbert Pujols sweepstakes. But not for the reasons you would think.

Yes, the two first basemen are elite sluggers and impact players. However, because of the new collective bargaining agreement just reached last week, the Cubs are acknowledging that the road to building the team from within will be a lot tougher, according to FoxSports' Jon Paul Morosi and Ken Rosenthal.

The new CBA is placing new restrictions on spending in the amateur draft and since teams lock up their big-time bats earlier in the player's career, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are apparently acknowledging the road to building the team back to sustained success is harder.

Which is why the two have suddenly changed their mind on pursuing Fielder and Pujols. Allegedly.

Rosenthal and Morosi are citing their major-league sources on all this. It's possible Theo is just leaking word of this to those "sources" to let the rest of the league know the new Cubs' front office is for real and they're ready to turn things around immediately.

Or maybe it's completely true and the new brass on the North Side really has changed their stance on pursuing one of the sluggers.

So which one will it be?

RosenthalMorosi state "sources" (there's that word again) think the Cubs are more interested in Pujols who, despite his age (3 years older than Fielder), is a better defender and in better physical condition than Fielder, whose body type is one of the major concerns for bidders.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I am still of the opinion neither guy signs with the Cubs. The idea Theo and Hoyer have is sustained success. They want to be like the Cardinals (three World Series appearances in the past decade). Not like the Cubs under Jim Hendry who threw a boatload of money at guys like Alfonso Soriano in an effort to just get over the hump and appear in even one World Series. Now how's that Soriano contract looking?

Stay tuned, as if Rosenthal and Morosi are right, this could become a big saga, especially with the Winter Meetings next week in Dallas.

The secret to Willson Contreras' success with Cubs: Channeling his emotions

The secret to Willson Contreras' success with Cubs: Channeling his emotions

Willson Contreras took the first pitch he saw Sunday and stared down Jose Fernandez. The Miami Marlins ace didn't try to buzz the Cubs rookie and the pitch wasn't close to hitting Contreras. It was just another way of Contreras showing he would not be intimidated by anybody, not even Major League Baseball's leader in strikeouts per nine innings.

Contreras has flashed that kind of spirit throughout his first couple weeks in the big leagues, including his Steph Curry-esque caught-stealing celebration against the St. Louis Cardinals.

But it wasn’t always that way. Mark Johnson uniquely understands how far Contreras has come, the difficulty in harnessing all that and what to expect as a big-league catcher.

"It's been fun to watch him grow as a person and as a player," said Johnson, the current Double-A Tennessee manager who worked with Contreras between 2011 and 2013 in short-season A-ball (Boise) and Class-A Kane County. "He's always been that real emotional player, wearing his emotions on his sleeves. When he was younger, it was kind of hard to contain at times.

"He's always played with so much passion and fire, which is beautiful to have. You'd much rather have a player like that than have a player you'd have to kick in the ass every day.

"For him to be able to tone that down a little bit and control that just shows his maturity and the way he's starting to grow up."

When Johnson coached Contreras, he had not yet become the top catching prospect in the game and actually spent all of 2011 playing the infield and outfield (mostly third base).

Contreras made the switch to catcher in 2012 and his career didn't really start to take off until 2015, when he won the Southern League batting title for Tennessee. The Cubs had even left him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft prior to his breakout in his age-23 season last year.

"He's come into his own at the plate," Johnson said. "He really started understanding what he needed to do at the plate last year. He made some good adjustments. It was kind of like the rest of his game.

"He's always been so aggressive and always tried to do too much, whether it was his throwing, his catching, his receiving, his hitting. When he started understanding he didn't have to do as much as he was trying to do, and could simplify things and minimize movements, it started to take off for him.

"Like in [2015], I had him [in the Arizona Fall League], and he was clearly one of the best players out there. His bat and his move to the baseball is really shortened and he's come a long way with his bat and throwing."

So how much of that can be attributed to harnessing his emotions?

"It's just maturing," Johnson said. "It's time. Whether it's staff or the other players taking him aside or talking to him about what to do, what not to do, how to handle yourself in certain situations. It’s the more experiences he has and the more he learns.

"He's a smart kid. He's got this incredible passion to play the game, which is so much fun to watch. And I think it's just a matter of playing and getting that experience."

Johnson was a first-round draft pick (26th overall) of the White Sox in 1994 and spent five years on the South Side before moving to the Cubs system in 2005 (Triple-A Iowa) and then ending his playing career back in the Cubs system in 2009-10. He has talked with Contreras about what to expect in a big market.

During his first two weeks in The Show, Contreras had no issues adjusting to Chicago, hitting .355 with a 1.137 OPS, three homers and nine RBI in 11 games while playing catcher (six games), left field (four games) and first base (two games).

"You could put him anywhere," Johnson said. "He loves to play the game. No matter where you put him, he loves to compete. He loves the game of baseball.

"You could put him at second base or any outfield position, first, third. You could probably put him on the mound and he'd probably be a lights-out pitcher. He's just one of those guys that really competes. And that's what you look for in ballplayers."

Contreras has figured out how to keep his love of the game while learning to keep his cool, without censoring himself.

"He looks like the same old Willy," Johnson said. "He has so much fun playing the game. It's just infectious.

"They're going to love him [in Chicago]. Obviously, he's had a tremendous start. He's playing himself into the lineup every day.

"I think anybody that plays the game with that much passion and that much energy and that much life, you got to be likable."

Cubs win wild 15-inning thriller over Reds

Cubs win wild 15-inning thriller over Reds

CINCINNATI (AP) — Kris Bryant singled home the tiebreaking run in the 15th inning and the Chicago Cubs used three pitchers in left field while beating the Cincinnati Reds 7-2 on Tuesday night in the longest game of the season for both teams.

With the Cubs out of position players, relievers Travis Wood and Spencer Patton (1-0) alternated between left field and the mound in the 14th inning, which ended with Patton getting the final out. Wood then finished it off with reliever Pedro Stropin left.

Bryant's only hit on Tuesday - a single off J.J. Hoover (1-2) - snapped the tie. Javier Baez added a grand slam in the 15th, the sixth career allowed by Hoover, which is a Reds record.

The National League's top team went 1-6 last week but has pulled out of the downturn by winning the first two games of a series against the Reds. The Cubs hit five homers - three by Bryant - while taking the opener 11-8.

Eugenio Suarez singled home the tying run with two outs in the ninth off Hector Rondon, his third blown save in 16 chances, setting the game on its meandering course.

Ben Zobrist led off the game with a homer off left-hander John Lamb. Left-hander Jon Lester singled home another run and allowed only one hit until the eighth inning, when Billy Hamilton homered. The Cubs' closer couldn't hold on.

A lot of the focus Tuesday was on Bryant, who was coming off a historic performance.

Bryant became the first major league player to hit three homers and two doubles in a game on Monday night. He set a Cubs record with 16 total bases and became the youngest Cubs player to hit three homers in a game since Ernie Banks did it in 1955, also at the age of 24.

Bryant broke his three-homer bat the first time up on Tuesday, cracking it on a groundout. The bat boy retrieved it and took it to the Major League Baseball authenticator, who labeled the bat and safely stored it. Bryant flied out, walked twice, fouled out with two runners aboard for the final out in the 10th, and struck out in the 13th before driving in the go-ahead run.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Reds: RHP Homer Bailey felt fine a day after throwing an inning in his first rehab start. Bailey, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery 13 months ago, is expected to pitch again on Saturday ... 2B Brandon Phillips fouled a ball off the inside of his left foot in the first inning. He fouled another pitch off the same foot in his next at-bat and got hit in the left side by a pitch from Rondon in the ninth.

UP NEXT

Cubs: Kyle Hendricks (5-6, 2.76) is 1-5 with a 3.79 ERA in seven road starts this season. He's 4-1 with a 1.93 ERA in seven home games.

Reds: Cody Reed (0-1, 6.75) makes his third career start. In his first appearance at Great American Ball Park last Friday, he gave up five runs in five innings of a 13-4 loss to the Padres.

Cubs: How Kris Bryant became a superstar in the making

Cubs: How Kris Bryant became a superstar in the making

What initially looked like a garbage-time home run for Kris Bryant – and day-after spin from Theo Epstein – actually summed up why the Cubs have a homegrown superstar and a franchise ready for another close-up in October.

It also helps explain how Bryant – at the age of 24 – became the first player in history to hit three homers and two doubles in a Major League Baseball game. Bryant set a franchise record with 16 total bases during Monday night’s 11-8 victory over the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park, becoming the youngest Cub to ever have a three-homer game (or 10 days younger than Ernie Banks in 1955).

After the New York Mets swept the Cubs out of last year’s National League Championship Series, Epstein sat in a dingy Wrigley Field storage room converted into a media workspace for the playoffs. During that end-of-season news conference, the president of baseball operations highlighted Bryant’s final at-bat, how New York’s right-handers kept attacking him with changeups.

Cubs officials felt like they were beaten at their own game, impressed how the Mets did such a great job with advance scouting, breaking down numbers and executing that night’s plan. If Bryant appeared to be vulnerable to that weakness – and a little worn down at the end of an All-Star/Rookie of the Year campaign – he still had the presence of mind to make an adjustment in Game 4.

With his team down seven runs in the eighth inning, Bryant drove a changeup from a two-time All-Star reliever (Tyler Clippard) 410 feet into the left-center field bleachers for a two-run homer.

Bryant can grow up as the son of an old Boston Red Sox prospect who learned the science of hitting from Ted Williams – and have his own batting cage at his family’s Las Vegas home – and still not feel burned out from the game or create the wrong Sin City headlines.

Bryant can get drafted No. 2 overall out of the University of San Diego in 2013, shoot a Red Bull commercial with a goat before his first at-bat in The Show and have his own billboards in Wrigleyville – and still not alienate himself from teammates or come across as having the wrong priorities.

Bryant is athletic enough to play third base, right field and left field during that 5-for-5, six-RBI, three-homer game. He can also get analytical and self-diagnose – without feeling paralyzed at the plate.

Bryant didn’t remember the NLCS as an eye-opening experience or give the Mets too much credit: “They all throw 96 (mph), which is kind of just where baseball is nowadays, too – a ton of people are throwing gas.”

For Bryant, it’s a constant process of self-evaluation, from his 0-for-4, three-strikeout debut last April, through the 21 games it took before hitting his first big-league homer, beyond hitting the rookie wall last summer (.639 OPS in July).   

“It’s the peaks and valleys of baseball,” Bryant said. “From August and September last year, I had two really good months (.900-plus OPS). I didn’t really have the postseason I wanted to. But up until that point, I was swinging the bat really good. I was feeling really good about myself.

“I kind of just went back to what I did in college, a drill that kept me more flat to the ball. That’s what helped me. And then going into the offseason, I really wanted to expand on it. Just continue with it and see where it took me.”

After finishing second in the majors with 199 strikeouts last season, Bryant struck out 12 more times in 37 playoff plate appearances. He’s now on pace for around 160 strikeouts – with 21 homers and 57 RBI a week out from the Fourth of July.  

“What he had been doing before was not going to work (long-term),” manager Joe Maddon said. “I’m not one of those guys (who says): ‘Hey, you can’t hit like that in the big leagues.’ I always used to hate hearing that from coaches. (But) the fact was that he had such an abrupt uppercut or chicken wing – whatever you want to call it – easily exposed by good pitching. Easily. And it had to go away.

“(He) worked through it. He knew how he was getting beat up at the plate. He knew what he couldn’t get to that he was able to get to before. He’s only 20-something years old, (but) he’s quick (and thinking): ‘I’m seeing the ball good. I just can’t get to it. What do I have to do to get to those pitches?’ Now he is.”

The Mets won the pennant, but their foundation might already be crumbling, with Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard reportedly dealing with bone spurs in their pitching elbows and Matt Harvey (4-9, 4.64 ERA) struggling to live up to his Dark Knight of Gotham persona after throwing 216 innings during last year’s return from Tommy John surgery.

The Epstein regime built a franchise around young power hitters like Bryant – believing that young power pitchers are inherently too fragile – and the Cubs could be 25 games over .500 when they get another shot at the Mets in an NLCS rematch that begins Thursday night at Citi Field.  

“Obviously, the front office has done a really good job of getting good players,” Bryant said. “You look at the young talent around the room, it’s pretty cool to see that.

“They’re just good people. They drafted good people, signed good people, and I think that just makes it easier to go out there and play our game and be yourself.”