Chicago Cubs

Kris Bryant talks playing with Bryce Harper again, the next megadeal and Cubs building a super-team

Kris Bryant talks playing with Bryce Harper again, the next megadeal and Cubs building a super-team

This isn’t the NBA, where a few superstars can decide which teams will rise and which franchises will fall, instantly shifting a multibillion-dollar industry’s balance of power. But, yes, Kris Bryant and Bryce Harper have at least floated the idea of joining forces after the 2018 season

Unless the Cubs and Washington Nationals collide during the next two Octobers, that would be a fascinating next chapter in a rivalry that began while they were growing up in Las Vegas, playing with and against each other. Combined, the last two National League MVPs have gotten 59 out of 60 first-place votes, setting super-agent Scott Boras up to negotiate record-shattering megadeals.  

“I think we might have talked about it, just like messing around,” Bryant said Monday inside Wrigley Field’s state-of-the-art clubhouse. “Like it would be cool to play with you again.” 

Bryant doesn’t do distractions or create unnecessary drama or worry about the defending World Series champs. An unflappable face of the franchise went out and blasted Dan Straily’s 90-mph fastball halfway up the left-field bleachers for his 13th homer, a two-run, first-inning shot that set the tone in a 3-1 victory over the Miami Marlins that pushed the Cubs into a first-place tie with the Milwaukee Brewers. 

Bryant had heard something about Hall of Fame writer Peter Gammons appearing on WSCR-AM 670 last week to promote his Hot Stove Cool Music event with Cubs president Theo Epstein and mentioning: “I have people tell me that Bryce Harper really would prefer to play for the Cubs.” Within the same response, Gammons also quickly cautioned: “I don’t think it’s ever going to happen.”

Especially when the Cubs might need to add three legitimate starting pitchers this winter and will have to account for huge arbitration paydays for their young hitters. For Bryant – a player the Cubs drafted with the expectation that he would hit free agency after six-plus/almost seven seasons in The Show – the speculation illustrated a larger point about the organization.  

“Honestly – obviously I’ve never been an outsider looking in here – but who wouldn’t want to play here?” Bryant said. “Especially now, with everything going on around here, the renovations, winning, it just seems attractive to any player. A lot of the guys that have come over from other teams are like: ‘This is unlike any other team I’ve played for.’”  

That doesn’t necessarily mean Bryant – a player with a sharp business sense and an extensive off-the-field portfolio – is interested in signing a long-term extension now. Bryant confirmed Jon Heyman’s recent report on FanRag Sports that summed up the attitude inside the reigning MVP’s camp with two words: “We’re good.”

“Just take it as it comes,” Bryant said. “Nothing’s happened.”

Boras also didn’t automatically agree that Bryant’s big contract would have to wait until after Harper sets a baseline and potentially becomes baseball’s first $400 million player.

“I don’t put time clocks on this,” Boras said, pointing to Stephen Strasburg’s seven-year, $175 million commitment to the Nationals, a megadeal done roughly six months before he could have become the top pitcher on last winter’s free-agent market. “I did something with Strasburg. Everybody said: ‘Well, you have to wait for this time.’ I don’t look at it that way. 

“I certainly study and understand markets. I understand revenues. I understand team needs and that kind of thing. So the time when it happens, for me, is not as relevant as whether or not the criteria for a proper evaluation is met. That’s all. That’s what you have to do.”

So Bryant will become a free agent after the 2021 season then?

“That would depend on their evaluation, wouldn’t it?” Boras said with a laugh.   

The 2018 winter meetings will take place at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, where Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Clayton Kershaw, David Price and Dallas Keuchel are just a few headliners who could also be part of that star-studded class of free agents.

“Wow,” Bryant said. “It just adds to the whole thing. What a set-up.

“Gosh, I mean, I’m certainly going to enjoy that offseason where I’m just watching the free-for-all. Bryce seems to be the guy that is probably going to set that bar, seeing what age he’s at (24 now) and what he’s done so far. Good news for players.”

Harper becoming a partner in Bryzzo Souvenir Co. would be must-see TV, creating a different kind of fire-and-ice dynamic in Wrigleyville. But this isn’t about “want to” as much as economics and how the Cubs will prioritize needs and allocate resources for what could be a super-team. 

“Like I said before, we talked about it,” Bryant said. “It would be really cool to play with him, but that’s something that they’re going to have to talk about it. Baseball’s a crazy business. You could want to play somewhere, but they might not want you, or they might not need you.”

Bryant laughed and referenced the Golden State Warriors: “(It’s not) like Kevin Durant: ‘I want to play there.’ But I would say if that were able to happen and work out like that, gosh, it would be exciting.”

Cubs lose Pierce Johnson on waivers

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Cubs lose Pierce Johnson on waivers

The Cubs have parted ways with the first pitcher drafted by Theo Epstein's front office.

The Cubs designated Pierce Johnson for assignment last week when they purchased the contract of Jen-Ho Tseng to make his first MLB start against the New York Mets.

Now Johnson is with a new organization.

The San Francisco Giants claimed Johnson off waivers Wednesday. He was initially selected in the supplemental first round in 2012 with the 43rd pick, 37 spots behind Albert Almora Jr.

Johnson is now 26 and just made his first — and only — big-league appearance May 19 this spring.

In Triple-A Iowa, Johnson had a 4.31 ERA in 43 games, including one start. He struck out 74 batters in 54.1 innings, but also walked 27 batters and had a 1.454 WHIP. 

Johnson spent six years in the Cubs minor-league system, going 29-21 with a 3.24 ERA, 1.305 WHIP and 9.3 K/9, working slightly more than half the time as a starter (74 starts, 56 relief appearances).

With the Cubs taking Johnson off their 40-man roster in mid-September as opposed to promoting him with expanded big-league rosters, it clearly shows he was not a part of their long-term pitching plans.

Imagine Chris Archer playing for a big-market team like the Cubs

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USA TODAY

Imagine Chris Archer playing for a big-market team like the Cubs

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Picture Chris Archer performing with Wrigley Field as the backdrop – the one Joe Maddon compared to a computer-generated scene from “Gladiator” – instead of a dumpy building off Interstate 275.      

Archer could see, feel and hear the Cubs fans who took over Tropicana Field on Tuesday night, a crowd of 25,046 saluting Maddon and watching the defending World Series champs play a sharp all-around game in a 2-1 win over a Tampa Bay Rays team that has a less than 1 percent chance of making the playoffs now.  

“It’s weird,” Archer said after the tough-luck loss, comparing the scene to last week’s games relocated to New York in the wake of Hurricane Irma. “I didn’t know we had that many people from Chicago, Illinois, Midwest area, in Tampa, but I guess we do. It was just weird for their players to come out and get announced and get so much love. It was strange.

“It felt like we were in Citi Field playing the Yankees, honestly. I’m not being critical. It was just crazy how much royal blue there was out there. When Willson Contreras went out there to warm up the pitcher, he had a standing O.

“I’ve been here for however long – and seen some really good players come – and I’ve never seen anybody get as much love (as they did when) they ran out of the dugout to warm up.

“It was just kind of crazy.”  

Archer pitched in the Before Theo farm system, at a time when the Cubs were scrambling to try to pry their window to contend back open after winning back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008. Maddon became the beneficiary when the Cubs packaged Archer – who had 13 Double-A starts on his resume at that point – in the blockbuster Matt Garza trade in January 2011.

Archer, who worked last year’s World Series as an ESPN analyst, has pitched in only two playoff games, making two relief appearances out of Maddon’s bullpen when the Boston Red Sox handled the Rays during a 2013 first-round series.   

Archer lost 19 games last season while putting up a 4.02 ERA and 200-plus innings. He earned his second All-Star selection this year and will turn 29 later this month. Wonder what the good-but-not-great numbers in 2017 – 9-11, 4.02 ERA, 32 starts, 241 strikeouts – would look like on a contender.       

“He is among the elite pitchers, there’s no question about that,” Maddon said. “I don’t watch him enough to know when he goes into these bad moments what exactly is going on. (And) I don’t even know how much certain years luck plays into it or not.

“But the thing about him in a big-city market that would intrigue me is him. He’s really bright. And he’s very socially engaged. For him to be in more of an urban kind of a setting with a greater audience, he could make quite an impact.”

Archer is locked into a team-friendly contract that will pay him roughly $14 million in 2018 and 2019 combined, plus the Rays hold bargain club options for 2020 ($9 million) and 2021 ($11 million). Meaning it would take an unbelievable offer just to get Tampa Bay’s attention.

Archer is also a face of the franchise, a two-time Roberto Clemente Award nominee who visits young men and women in the Pinellas County Juvenile Detention Center and stays involved with Major League Baseball’s RBI Program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities).

“Beyond being a pitcher who is very, very good, I would be curious if he was in a larger situation,” said Maddon, who has an offseason home and a restaurant in Tampa and sat with Archer during a Buccaneers game last season. “Just because socially, in a community, he’s already done it here. But you put him in a large city with more of an urban situation – he could really be impactful in that city. He’s really engaging when he speaks. He’s very bright. He’s really well-thought-out.”

Archer has come a long way from the Mark DeRosa salary-dump trade with the Cleveland Indians on New Year’s Eve 2008. Stan Zielinski, the beloved scout who died in January, lobbied then-general manager Jim Hendry, insisting the Cubs shouldn’t do the deal without Archer, a Class-A pitcher who went 4-8 with a 4.29 ERA that season.

While closing the Garza deal, the Rays actually pushed for another pitching prospect, but the Cubs wanted to hold onto Trey McNutt. Other players bundled in that trade became useful major-league pieces (Brandon Guyer, Robinson Chirinos, Sam Fuld), but the headliner was supposed to be Hak-Ju Lee, a South Korean shortstop already blocked by Starlin Castro who never made it to the big leagues.    

“There was a lot of good players that came the Rays’ way at that time,” Maddon said. “I didn’t know what to expect (from Archer). I saw him in camp. Great arm. Didn’t really have a good feel for command at that time.

“But when you talked to the kid, you couldn’t help but really like him a lot. He and I connected on more of an intellectual level regarding books and stuff, because he’s really well-read. He’s a lot smarter than I’ll ever be. I’ve always enjoyed my conversations with him. And then all of a sudden, he started finding the plate. And that slider’s electric.”

Maddon has already seen what the Cubs brand and Chicago platform can do for his baseball legacy, bank account and off-the-field interests.

Do you want Archer back?

“I didn’t say that,” Maddon said. “That’s something I cannot (say).”