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.”

Joe Maddon's prime-time message: 'Help or die'

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USA TODAY

Joe Maddon's prime-time message: 'Help or die'

Joe Maddon gave an unforgettable shout-out to his blue-collar hometown during his first press conference as Cubs manager at The Cubby Bear, promising to buy the first round of drinks at the bar opposite the Wrigley Field marquee.

Maddon dropped the microphone for a moment, and then picked it back up to make a final announcement before exiting stage left: “That’s a shot and a beer! That’s the Hazleton way!”

The faded city from Pennsylvania’s coal-mining region that Cubs fans first heard about in November 2014 – and became a go-to reference point during so many of Maddon’s daily media sessions – will get a national spotlight on NBC News’ “Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly.”

NBC correspondent Harry Smith shadowed Maddon and traveled to Hazleton for a magazine-style piece that will air Sunday at 6 p.m., just before the Cubs play the rival St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field.

Maddon – who has visited the White House twice within the last six-plus months and sat down with Charlie Rose while the team was in New York in June – wants a focus on his Hazleton Integration Project and how that community organization is creating educational opportunities and trying to help the next wave of immigrants assimilate.       

“They’re going to save our town,” Maddon tells NBC. “You have two options right here. Either you get on board and help us as we’re moving this thing along or you’re going to die. And when you die and go away, then you’re going to get out of the way. You’re not going to be part of the problem anymore. So, it’s either help or die.”

This is becoming Willson Contreras' team, whether or not Cubs add Alex Avila or another veteran catcher

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USA TODAY

This is becoming Willson Contreras' team, whether or not Cubs add Alex Avila or another veteran catcher

This is slowly becoming more like Willson Contreras’ team, whether or not the Cubs add a veteran catcher like Alex Avila before the July 31 trade deadline. Yadier Molina took the in-game, All-Star photo of Nelson Cruz and Joe West, but Contreras is coming for moments like that, too.

In a Cubs clubhouse filled with calm, serious young players who were fast-tracked to Wrigleyville, Contreras is the one who got left exposed in the Rule 5 draft at the 2014 winter meetings and spent parts of eight seasons in the minors before making his big-league debut.

As much as the Cubs needed that ice-cold demeanor from guys like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell to end the 108-year hex, they will use Contreras’ fire to try to win the World Series again.

“I feel like I’m in the heart of the team,” Contreras said. “I’m behind the plate. I just want to play with my energy, no matter if I hit or not. We need that energy for the second half. And it’s going to be there.”

The Cubs flipped a switch after the All-Star break, sweeping the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves and moving to within one game of the Milwaukee Brewers, their play screaming at Theo Epstein’s front office to keep buying. Contreras caught the first 45 innings of that six-game winning streak where the rotation finally clicked and hit .409 (9-for-22) with two homers, three doubles and seven RBIs on that road trip.

Contreras is a power source when a 49-45 team talks about going on a run and the defending World Series champs point to all this room to grow in the future. The model will be staring at Contreras this weekend at Wrigley Field when the Cubs try to keep the St. Louis Cardinals down (46-49) and give their front office something to think about (sell?) between now and July 31.

“We look at Yadier Molina,” catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello said. “We know that he’s just an intelligent baseball player. I always try to remind Willson: 'That’s what we’re trying to accomplish, making you not only a threat offensively and defensively, but with your mind.'

“He’s always listening. He wants to learn. He plays with high intensity, high emotion. I always challenge him to be a smart player. That’s the best compliment you can get.”

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After a disappointing first half where it looked like the vaunted pitching infrastructure might collapse — and veteran catcher Miguel Montero went on an epic rant that could have foretold a divided clubhouse in the second half — Contreras seemed to be in the middle of everything.

With Contreras behind the plate, Jake Arrieta began his salary drive toward a megadeal, Jose Quintana dazzled in his Cubs debut, Jon Lester recovered from the worst start of his career and John Lackey pitched well enough to delay any awkward conversations about going home to Texas instead of going to the bullpen.

“It was never tough,” said Arrieta, who has chopped his ERA from 5.44 to 4.17 since the middle of May. “It was just a matter of him getting to understand what we like to do as starters.

“He’s learned really quickly. He’s a tremendous athlete back there. I’m very confident that I can bury a curveball, or I can throw a changeup in the dirt, and I know that guy’s going to block it, even with a guy on first or second base. There’s not a ton of guys around the league that you can feel that much confidence in.

“Willson’s been great, and he’s only going to get better.”

Quintana, who breezed through seven scoreless innings against the Orioles (12 strikeouts, zero walks) after that blockbuster trade with the White Sox, gave this review of Contreras: “We were on the same page really quick, believe me. We talked before the game about how we want to go, how we want to call our pitches. He called a really good game, and I appreciate that.”

The Cubs will still be looking for a more-PC version of Montero, whether it’s someone like Avila, who works for his dad, Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila, or circling back to an old target like Texas Rangers catcher Jonathan Lucroy (essentially off-limits to a division rival when the Brewers shopped him last summer). Dropping Montero in late June forced Victor Caratini up from Triple-A Iowa, making Contreras the senior catcher with a World Series ring at the age of 25.

“It’s almost like a quarterback in the NFL — there’s so much for them to absorb,” manager Joe Maddon said. “When you come from the minors to the major leagues as a catcher, most of the time in the minor leagues, you’re just developing physical abilities, physical tools, blocking, footwork, throwing, maybe pitcher/catcher relationship.

“But understanding the calling of a game — it’s hard to really develop that on the minor-league level. You have the manager, then maybe a pitching coach and there’s a lot going on. You don’t have that time to put into the game plan or to sit down and talk to this guy. It’s a little bit more superficial. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way — it’s just the way it is.”

Whatever the Cubs do next, it will be with the idea of preserving Contreras in mind. Of the six big-league catchers qualified for the batting title, only two other catchers — World Series winners Buster Posey (.917) and Salvador Perez (.824) — have a higher OPS than Contreras (.822) so far this season. Among National League catchers, Contreras also has the most errors (13) and runners thrown out (19). Outside of Bryzzo, Contreras has the highest WAR (2.6) on the team.

If you think Contreras is emotional, energetic and entertaining now, just imagine what he will be like when he really knows what he’s doing.

“He asks all the right questions,” said Borzello, who won four World Series rings as a New York Yankees staffer. “We go over every game, and between every inning, we talk. We’re working in the right direction. I think he wants it as much as anyone I’ve ever been around.”