Tag: NL Central

Kris Bryant Monster Extension Should Be Next Move for Champion Cubs

The Chicago Cubs finally won the World Series in 2016. And by looking at their roster, it sure looks like they can turn right around and win another in 2017.

So, they might as well set their sights on the more distant future—specifically on how long they can keep Kris Bryant around with a contract extension worthy of his talents.

The Cubs don’t need their star third baseman to prove anything else. All he’s done in the last four years is make everyone else look bad. Bryant was Baseball America‘s College Player of the Year and the No. 2 pick in the draft in 2013. He was the Minor League Player of the Year in 2014. He was the National League Rookie of the Year in 2015. This year, he was the NL MVP and a World Series champion.

Bryant already owns a .900 career OPS with 65 home runs and 21 stolen bases. The 24-year-old has been one of the most valuable players in baseball since 2015. He also holds a special place in the wins above replacement rankings for third basemen through two seasons:

  1. Kris Bryant: 13.6
  2. Evan Longoria: 11.8
  3. Wade Boggs: 11.7
  4. Eddie Mathews: 10.6
  5. Art Devlin: 8.9

At the risk of stating the obvious, here goes nothing: Bryant is not only the best player on the Cubs but just the kind of player they should want as their franchise cornerstone.

There’s no hurry for the Cubs to extend Bryant. He’s not arbitration-eligible until 2018. And thanks to some shady service-time manipulation, Bryant’s not due for free agency until after the 2021 season.

But if nothing else, starting extension talks with Bryant would be a much-needed show of good faith by Chicago.

Though the Cubs were within their rights to keep him in the minors at the start of 2015 and thus extend his club control from six years to seven, Bryant and agent Scott Boras were miffed about it enough to file a grievance.

This spring, Bryant played the good soldier but also let slip his hope that baseball’s next collective bargaining agreement would open a window for him to hit free agency earlier.

“I don’t know if I should speak on any of that, just because I’m still young,” he told Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago in mid-March. “I’m still trying to figure out the process of how things work. And if that happens, that would be great.”

Bryant didn’t get his wish, as Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune reported Dec. 2 that the new CBA did nothing to alter his situation. Regardless, it may not be long before he becomes considerably less amenable to signing an extension.

He is, after all, a Boras client. Such players have generally been exempt from the recent trend of teams locking up their homegrown stars with big extensions. Boras‘ preference is to take his guys to free agency, where the prices are higher.

And right now, the going rate for superstar free agents is close to skyrocketing.

It’s all about the 2018-19 offseason. That’s when Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson and other notables are due for free agency. The biggest contracts in baseball are worth around $25 million to $30 million per year. The 2018-19 offseason could boost that figure to $35 million to $40 million per year.

Once Bryant and Boras see such figures with Bryant only three years from his turn, there will be little chance they settle for a more team-friendly offer from the Cubs.

Now is just the right time for such an offer.

A ton of money will come off the Cubs’ books after 2017. Also, the short distance between Bryant and his arbitration eligibility and the long distance between him and his free agency could make him willing to trade long-term earning power for immediate financial security.

The most obvious comparison to Bryant’s situation is the one that preceded Mike Trout’s signing a six-year, $144.5 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels in 2014.

That was not only a case of an elite young player who signed for big money, but Trout was also fresh off his first two full seasons and heading into his final pre-arbitration season. His extension bought out all three of his arbitration years and three free-agent seasons.

The money in Trout’s deal ($24.1 million per year) is close to what Bryant and the Cubs could agree on. The difference is that he’s older now than Trout was in 2014, which raises complications.

If Bryant were to sign a six-year contract that started in his first arbitration year in 2018, he’d be giving away only two free-agent years but also setting himself up to hit the market after his age-31 season in 2023. That’s older than most teams like their free agents, which won’t be lost on Boras.

The Cubs could settle for buying only one year of Bryant’s free agency, of course. But if they’re going to spend big on him this early, they’ll want to ensure they get him for more than just one year longer than they’re projected to. And since he’s so far from free agency at this point, there’s also the question of why the man himself would give up any free-agent years.

The best way around these issues? How about copying what the Miami Marlins did with Giancarlo Stanton?

The 13-year, $325 million contract Stanton signed in 2015 is known for being the largest in professional sports history. But due to the opt-out after 2020, it’s really a six-year, $107 million contract with a seven-year, $218 million option. It will be a huge payday if Stanton serves the whole thing, but he has a window to even more riches if they’re there for the taking.

Mind you, the Cubs couldn’t get away with back-loading a similar deal as much as the Marlins did. Bryant’s too good for that.

“Stanton is great, but for me, I’d rather have Bryant over any player in the game not named Mike Trout,” one NL executive told John Perrotto of FanRag Sports in November.

But if the Cubs offered, say, $25 million per year for six years with an opt-out after 2023 and $30 million-plus per year afterward, they could soon have Bryant’s signature on the dotted line. Such a deal would up the ante on the biggest contract in history and also give Bryant a chance to earn even more money.

Whether it’s a shorter deal or a longer deal with an escape hatch, the numbers in any extension for Bryant are going to be either big or bigger. This is what he’s earned after establishing himself as such a special talent, and the Cubs should be more than happy to oblige him.

If this isn’t already a top priority, it should be sooner rather than later.


Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked. Contract and payroll data courtesy of Cot’s Baseball Contracts.

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Joe Maddon Responds to Aroldis Chapman’s Comments on World Series Usage

Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon defended himself Saturday after Aroldis Chapman criticized his usage in the World Series.

Would I do it differently? No,” Maddon said in an interview with the New York Post‘s Kevin Kernan. “There is no Game 7 without winning Game 6. And there is no Game 8 if you don’t win Game 7. That’s why you do what you have to do.”

Chapman appeared in Games 6 and 7 of the Fall Classic. His inclusion in Game 6 was surprising considering the Cubs were up 7-2 at the time. The four-time All-Star had also thrown a season-high 42 pitches two days earlier.

By the time Chapman took the mound in the eighth inning of Game 7, he looked gassed. He allowed an RBI double to Brandon Guyer and then a game-tying home run to Rajai Davis.

The important game was going to be Game 7,” Chapman said of appearing in Game 6, per the New York TimesBilly Witz. “We had that game almost won. And the next day I came in and I was tired.”

Maddon’s position is understandable. The Cubs acquired Chapman exactly for the purpose of pitching in high-leverage situations in the postseason. 

At the same time, Chapman’s critique isn’t without merit. He was overworked in the playoffs, and it nearly cost the Cubs a title.

Maddon told Kernan that Chapman never raised any issues with his workload in the World Series. Chapman, however, said he felt he wasn’t in a position to decline any opportunity to pitch, per Witz:

I never told him my opinion about the way he was using me because the way I feel is that, as baseball players, we’re warriors. Our job is to do what we need to do on the field. But if they send me out there to pitch, I’m going to go out there and pitch. If I’m healthy, I’m going to go out there and pitch. If I’m tired, I’m going to put that aside and just get through it.

Chapman’s workload almost certainly would’ve been a bigger story had the Indians won Game 7. Instead, everything worked out well for him and Maddon.

Together, they helped the Cubs win their first World Series since 1908. Chapman also parlayed his 2016 success into a five-year, $86 million deal with the New York Yankees earlier this month.  

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Koji Uehara to Cubs: Latest Contract Details, Comments, Reaction

After four years with the Boston Red Sox, veteran reliever Koji Uehara has found a new home with the Chicago Cubs

ESPN.com’s Jesse Rogers reported Wednesday that Uehara inked a one-year, $6 million deal with the defending World Series champs, and the Cubs later announced the news. 

Uehara is one of the most interesting relievers in Major League Baseball. He has performed at a high level for nearly a decade despite having a fastball that FanGraphs‘ stats show has never averaged more than 89.2 mph and dipped to a career-low 86.7 mph in 2016

The key to Uehara’s success is his split-finger fastball that drops off the table when he’s at his best, as Tim Britton of the Providence Journal wrote in 2014: “It was also the most effective his splitter has ever been, as opponents hit a beggarly .096 off the pitch in 2013. It induced a career-high whiff rate of 28 percent.”

Turning 41 last April, Uehara is starting to show signs he lacks the same type of dominance with that splitter. His 1.5 home runs allowed per nine innings tied the worst mark of his career (2011), per Baseball-Reference.com.

The veteran also posted his highest ERA since 2009 with a 3.45 mark last season, but he still baffled hitters overall with his seventh consecutive season posting a WHIP lower than 1.00 and more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings, so the sky is hardly falling for the right-hander. 

The concern for Uehara is there’s such a small margin for error with his declining fastball velocity that at some point hitters will be able to tee off on the pitch, negating the effectiveness of his splitter, as right-handed hitters gave him fits last season. 

Until that point comes, though, Uehara is still one of the most consistent relievers in baseball and a terrific value because his age didn’t force the Cubs to break the bank.

While Chicago was unable to keep closer Aroldis Chapman in free agency, it acquired Wade Davis via trade and now boasts a potentially dominant late-inning trio with Uehara joining both Davis and Hector Rondon.

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Dexter Fowler to Cardinals: Latest Contract Details, Comments, Reaction

Outfielder Dexter Fowler agreed to sign with the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday, as first reported by USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale.

The deal is for five years and $82.5 million, including a full no-trade clause, per Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports on Friday. 

Frank Cusumano of KSDK Sports in St. Louis reported a physical is scheduled for Friday.

Fowler, 30, was a crucial member of the Chicago Cubs as they won their first World Series title since 1908, hitting .276 with 13 home runs, 48 RBI, 84 runs and 13 stolen bases in 125 regular-season games. He was solid in the postseason as well, hitting .250 with three home runs, six RBI, 11 runs and a stolen base in 17 games.

But the Cubs are loaded in the outfield, with Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. available. Heyward and Almora are capable of manning center field duties, so re-signing Fowler was never likely to be a priority for the reigning champions.


That allowed St. Louis to snag Fowler, who should not only improve the team’s defense but also provide consistent production toward the top of the lineup. Additionally, his postseason experience will be valued in the clubhouse.

Fowler was a key ingredient in the Cubs’ title-winning season. Now, the Cardinals will be hoping he’s the addition that puts them over the top as they seek another championship themselves.

One of the primary areas of need for the Cardinals was an upgrade in center field, so Fowler will check off that box. Fowler’s signing should also fan the flames of the team’s heated rivalry with the Cubs, and his addition makes the Cardinals a threat in the NL Central.

Fowler’s signing won’t be as flashy as some of the other names out there, but he was exactly what the Cardinals needed this offseason.

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Dexter Fowler’s Defection Gives Cardinals a Fighting Chance Against Rival Cubs

The St. Louis Cardinals have the unenviable task of catching up to the Chicago Cubs. It’s a mission that will take all their cunning.

Their latest idea: deny the enemy and enrich themselves in one fell swoop.

It’s not officially official, but the news circulating Thursday night is that Dexter Fowler is defecting from the Cubs to the Cardinals. Bob Nightengale of USA Today was on it first:

According to Jon Heyman of Today’s Knuckleball, Fowler’s deal with St. Louis will be for five years and at least $16 million per season. The Cardinals would also lose the No. 19 pick in the 2017 draft.

Nonetheless, a quality center fielder may be about to earn less money than Aroldis Chapman, a one-inning relief pitcher who’s in line to get $86 million over five years from the New York Yankees. Simply on those grounds, let’s call this a win for the Cardinals. Good job, guys.

But that’s not the only reason for them to be giddy. Per Nightengale, Fowler has been the club’s top target since the summer. Manager Mike Matheny has made no secret of that, going so far as to compare Fowler to Cardinals All-Star Matt Carpenter.

“The more players that you can have like that, I think the better off you’re going to be,” the skipper told Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

There’s more reason to like Fowler now than ever before. The 30-year-old is coming off one of his best seasons. He finished 2016 with an .840 OPS underscored by a .393 on-base percentage. He also played against type by rating well defensively.

With Fowler’s age-31 season due up in 2017, there’s a natural concern about how well he’ll age in the life of a five-year contract. But in his case, there are reasons to believe he’ll be fine.

Although Fowler’s still an excellent athlete, his offensive production stems mainly from his head. He has an outstanding approach and an excellent batting eye.

That not only affords him plenty of OBP-boosting walks but ensures that most of his swings are taken at pitches he can hit well. Even if he tops out around 15 home runs per season, this is how he keeps his overall power production above league average.

Meanwhile, Fowler’s defensive improvement in 2016 had nothing to do with a random mid-career surge of athleticism. It traced back to a simple positioning adjustment.

“I was getting crushed with the defense,” Fowler told Paul Skrbina of the Chicago Tribune in October. “They said I was a bad outfielder. I kind of took offense to that. So I just moved back a few steps.”

Assuming Fowler takes this adjustment to St. Louis, he stands to improve a center field spot that finished 24th in ultimate zone rating in 2016. The Cardinals’ entire defense would benefit from that, which would satisfy one of the goals they had for their offseason.

“It certainly was a year of inconsistencies,” general manager John Mozeliak said in October, per Ben Frederickson of the Post-Dispatch. “You think back to some of our defensive struggles, which put a lot of stress on our rotation and then led to some inconsistencies with the rotation.”

On the other side of the ball, ESPN.com’s Buster Olney’s projection for the new Cardinals lineup looks about right:

Fowler can’t do much to upgrade a leadoff spot that, mainly thanks to Carpenter, posted a .368 OBP and .848 OPS in 2016.

But allowing Carpenter to move into the middle of the batting order should have the desired effect there. Only five teams got a lower OPS from their Nos. 3 through 6 hitters than the Cardinals in 2016. With an .877 OPS and 49 home runs over the last two seasons, Carpenter should fix that.

Bottom line: The Cardinals will be better after signing one of the top players on the market than they were before. How ’bout that, huh? Amazing.

Now, as good as the Cubs? Not quite yet.

The Cubs won 17 more games (and that other thing) than the Cardinals in 2016, so they started the winter in a better place by default.

And although they’ve lost Fowler, Albert Almora Jr. will probably play better defense in center while a healthy Kyle Schwarber picks up Fowler’s offensive slack. The Cubs also filled their vacant closer role with Wade Davis, who is very, very good.

The early projections for 2017 peg the Cubs to once again be the team to beat not just in the NL Central but in the entire league. Per FanGraphs, their projection of 95 wins is the highest of any club.

But with a projection of 84 wins even before Fowler is factored into the mix, the Cardinals do have one thing going for them: They’re the team in the NL Central with the best shot of taking down the Cubs.

Two of the clubs in the division, the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds, are so far out of the picture that we might as well be assessing their chances of winning the NFC North. The Pittsburgh Pirates have good individual parts but an incomplete whole and limited resources for fixing it.

With only the (shockingly expensive) Brett Cecil signing going for them before Thursday, the Cardinals were more in a boat with the Pirates than paddling toward the Cubs. With Fowler now set to give them a boost in more ways than one, their odds of overtaking the Cubs are somewhere below laughable.

Faint praise? Sort of. But you never know. Maybe the Cardinals aren’t supposed to topple the Cubs, but Frodo wasn’t supposed to get the One Ring to Mt. Doom either. Nor was Luke Skywalker supposed to destroy the Death Star.

Sometimes all you can do is give it a shot. The Cardinals are now ready to take theirs.


Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked. 

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Jake Arrieta Contract: Latest News, Rumors on SP’s Negotiations with Cubs

The Chicago Cubs are hoping to sign starting pitcher Jake Arrieta to a long-term deal before he hits free agency. 

Continue for updates.

Latest on Extension Negotiations

Thursday, Dec. 8

According to Jesse Rogers of ESPN Chicago, the 30-year-old’s agent, Scott Boras, believes this is the time to come to an agreement with the team, and a contract will be discussed in January.

Arrieta is in his third year of arbitration and is set to be a free agent after the 2017 season.

The Cubs acquired Arrieta in a trade from the Baltimore Orioles during the 2013 season. Since then, the right-hander has blossomed into one of the top pitchers in the game.

After a breakout 2014 season during which he had a 2.53 ERA in 25 starts, Arrieta took home his first Cy Young Award in 2015, when he posted a 22-6 record, 1.77 ERA and 236 strikeouts in 229 innings.

He followed that up with a strong 2016, as he won 18 games with a 3.10 ERA, finishing in the top 10 of the Cy Young Award voting for the third year in a row. He was also instrumental toward helping the Cubs bring home their first World Series title since 1908.

Just for good measure, Arrieta also won a Silver Slugger Award in 2016 after posting a .262 batting average with two home runs.

This is especially impressive considering how well he shut down all opposing hitters, per Jayson Stark of ESPN.com:

While Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester also put together outstanding seasons for Chicago, Arrieta is still a valued member of the pitching staff, and the Cubs will likely want him around for as long as possible.

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Wade Davis to Cubs for Jorge Soler: Latest Trade Details, Comments and Reaction

The Kansas City Royals shook up their bullpen Wednesday after trading All-Star closer Wade Davis to the Chicago Cubs for Jorge Soler.  

The Cubs announced the deal after Bob Nightengale of USA Today first reported the agreement. Soler took to Twitter after the announcement to thank Chicago’s fans for his time with the club before commenting on his move to Kansas City:

Davis had been an instrumental part of Kansas City’s recent resurgence. He was a middling starter after coming up with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2009 and during his first year with the Royals in 2013, but a move to the bullpen turned his career around. 

In 2014 to 2015, Davis put up numbers that were as good as any reliever in Major League Baseball over that span. 

He remained strong in 2016 with a 1.87 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 43.1 innings, but his walk rate (3.3 per nine innings) was his highest since 2013. He also had two stints on the disabled list with a flexor strain in his right forearm.

The Royals are in a difficult spot heading into 2017. Several core members from the 2015 championship team are entering the final year of their contracts, including Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas. 

Davis was also in that group, but now that he’s gone, it creates financial flexibility for the upcoming season in Kansas City. His contract will pay him $10 million in 2017, per Spotrac.

The Royals still have Kelvin Herrera to close games. 

Its two-year playoff run in 2014 and 2015 briefly altered the way Kansas City does business, with Cot’s Baseball Contracts estimating its payroll last season at $131.5 million. That’s not a level this franchise can consistently operate on, so trading a reliever and adding an impact asset it controls through 2020 is the right move. 

The Cubs will happily take advantage of the Royals’ transition phase. They have a solid bullpen, even with the possible loss of Aroldis Chapman to free agency, as Hector Rondon has 77 saves since 2014. 

However, adding an impact arm to the team’s crop of relievers gives Cubs manager Joe Maddon depth and versatility—areas in which the defending World Series champions were lacking. 

In return, the Cubs deal from a crowded position group. The potential loss of free agent Dexter Fowler takes away one option, but they can still use some combination of Ben Zobrist, Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Albert Almora Jr., Jon Jay and Kris Bryant in the outfield. 

Soler has never been able to put it all together since signing with Chicago in 2012, due to injuries and inconsistent performance. He started to look like a future star in the second half last season with a .258/.348/.515 line in 36 games. 

That’s a small sample size; though, at 24 years old, Soler is still young enough to develop into a star right fielder.

Moving Davis now, while painful for Kansas City fans, represents the Royals’ best opportunity to have financial flexibility in the offseason and keep adding young, cost-controlled talent who can help them return to glory next season. 

Davis comes with risk after his injuries last year, but the Cubs are a franchise with the financial resources and depth to take on his contract with the hopes he can return to his 2014-15 levels when he was the best reliever in baseball. 

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Jorge Soler Reportedly Traded to Royals for Wade Davis

Chicago Cubs outfielder Jorge Soler has had trouble getting on the field over his first three MLB seasons, but he will now reportedly get a new opportunity with the Kansas City Royals.

According to USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale, the Royals and Cubs have struck a deal that will send Soler to the Royals for closer Wade Davis, pending physicals. Jon Heyman of Today’s Knuckleball confirmed the report.

Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal noted the deal would be a one-for-one swap with no other players involved. 

The 24-year-old Soler has been lost in the shuffle with the Cubs. Once the No. 12-rated prospect in all of the minors by Baseball America before the 2015 season (via Baseball-Reference.com), Soler has appeared in just 211 MLB games in three years. 

Though he has a large frame and a lot of potential, the Cuban defector didn’t make his road to the majors any easier with some of his antics. According to Fox Sports’ Mauricio Rubio, “He was benched for not hustling, and in a separate incident he ran toward an opposing dugout with a bat.”

After a limited debut in 2014 that included 97 plate appearances, he yielded underwhelming numbers in 2015 with 10 home runs and 47 RBI in 101 games.

Still, he had an opportunity to gain regular starting time in 2016 when Kyle Schwarber went down with a torn ACL and LCL and did just that from April to June as the Cubs’ go-to left fielder. 

But in 50 games, he batted just .223 with five home runs and 13 RBI before a hamstring injury sidelined him for almost two months. 

To make the timing worse, Soler was batting .318 in the 17 games prior to the injury, per ESPN.com’s Jerry Crasnick.

With a rotation of contributors to pick up the slack in left while fellow youngsters Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Javier Baez became household names during the Cubs’ first World Series title since 1908, Soler remained stagnant upon his return. He finished the season with a .238 batting average with 12 home runs and 31 RBI. 

However, he still made some solid contributions to the Cubs’ run toward the postseason:

Though he still has the potential to become a star in the big leagues, the Cubs decided to take the opportunity to sell high on Soler in order to land a top-tier closer. 

Davis has been an All-Star the past two seasons and could be a nice replacement for Aroldis Chapman if he does in fact walk in free agency this winter. 


Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com

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Andrew McCutchen Blockbuster Trade Is Calculated Risk Nationals Must Take

In a baseball year that was about ending droughts, the Washington Nationals had to sit back and wonder why they were left out.

They have a good team. They won 95 games, the third time in the last five years they’ve won at least that many (no one else has done it more than twice).

All it got them was another chance at October frustration. The Nationals didn’t win a postseason series. The Nationals have never won a postseason series.

You want to talk about droughts? That’s a drought.

They can ask why, or they can do something about it. They can ask why, or they can ask the question Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein famously posed after his July trade for Aroldis Chapman, per ESPN.com:

“If not now, when?”

Now is when for the Nationals, and it’s clear they understand it. A National League executive who knows the Nationals well said early in the offseason they would make Chris Sale a priority, and sure enough, reporting by FanRag‘s Jon Heyman and Fox Sports‘ Ken Rosenthal suggests they are among the front-runners for the Chicago White Sox ace. Rosenthal also reported on Twitter the Nationals are among at least two teams with a four-year, $60 million offer for Mark Melancon, the closer they acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates in July.

Then there’s Andrew McCutchen.

This is the time for the Pittsburgh Pirates to trade their star center fielder, and this is the time for the Nationals to go get him.

Trea Turner did a fine job in center field the second half of the season, but the best way for the Nationals to make the most of his talent is to put Turner back at shortstop. Bryce Harper could move to center field if the Nationals acquired another corner guy, but Harper is best if he’s playing one of the corner spots.

McCutchen isn’t the all-around threat he was in 2013, when he was the National League’s Most Valuable Player and helped end Dusty Baker’s tenure with the Cincinnati Reds (after McCutchen‘s Pirates beat Baker’s Reds in the NL Wild Card Game). But his subpar 2016 ended with enough improvement in August and September to convince scouts he can still be a star.

He’d be a fit in the Nationals clubhouse, and he’d be a great fit in the Nationals lineup, a right-handed force for Baker to mix with the left-handed hitting Harper and Daniel Murphy in the middle of the order.

As ESPN.com‘s Jayson Stark reported, the Pirates and Nationals “ramped up” talks about a McCutchen deal last week. Stark suggested pitchers Joe Ross and Reynaldo Lopez as possible Pittsburgh targets in a deal. Other speculation has centered on 19-year-old outfield prospect Victor Robles, who Rosenthal identified as a Pirates target in a possible Pirates-Nationals McCutchen deal that fell through last summer.

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo is notoriously hesitant to part with his best prospects. Rizzo has shown a willingness to make trades—he got Melancon from the Pirates and has made other deals for Gio Gonzalez and Denard Span in recent years—but he has also been conscious of the future.

The future is fine, and the Nationals’ future remains bright, but they also understand they have a window to win big that might not remain open that long. Harper and Murphy have two years to go to free agency, and while ace Max Scherzer is signed through 2021, he turns 33 next July.

In other words, if not now, when?

Like Sale, McCutchen has the added attraction of carrying a reasonable contract. That’s significant for a Nationals team that has more than $100 million committed to six players for 2017. Sale would add just $12 million to the 2017 payroll, a true bargain for a left-handed ace.

McCutchen will make $14 million in 2017, with a club option for $14.5 million the following year.

As I wrote last month, he’s a bargain if he comes anywhere near the form that put him in the top five in MVP voting four straight years from 2012-15. The risk would come if last year’s decline was a sign McCutchen‘s age (30) has already robbed him of the speed that made him such a dynamic force with the Pirates.

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington told me he expects “he’s going to come to camp and be Andrew McCutchen again,” but Huntington also admitted the Pirates have had discussions about whether to move McCutchen out of center field. They don’t totally agree with the defensive metrics that painted McCutchen as the worst defensive center fielder in the game (as detailed in the column I did on McCutchen last month), but scouts said the eye test also showed a decline in his defensive skills.

The Nationals would be betting on a bounce-back, but it would be a smart and worthy bet. And a timely bet, too.

After all, if not now, when?


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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Korean League MVP Eric Thames Could Be Surprise MLB Offseason Steal

There’s a video you can find on the internet showing Eric Thames wearing a crown made of flowers, just after he was named Most Valuable Player last year in South Korea.

Good luck finding anything like that from Kris Bryant or Mike Trout.

It’s a nice ceremony and a nice award, but it’s also a pleasant reminder of how different professional baseball is in South Korea, where the NC Dinos play in a ballpark with a center field fence just 381 feet from home plate and where the pitchers rarely throw upper-90s fastballs.

Baseball in South Korea is different, which is why it’s so tough to know what to make of Thames’ new three-year, $16 million contract to be the Milwaukee Brewers‘ first baseman. It’s either the biggest bargain deal for an MVP or the worst shot in the dark on a guy who hit .220 with six home runs in his last major league season.

But maybe, just maybe, Eric Thames can be Cecil Fielder.

Not Prince Fielder, the one-time Brewers first baseman whose career progressed the usual way, from first-round draft pick to major league All-Star. Cecil, Prince’s dad, went from a part-time player with the Toronto Blue Jays to a starring role with the Detroit Tigers, with a great season in Japan in the middle.

That sounds just a little like Thames, a part-time player with the Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners who went to South Korea and became a star. His numbers were almost hard to believe, with a .348 batting average and 124 home runs in 388 games over three seasons, including the first 40-homer/40-steal season in KBO League history.

“Cecil Fielder went to Japan and learned an approach that worked for him,” one longtime American League scout said. “What you’re betting on with Thames is he’s learned how to be a hitter.”

The AL scout saw Thames play in Korea and thinks it’s possible he has. He said the player he saw with the Dinos did a much better job recognizing breaking balls than the guy he watched with the Blue Jays.

“No one can deny that,” he said. “He’s got a plan now. Do I think he can play in the big leagues? No doubt. He can definitely play in the big leagues.”

But can the 30-year-old Thames be anything like the star he was in Korea? That question is so much harder to answer, and it’s why a low-budget team like the Brewers could sign him for what amounts to a $16 million lottery ticket.

It’s worth remembering many of the same questions were asked about Fielder when the Tigers signed him to a two-year, $3 million contract in January 1990. Fielder hit 38 home runs in just 106 games in his one year in Japan, but what did that mean when you translated it to Major League Baseball?


In his case, it meant 51 home runs in his first year back, the most homers any major league player had hit in 13 years. It meant back-to-back second-place finishes in American League MVP voting.

Fielder went to Japan at a time when there were no Japanese-born players in the major leagues. Thames comes back from South Korea at a time when nine South Korean-born players were active in the majors this past year alone. Players such as Jung Ho Kang and Hyun Soo Kim have been good enough to earn the KBO League some respect.

Kang and Kim were stars in South Korea, but neither put up numbers to match Thames’ 2015 season, when he had a 1.288 OPS and 140 RBI in 142 games.

The comparisons are useful because they played in the same league in South Korea, facing similar pitchers under similar conditions. But Thames is different because he grew up in the U.S. and has played in the major leagues before. The real question is whether the time overseas turned him into a better player.

C.J. Nitkowski thinks that’s possible.

Nitkowski works for Fox Sports and MLB Network Radio now, but in his previous life, he was a pitcher who left the major leagues to go to Japan and South Korea. He pitched four seasons in Asia toward the end of his career, and while it didn’t help him get back to the big leagues, he saw benefits.

“Sometimes there, you can relax,” Nitkowski said. “You’ve got guaranteed money, and you’re not worried about the ups and downs as much. Talent has a chance to shine.”

Nitkowski mentioned Colby Lewis, who was an up-and-down pitcher before going to Japan. After two good years there, he returned as a solid rotation piece for the Texas Rangers.

Lewis was 30 when he came back to the major leagues, the same age Thames is now.

There aren’t that many other examples because there just aren’t that many players who leave North America, become stars in Asia and then return to the majors. And there aren’t that many position players who try it.

Dan Kurtz of MyKBO.net, an outstanding website that follows Korean baseball, compiled a list of 30 players who left the major leagues to go to Korea, then returned and played at least one more game in the majors. All but four of the 30 were pitchers, and none of the four position players had a career track that resembles Thames’.

Maybe that fits because Thames has always been a little eccentric. His Twitter bio lists him as the “Enforcer for the NC Dinos and Sosnick Cobbe Sports (his agents). Meathead, gamer, weirdo and proud representative of the Thames clan.”

And he could add potential trailblazer. If his MLB-KBO-MLB path works as well as Fielder’s Japan detour did two decades ago, maybe others will be emboldened to try it too.


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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