CARLOS GOMEZ KNEW he needed to get Fernando Tatis Jr. on the phone.
After Tatis hit a controversial grand slam in the eighth inning of an Aug. 17 game against the Texas Rangers last season, Gomez, a former major league outfielder, called the San Diego Padres shortstop. Tatis’ slam represented a violation of the unwritten rules of baseball, interpreted as an attempt to run up the score. It came on a 3-0 pitch, with his team ahead by seven runs.
Tatis faced criticism even from his own manager, Jayce Tingler, who indicated that Tatis should have kept the bat on his shoulder instead of swinging.
“He’s young, a free spirit and focused and all those things,” Tingler said after the game. “That’s the last thing that we’ll ever take away. It’s a learning opportunity, and that’s it. He’ll grow from it.”
Tatis apologized for the violation of etiquette.
“I’ve been in this game since I was a kid,” Tatis said. “I know a lot of unwritten rules. I was kind of lost on this. Those experiences, you have to learn. Probably next time, I’ll take a pitch.”
But Gomez wasn’t having it — and he needed Tatis to hear it.
“I do not agree with you that you said sorry,” Gomez told Tatis. “Sorry for nothing.”
As a player who regularly pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable during a 13-year career in the big leagues that ended just two years ago, Gomez thought an apology was the last thing anyone needed to hear.
“I called him and I tell him, ‘Hey kid, keep doing what you’re doing. You’re not doing nothing wrong,'” said Gomez, who had played with Tatis’ father for a short time more than a decade before, and had seen a young Tatis’ exuberance around the clubhouse. “I explained it in a way to not make him feel like a bad guy. I tell, ‘In my career, in 13 years, I swing like four times, 3-0. How many homers? One. How many fly balls? Two. One swing and a miss. So, it don’t matter. We’re not a machine.'”
Gomez was on to something. In the days following, players and fans came to Tatis’ defense.
“Everyone should hit 3-0,” tweeted baseball legend Johnny Bench. “Grand slams are a huge stat.”
Tingler would also walk back some of his criticism. “They’re trying to kick our a–, and we’re trying to kick their a– and win,” Tingler said. “That’s the bottom line. We can’t sit here and worry about people’s feelings.”
By October, Tatis’ style of play would not only be defended, but also celebrated — enough to land him and his now iconic wild-card bat flip on the cover of MLB The Show, the league’s signature video game.
The on-field culture of Major League Baseball has long alienated those who didn’t fit into a certain idea — the white, American way — of playing the sport. Even with more than a quarter of rostered players born outside of the United States, the idea of MLB being a showcase for multiculturalism is often more aspirational than reality.
And the game isn’t played everywhere under the States’ unwritten rules. In the Dominican Republic, where both Tatis and Gomez were born, there’s more expressiveness. There’s palpable joy. In Asia, whether that’s Korea or Japan, massive bat flips are a fixture of the game.
Although Gomez played in the big leagues as recently as 2019, in the short time since he left the stage, he’s seen it start to turn. The culture of baseball is changing, on and off the field, with shifting attitudes not only about emphatic celebrations, but also expressions of personal flair through fashion and social media, much of it with an undeniable racial subtext.
“I’m retired now and I say, ‘Why now they let everybody do whatever they want?’ I think I’m in the wrong era.” Gomez said. “I’m supposed to be [playing] now, like, making a show!”
Although it’s been a long time coming, and still has a long way to go, the game is evolving. Here’s what’s driving that, seemingly overnight, change.
The bat flip that changed baseball
Jose Bautista tells Joon Lee he “kind of blacked out” before his bat flip following the go-ahead homer in Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS.
JOSE BAUTISTA NEVER expected to become known for a bat flip.
Of all the moments in his 15-year career in the majors, the one fans approach him to talk about the most is his home run in Game 5 of the 2015 American League Division Series. The then-Toronto Blue Jays slugger hit a three-run, go-ahead homer in the seventh inning off Rangers reliever Sam Dyson before chucking his bat and circling the bases in what’s become an iconic moment in baseball history.
“I wasn’t a notorious bat flipper,” Bautista said. “I might have done it two or three times in my whole career that I can remember. I didn’t feel like I was a notorious bat-flipper, but now I’m kind of known for that. That’s kind of weird.”
Especially because he doesn’t even remember doing it.
“I kind of blacked out after the swing, hearing the roar of the crowd and the emotion of the moment,” Bautista said. “I don’t really recall anything in particular until I was kind of catching my breath back at the bench.”
Early in his career, Bautista battled with containing his emotions on the baseball field. After many conversations with coaches — and arguments with umpires — Bautista slowly learned to bottle his feelings, in hopes of presenting an acceptable facade while not violating the cultural norms of the sport where people value stoicism above all.
“Everybody’s imitating it. I’m doing it from the left side. I’m like, boom, and I’m throwing the bat out, and we’re chucking it 20 feet in the air. … [Jose Bautista] was a pioneer of that, breaking the glass and saying, ‘Let the floodgates roll in.'”
Seattle Mariners outfielder Taylor Trammell
“I’ve heard comments from guys that are like, ‘I thought you were an a–hole,’ or, ‘I thought you were a s—head. Once I got to know you, I understand why you get so upset,'” Bautista said. “Man, I struggle with it, I can’t really explain it; it’s just the way I handle things. I got better at it as I was getting older, but that was one of the biggest struggles of my career, controlling my reaction or my temper.”
What once hurt Bautista’s reputation in the eyes of some in the big leagues — his emotion and passion — eventually became a lasting, celebrated legacy. The 2015 bat flip became one of baseball’s biggest moments on social media.
“Everybody’s imitating it,” Trammell said. “I’m doing it from the left side. I’m like, boom, and I’m throwing the bat out, and we’re chucking it 20 feet in the air. We’re humming that thing, and it was like, ‘Wow, we’re having so much fun.’ [Bautista] was a pioneer of that, breaking the glass and saying, ‘Let the floodgates roll in.'”
For baseball lifers like Eduardo Perez, who grew up in major league clubhouses as the son of Hall of Famer Tony Perez before embarking on his own 13-year MLB career, bat flipping was viewed as unsportsmanlike. Now as a broadcaster for ESPN, Perez said the context of the moment shapes the acceptability.
“When you’re down a few runs and you bat flip and you’re taking your time around the bases and you’re celebrating like you just won a championship or you took your team to another level, that to me is like, ‘Come on dude, know where you’re at,'” Perez said. “‘Know the moment and know the situation.'”
The enforcement of unwritten rules has always been dictated by the context of the moment in baseball history. Jackie Robinson was forced to obey unwritten rules designed for him after he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945. Robinson promised Dodgers owner Branch Rickey he would not fight back with anything other than his performance on the field when others tried to bait him with slurs and taunts. By doing so, Robinson rewrote an actual written rule — the one that barred Black players from the league.
Over the decades, the code endured, although not all players who defied cultural norms were ostracized. Latin players like Luis Tiant, who turned his back toward the hitter mid-windup, Juan Marichal, whose leg soared above his head as he delivered pitches, and Manny Ramirez, who once high-fived a member of the crowd in the middle of a play, all became cult heroes within the sport. Still, it wasn’t until long after Ken Griffey Jr. retired that his oft-criticized, signature backward baseball cap became the central part of an MLB marketing strategy.
Gomez, who was never afraid to show his emotions on the field, said he was used to opponents misinterpreting his joyful exuberance as disrespect. He was often the target of retaliatory hit-by-pitches or harsh criticism from opposing fans.
“I just express myself when I’m playing baseball. I’m never thinking, ‘I’m going to do this, I’m going to make a bat flip, I’m going to slide and point to the dugout.’ No, no, no,” Gomez said. “I just let the moment flow, and sometimes I get pointed to like I’m the bad guy because I do stuff like that.”
“This is the first time that I’m talking about this, but it’s the truth, because when people are saying you’re a criminal when you’re not, how are you going to feel? … You start getting angry. They made me feel like I’m a bad guy because of how I played the game.”
Former major leaguer Carlos Gomez on how being labeled a “thug” led him to bouts with insomnia and depression.
But a series of events in 2013 tested those limits. In June of that year, Gomez, then with the Milwaukee Brewers, came up to the plate against Atlanta Braves lefty Paul Maholm — a pitcher against whom he’d always found success, hitting .450/.500/.850 with two homers in 20 at-bats in his career. Maholm plunked him in the knee. When the two faced off again that September, Gomez drilled a homer. Because he felt the hit-by-pitch earlier in the season was disrespectful, Gomez took extra time admiring his blast.
“I disrespected the team, I agree, but the pitcher didn’t respect me,” Gomez said. “So the team needs to tell him, ‘Hey, you did that, You hit him without reason, so he hit a homer and he disrespected everybody.’ It’s not a good thing to do, but as a man, I feel like if he didn’t respect me; this is the only way to take care of business on the field.”
It wasn’t the first time his playing style was questioned, but when fans on social media labeled Gomez a “thug” in the aftermath in 2013, the racist connotations of the word weighed on him heavily. That label, and similar ones he heard during his career, he said, lead to bouts with depression and insomnia.
“This is the first time that I’m talking about this, but it’s the truth, because when people are saying you’re a criminal when you’re not, how are you going to feel?” Gomez said. “Everybody is like, ‘You’re a criminal. You’re a criminal.’ … And you’re not, then you’ll start thinking, ‘No they’re wrong.’ You start getting angry.
“They made me feel like I’m a bad guy because of how I played the game.”
Gomez points out that much of the attitude around his style of play changed not necessarily because of racial tolerance, but because of capitalism. Other leagues and athletes are forcing MLB to recognize how this new generation of players can be marketed.
“That’s why kids are watching more of those other sports, because it’s more fun,” Gomez said. “It’s more entertaining to watch. It’s different, more commercial, more flow. Baseball, we haven’t had that. They need that because of the new generation. My kid goes to the batting cage and he bat flips.”
According to many young players, it was Bautista’s home run that made bat flips more acceptable — even to opposing pitchers.
“By the time I was making my way through the minor leagues and I got to the big leagues, nobody really cared, man. I don’t really care, man,” said Chicago White Sox ace Lucas Giolito, who’s 26. “I think that it makes for a good clip on Twitter. It might generate some interest if a guy does a massive bat flip or something like that.”
The leniency of celebrations and bat flips can vary from team to team. While the players in the White Sox clubhouse encourage personality and individuality, others like the St. Louis Cardinals emphasize “The Cardinal Way,” something outfielder Harrison Bader heard about from veterans like Adam Wainwright and Dexter Fowler as he began his career.
“Everybody would talk about ‘The Cardinal Way’ of playing baseball. A lot of that outlines not violating unwritten rules, playing the game hard the right way, stuff like that,” Bader said. “It really just is a level of experience, you have to be in situations, and I’ve messed up plenty of times. I’ve taken the extra base; I’ve buried your opponent.”
“Guy hits a home run off me, showboat, cool. Guess what? I’m going to face you again. I’m going to strike you out. I’m going to showboat.”
Cincinnati Reds reliever Amir Garrett
While in generations past, players themselves regulated violations of their code, often with pitchers throwing at batters, many young stars on the mound view this type of retaliation as antiquated.
Cincinnati Reds reliever Amir Garrett, for one, believes pitchers who throw at hitters are being overly sensitive. Garrett, who played college basketball for St. John’s before switching paths to pursue a career in baseball, looks at the NBA as a model for how baseball can continue to evolve its etiquette.
“You see the way somebody gets dunked and how they get in their face, or you see Russell Westbrook play and how he’s talking mess to the other team, that’s a lot of players in the NBA. They don’t get upset because they’re like, ‘Well, I’ve got to get you back,'” Garrett says. “Guy hits a home run off me, showboat, cool. Guess what? I’m going to face you again. I’m going to strike you out. I’m going to showboat.”
MLB The (Fashion) Show
Bryce Harper’s #OpeningDay cleats 🔥
— ESPN (@espn) April 2, 2021
“I DON’T LIKE your cleats. Take them off.”
Garrett sat at his locker, confused by the comment from a veteran player.
“They’re too flashy,” the veteran continued. “We don’t do that here.”
When the Reds southpaw was a rookie in 2017, MLB kept a policy that required cleats on the field to match 51% of the team’s primary color, with no alterations or illustrations. Garrett didn’t feel he had leeway to express his fashion sense on the baseball field until he established himself as a consistent major leaguer.
Perez recalls during his playing days a much stricter, unspoken dress code. When Perez came up with the Angels in 1993, he enjoyed wearing his cap backward on the field, a habit he developed alongside Ken Griffey Jr. as sons of big leaguers in the Reds’ clubhouse.
“I remember Rene Gonzalez, No. 88, I just remember him coming up to me, a veteran utility infielder, and saying, ‘Hey, turn that hat around. Let’s go. This is the big leagues. This isn’t the minor leagues. And you’re not Junior,'” Perez said. “The Seattle Mariners allowed Ken Griffey Jr. to be himself. When I got to the Angels’ system, it was more of a tight-knit situation where the players were policing themselves.”
Prompted by the success of Players Weekend, an annual event which debuted in 2017, the league removed restrictions on cleat colors and is allowing footwear with illustrations and messages promoting social justice. Now players show personal style through the leaguewide trends of chains, high socks and those colorful cleats. And MLB’s partnership with Nike is bringing new twists to some of baseball’s oldest uniforms.
Anderson recently wore a chain sporting his personal logo, while his White Sox teammates like Luis Robert, Eloy Jimenez, Jose Abreu and Yoan Moncada regularly sport eye-catching jewelry on the field. Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Bryce Harper often incorporates the Phillie Phanatic into his fashion accessories and has used painted bats during the Home Run Derby to demonstrate the potential of using the game’s wood as a canvas for self expression. Shortstop Francisco Lindor, who showed up to spring training wearing a classic “Coming to America” Mets jacket, recently launched his own shoe line with New Balance.
“Obviously I don’t want to bring in the race thing, but I mean, we’re not blind to it,” Garrett, who’s Black, says. “You see it, people of color, we have a different swagger about us. Latin people have a different swagger about them. We enjoy the game, we like to wear big chains, we like to look good, we like to be flashy, right? It just is what it is. You see it, and what’s understood don’t have to be explained. It’s the difference of culture, and nobody should be punished for that.”
Social media doesn’t scare MLB … as much
LESS THAN A decade ago, social media training for baseball players amounted to a list of things not to do. For a time, many in baseball considered posting on social media a complete nonstarter — a form of self-promotion that didn’t align with the values of a clubhouse. Many players operated out of a fear that posting the wrong thing would put them or their team into hot water.
“They’d bring in PR people to give us a little PowerPoint presentation and be like, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that. This will get you in trouble,'” Giolito said. “Kind of promoting that where it’s like, ‘Wow look at this basketball player, they tweeted this. Then they had to apologize for it later and this and that.’ It kind of will scare you away a little bit.”
The Astros’ sign-stealing scandal early last year marked one major turning point in the game’s relationship with social media. Players took to Twitter and other platforms to condemn the behavior of their opponents. Later, the contentious negotiations between the league and the players’ association over how and when to restart the sport during the coronavirus pandemic saw more and more players sharing their thoughts publicly.
“You understand that bit of hesitancy and where that fear comes from,” said Cardinals starter Jack Flaherty, who tweeted about his arbitration hearing with his team this past offseason. “Originally, the only things posted about you on social media were bad things, people catching you doing something, or when having a camera around was not a good thing.”
Now cameras are everywhere around the ballpark. In 2019, Major League Baseball staffed photographers at every game-day ballpark to document pregame festivities, document moments for social media and promote the sport to casual fans. For years, the entrance shot slowly entrenched itself as part of sports culture, with leagues like the NBA and NFL embracing fashion, allowing stars to show their sense of style. That fashion social media culture is now spreading to baseball.
“I’m all for it. Cameras before the game catch our outfits and whatnot, our style,” Bader said. “Baseball’s tough. The camera’s focused on catchers and starting pitchers all the time. Fans don’t really get enough of our personality.”
The shift among player attitudes toward social media began as stars and agents recognized that a player’s influence online was of high value when seeking endorsement opportunities. And as the social media culture around the sport loosened, so did the reigns on what topics players could voice their opinions about. For years, Chicago Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward said he felt a pressure to stay silent on many issues until the rise of the social justice movement following the killing of George Floyd. For most of the time in his major league career, Heyward weighed the pros and cons of speaking out about his experience as a Black American.
“When it comes to being African American and playing baseball,” Heyward said, “you just always felt that sense of, ‘There’s not a lot of people around that look like me. I don’t want to mess up this opportunity for the next guy.'”
Heyward joined the More Than a Vote campaign started by LeBron James, where athletes helped register voters ahead of the 2020 presidential election. Heyward believes that the sport’s cultural litigation of norms, celebration, emotion and style drove away fans, including potential young Black men who could pursue careers in the sport.
“A lot of guys will tell you, speaking of Black baseball players, that it feels as if we’re not Hank Aaron and if we’re not Ken Griffey Jr. then we don’t have a fighting chance to be a starting player on certain teams,” Heyward said. “There aren’t as many Black bench players as there are white bench players or maybe Hispanic bench players. That’s not a knock. It’s just facts. Just like you don’t see a lot of Black head coaches or managers in baseball or in other sports.”
Heyward says the diversity of America as a country is starting to reflect within the culture of the country’s pastime.
“A lot of it has grown at a similar pace to the country when it comes to people being comfortable with things being a certain way,” Heyward says. “To me, it’s just awesome to see people gradually starting to come together with it, to put differences aside and say, ‘Look, most importantly, we want to win. Then secondly, we want to have fun in our jobs every day.’ I think that’s where this is going.”
“They’d bring in PR people to give us a little PowerPoint presentation and be like, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that. This will get you in trouble.’ Kind of promoting that where it’s like, ‘Wow look at this basketball player, they tweeted this. Then they had to apologize for it later and this and that.’ It kind of will scare you away a little bit.”
Chicago White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito
Players now can use their platforms as major leaguers to more freely express their true selves, meeting younger fans where they already are.
“You’re inviting more cultures in, you’re inviting more kids to get involved at a younger age and have fun playing this game and to continue growing with the rest of the sports world,” Heyward said. “People see the highlights, people see the things on YouTube and social media, the Instagrams, the TikToks or whatnot. That’s fun. That’s swag, that’s a vibe.”
And with more players pushing to reevaluate the sport’s culture, they’re ready to fully embrace themselves on the baseball field.
“I just want to tell anybody if they have a problem with me not following unwritten rules, I’m always 60 feet, six inches away,” Garrett said. “So if they want to come talk to me, come holler at me.”
A whole new ballgame
Players and managers have changed their tunes on bat flips in recent years, and Fernando Tatis Jr. is a face of MLB’s subsequent marketing push.
NOT EVEN TWO months after Tatis’ violation of the unwritten rules, as the Padres faced off against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 2 of their wild-card series, the San Diego shortstop bat flipped on a two-run homer in the seventh inning, an exclamation point on a comeback victory.
When asked about why he bat flipped, Tatis kept his explanation simple.
“Since I was a kid,” Tatis said, “that’s what we play for.”
This time, Tingler was quick to praise Tatis’ display of emotion.
“It’s weird that it’s still a conversation, honestly,” Tingler said. “Nobody’s showing anybody up. It’s energy, it’s raw, it’s real. They’re playing the game, and they’re firing up their teammates.”
The comments marked a vast departure from the game’s sentiments around bat flips and celebrations from an era not so long removed. Padres first baseman Mitch Moreland was among those angry at the time of the Bautista bat flip, while a member of the Rangers. Now a teammate of Tatis, Moreland feels differently.
“It’s just a different game. It’s a new time. I don’t know if you’ll ever see me flip one like that,” Moreland said in October. “It’s just different. It’s a different type of entertainment. It seems like it’s happening more and more all around the league.
“It’s the new baseball.”
Toronto Blue Jays extending stay in Buffalo through July 21
The Toronto Blue Jays will be extending their stay at their adopted home in Buffalo, New York, through July 21.
The team previously was committed to playing in Buffalo through July 4.
The extension comes as the Blue Jays on Monday announced the release of their next batch of tickets for sale this week. The team is making tickets available for a 10-game homestand from June 24 to July 4 as well as a six-game homestand — a pair of three-game series against the Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox — immediately following the All-Star break.
The Blue Jays are back at their Triple-A affiliate’s home in Buffalo for a second season after being prevented from playing home games in Toronto because of Canadian border restrictions caused by coronavirus pandemic. Toronto spent the first two months of this season at its spring training facility in Dunedin, Florida, before relocating to Buffalo last week.
Team president Mark Shapiro hasn’t ruled out the possibility of the Blue Jays returning to Toronto this season while cautioning the decision would hinge on whether Canada relaxes border restrictions.
The Canadian border is closed to nonessential travel, and anyone allowed entry is required to isolate for 14 days upon arrival.
Shapiro last week declined to get into specifics regarding talks between the Blue Jays and Canadian health officials. He says the discussions have become more frequent and “certainly more positive” in recent weeks.
The Blue Jays have not played in Toronto since closing the 2019 season with an 8-3 win over Tampa Bay on Sept. 29.
On Sunday, Canadian health officials provided the NHL an exemption in allowing cross-border travel for teams in the Stanley Cup playoff semifinals.
When in Canada, teams will be required to stay in a bubble and be tested daily for COVID-19, similar to the tight restrictions that allowed the NHL to complete its playoffs in two hub cities last year. Teams will be assigned designated hotels and have no interaction with the public.
The NHL regular season was limited to inter-division play only and featured no cross-border travel, with the league establishing a North Division made up of its seven Canadian franchises.
The Blue Jays also said they have received approval from state and local health officials to allow for 80% capacity — more than 13,000 fans — at Sahlen Field starting June 24, with 95% of those seats reserved for those fully vaccinated. The Blue Jays were limited to 35% capacity for their first week in Buffalo, with the number increasing to 45% for their three-game series against the New York Yankees next week.
The Cubs are actually good! So what should they do at the trade deadline?
The Chicago Cubs have exceeded preseason expectations so far in 2021. Entering Monday’s series opener against the San Diego Padres (10 p.m. ET on ESPN), the Cubs are now seven games over .500 at 33-26 and in a tight battle with the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals for the National League Central lead.
Chicago also has several upcoming free agents on their current 26-man roster with stars including Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Craig Kimbrel set to hit the market after the season. This is the same team that traded Yu Darvish in the offseason of what general manager Jed Hoyer labeled a transition phase for the franchise.
So what should the Cubs do as the trade market starts to take shape before next month’s deadline? Is this a team that can win enough to make a championship push? Or would it be better off looking to retool? And are the Cubs good enough to keep winning if they stand pat? We asked ESPN MLB experts Jeff Passan, Jesse Rogers and David Schoenfield to weigh in on the crucial next few months on the North Side of Chicago.
The Cubs are seven games over .500 and in first place, so what should they do at the trade deadline if they keep this up?
Rogers: There won’t be any choice but to add. Wrigley Field is about to be packed for the next 3½ months, and you don’t trade away talent when you’re in first place. In reality, being near the top of the standings is no shock, only how they’ve gotten there, because even after trading Yu Darvish, the Cubs had plenty of talent. It helps to reside in a mediocre division. So yes, augmenting the roster would be in order. The only question is how far will Jed Hoyer go? Will he empty the farm for a couple of rentals? Doubtful. So it could be additions around the edges. And the bigger question is what if the Cubs are three to five games out of first place come late July? Then the decision becomes much tougher. Focusing on the future would be more likely.
Passan: Be judicious. Because here’s the reality: As well as the Cubs have played, as much as they’ve exceeded expectations, they also are run by pragmatists. And anyone who is looking at this roster and comparing it to the Los Angeles Dodgers‘ and the San Diego Padres’ — and to a lesser extent, the San Francisco Giants‘, the New York Mets‘, the Atlanta Braves‘ and even the Milwaukee Brewers‘ — understands that a World Series run remains a long shot regardless of how well the Cubs have played.
That’s the calculus this time of year. The Cubs were willing to give up a prospect of Gleyber Torres‘ caliber to acquire Aroldis Chapman because they were the best team in baseball in 2016 and had one glaring weakness. Not only does this Cubs team have far more weaknesses — its outfield hasn’t hit (aside from Ian Happ in May), and its starters’ ERA of 4.62 is 21st in baseball — perhaps its greatest strength thus far this season, its bullpen, is due for regression.
So, yes, if they’re in contention to win the NL Central, they should add talent. But it might be smarter to hunt for bargains.
Schoenfield: I think back to when Jed Hoyer took over from Theo Epstein as president of baseball operations in late November and in Hoyer’s initial Zoom call with reporters said, “In this job, you always have one eye on the present and one eye on the future. I think that eye might be a little bit more focused towards the future than usual, but that doesn’t take away from the goal. The goal is always to make the playoffs and give this organization a chance to go deep in October.”
A month later, the Cubs traded Yu Darvish, and while the Cubs did eventually make some late signings on the free-agent market, the Darvish trade was a clear signal: The Cubs are not all-in on 2021. Of course, that dynamic can’t help but change if the Cubs remain in first place in late July, but that mostly means not trading Kris Bryant, who might be the second most desirable player on the trade market after Max Scherzer if he were available, given his great start. Now, what they should do is go after Scherzer to bolster the team’s biggest hole, but even if the Cubs wanted to do that, it seems unlikely they would be able to put together the best prospect package anyway. So, the likely scenario is a couple of fringe moves around the edges — a second-tier starter, maybe an outfielder depending on how the Cubs feel about Ian Happ and Jason Heyward.
Is it possible to compete this year and retool for the future at the same time?
Rogers: Absolutely. The best way to do that would be to trade closer Craig Kimbrel. That’s one guy out of 26 who impacts games every few days. It would be a loss, but righty Ryan Tepera was just named reliever of the month in May; perhaps he could step up for a two-month run as closer. Either way, Kimbrel could bring back a few good prospects while the Cubs continue on their winning ways. Competing doesn’t necessarily mean winning it all. The Cubs could definitely do both — even if they trade more than just Kimbrel.
Passan: Of course. That’s exactly what they’ve done, in fact. It’s easy for Cubs fans right now to lament the deal that sent Yu Darvish to the Padres, but the team’s farm system was an absolute mess, and adding four prospects under 21 years old — including Reggie Preciado and Owen Caissie, two very talented bats — was the sort of deal that teams balancing today with tomorrow make. Tampa Bay and Oakland are two teams that have mastered the look-at-the-future-but-still-win-now needle-threading, and while it’s difficult, it’s certainly possible.
Schoenfield: I like Jesse’s idea of trading Kimbrel, who suddenly looks like vintage Kimbrel from a few years after two miserable seasons during his first two years with the Cubs. His $16 million option for 2022 doesn’t even look that bad right now, and it comes with a $1 million buyout, so he’s attractive to any team in need of a closer; the Braves, Phillies, A’s and Astros are possible destinations. Is there a scenario where the Cubs trade Bryant for a couple of cost-controlled major leaguers? I suppose it’s possible, but how many teams are willing to trade young, major league talent for a two-month rental? Seems unlikely, although — just thinking out loud here — maybe a team like the Mets would be willing to trade Dominic Smith, who could replace Anthony Rizzo at first base next season (and play left field the rest of 2021, with Joc Pederson sliding over to right).
Will the Cubs make the playoffs this year?
Rogers: It’s going to be close, but I’ll say no. Milwaukee hasn’t found its stride yet even though it is neck and neck with the Cubs right now. The Brewers are likely to pass them in the standings in June — a hectic and tough month for Chicago. And here’s a factor no one is considering: Some of the Cubs’ best pitchers are young and hardly played in 2020. They’re either going to hit a wall or the team is going to back off them — something the Cubs already stated is a possibility. Standout starter Adbert Alzolay is at the top of that list. The Brewers aren’t backing off Brandon Woodruff or Corbin Burnes or Freddy Peralta or Josh Hader. If the Cubs had last year’s pitching staff with this year’s offense, they’d be set, but there are too many variables in 2021. The wild card does remain a possibility, though it’s looking more and more like three teams from the NL West could make the postseason. It’s still way early to really know though.
Passan: I went with the Brewers to win the division before the season. I want to stick with them. I also look at their .211/.297/.371 team triple-slash and wonder in what universe a team that cannot hit wins a division. And the answer, I believe, is one where sportwide the line is .236/.312/.396. As long as they can keep Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta healthy, the Central is the Brewers’ to lose, though the Cubs are good enough to remain competitive and have a healthy shot at stealing the division. As for the wild card: Atlanta has surged to the point where seeing the East potentially steal a slot isn’t entirely far-fetched, but the two are the West’s to lose.
Schoenfield: The Brewers were my preseason pick, as well, and certainly the performance of that trio at the top of the rotation is only further reason to lean in there. But they can’t hit, especially if Christian Yelich continues to have issues powering the ball over the fence. I do believe Kyle Hendricks and Zach Davies will be better moving forward, although tempered by some bullpen regression, and if the Giants fade in the NL West, the second wild card could come from the NL Central. Bottom line: I’ll stick with the Brewers to win the division, and since the Giants’ pitching looks pretty legit, they win a wild card alongside the Dodgers or Padres.
If the Cubs do make the playoffs, can they compete with teams like the Dodgers and Padres or is their success a product of a weak NL Central?
Rogers: Despite dominating those teams so far in the regular season — all at home — the Cubs don’t have the rotation to compete for a World Series run. The fact that this is even a question is a testament to manager David Ross and the job the whole organization has done to this point. This was supposed to be a transition year. Jed Hoyer said those exact words in spring training. So, there’s no shame in saying they are maxing out right now, but it’s hard to see them navigating through the top teams in the NL in October. They would need two top starters to change my mind. Again, this discussion wasn’t even on the table in March, so kudos to them for making us talk about it!
Passan: Yes. Yes, they can compete. Yes, their success is a product of a weak NL Central. The biggest advantages teams like the Dodgers and Padres hold over the Cubs is with starting pitching. But remember: The postseason has evolved into a bullpen-centric month, and here are the Cubs relievers’ ranks in baseball: ERA (2nd, 2.72); K/9 (first, 11.18); HR/9 (fourth, 0.75); strand rate (third, 80.5%); groundball rate (2nd, 49.4%). Get a starter through the lineup twice — or perhaps even fewer times — and let David Ross maneuver with the pen. It’s been a winning formula thus far, and with the stuff some of the Cubs’ relievers have, they certainly could replicate it in October.
Schoenfield: It’s not like the Dodgers or Padres look unbeatable right now, and I’d almost rather face them in a best-of-five series than Jacob deGrom and the Mets. Any chance for the Cubs would have to rely on some heavy bullpen work, but that’s a tough way to get through an entire postseason. Scherzer would help their odds, but I’m not sure there’s another difference-making starting pitcher out there who would lead one to think the Cubs could beat the Dodgers or Padres.
If they decide to go for it in acquiring talent, what should the Cubs target at the deadline?
Rogers: Starting pitching. Max Scherzer would fit nicely. Or Dylan Bundy. Or maybe the Cubs determine one of the Rockies’ starters would flourish outside of Coors Field. The Cubs don’t have to be too picky if they’re going for it. Top and/or middle-of-the-rotation guys are essential for an October run. Standing pat would be a disaster, so it’s either unload in some capacity or go for it. But it’s hard to see the Cubs giving up a top prospect in any deal since going down that road in recent years helped deplete their farm system in the first place.
Passan: Jesse’s got that Prada taste, and while the Cubs do have the money to go out and get a Scherzer, doing so would cost Brennen Davis and more, and for an organization that understands the folly in going all-in today at the expense of tomorrow, the likelihood of that happening is slim. They would be better served to look at Kyle Gibson (back from the injured list and sporting a 2.06 ERA), Dylan Bundy, Andrew Heaney and perhaps Michael Pineda. No, those names aren’t sexy. Neither is the Central, and the goal right now is simply to win it. One bat worth keeping an eye on: Trey Mancini, who isn’t a free agent until after the 2022 season, wouldn’t cost a significant amount in prospect capital and can play right field and leave in the late innings with Jason Heyward taking over.
Schoenfield: Scherzer is the big guy. It doesn’t hurt to ask the Rockies about German Marquez, but he would be expensive, since he is signed through 2024 and the Cubs aren’t emptying an already thin system. Marquez’s teammate Jon Gray is an option. Other free-agent pitchers on likely noncontenders include Alex Cobb, Andrew Heaney, Mike Minor, Danny Duffy, maybe J.A. Happ and Michael Pineda if the Twins don’t bounce back and Robbie Ray and Steven Matz on the Blue Jays.
How many of these players will still be Cubs on Aug. 1: Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez and Craig Kimbrel?
Rogers: Three. Kimbrel will be gone, but the three position players will still be here. This scenario would keep them competitive in 2021 but still net them a good prospect or two.
Passan: Four. The Central is weak enough — and the Cubs just good enough — to warrant making a run. Though let’s not forget, Jed Hoyer was part of the Boston front office that dealt Nomar Garciaparra in 2004, so it’s not like he is above dealing a core player — especially one who’s about to hit free agency — with an eye on winning in the present and winning more in the future.
Schoenfield: I’ll say the Cubs are close enough that all four remain on the team with them ultimately deciding to keep Kimbrel and see if they can ride the bullpen into the postseason.
Patrick Wisdom hits two more homers, continues to be ‘a real offensive force’ for Chicago Cubs
Wisdom, 29, hit two home runs in the Cubs’ 4-3 win over the San Francisco Giants, giving him seven long balls in his first eight starts with his new team. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only Cincinnati Reds outfielder Aristides Aquino and Colorado Rockies shortstop Trevor Story have hit that many in their first eight games with a team.
“He’s been carrying us,” Cubs manager David Ross said after the game. “He’s a real offensive force for us right now. It seems like every time he gets up he’s going to do something really good to help the team. Real damage. What is that, seven home runs? Real power since he’s been up.”
Wisdom was a 2020 addition to the Cubs after stops in St. Louis and Texas, but he played in only two major league games last season. And before about a week ago, he had four career home runs. Cubs center fielder Ian Happ summed up the team’s strategy right now.
“If we can just get it to Wisdom with guys on base, we’ll be all right,” he said with a smile.
Wisdom has taken the success in stride while praising the Cubs’ welcoming environment after being called up from Triple-A Iowa.
“It’s the same game,” he said. “There’s another deck on the stadium and more cameras. There’s bigger things but it’s the same game. The more at-bats you get, the more pitches you see, the better you get. I’m thankful for my time in the minor leagues.”
Wisdom says he’s letting the game slow down as he tries not to do too much at the plate. Both his home runs on Sunday came off Giants veteran Johnny Cueto, who hadn’t given up a home run in his previous four starts.
Wisdom was asked if he’s adhering to any superstitions during his hot streak.
“Sometimes it’s chewing gum,” he said. “If I’m chewing gum and I get a hit I’ll try to keep it in for the next at-bat.”
Wisdom is hitting .412 with 10 runs driven in, in just 34 at-bats. He was drafted No. 52 overall by the Cardinals back in 2012.
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