Kris Bryant down, Miguel Montero out as Cubs test character, depth

WASHINGTON — It’s late June in an already rough baseball season. Do you know where your Cubs are?

If not, you’re about to find out very fast.

On a day the Cubs took another victory lap with a second White House visit, they also watched their reigning National League MVP get helped off the field with an ankle injury and cut ties with veteran catcher Miguel Montero in a move that looked more statement than substance as they try to stay relevant in the NL playoff picture.

Then they lost 8-4 to the NL East-leading Nationals to drop back to .500.

Montero

“We just came to the conclusion that now more than ever we really need to be a team; this was an example of someone being a bad teammate publicly, and we’d be better off moving on and not standing for it,” team president Theo Epstein said Wednesday after designating Montero for assignment the morning after Montero’s critical comments blaming teammate Jake Arrieta’s for allowing seven stolen bases.

“There aren’t that many opportunities for people out of uniform to try to positively impact the group or nudge it in the right direction, or to underscore the importance of team or emphasize the values we try to embody as a group,” Epstein added. “This is one that made sense, given the history, the group dynamics, all the factors involved.

“And it screamed out as something that we should do.”

Add to the to-do list filling a sizeable hole at third with Bryant suffering a “mild to moderate sprain” after turning his right ankle on the base when he caught a foul popup in the fifth.

The Cubs aren’t ruling out a 10-day DL move.

“Hopefully, it’ll just be a couple days,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Let’s hope it’s not too bad.”

Kris Bryant leaves the game with an ankle injury in the 5th.

Meanwhile, the message to the clubhouse the front office sent by cutting Montero also costs them the only catcher in the organization with even a full year in the big leagues.

“It’s going to put more on our plate for sure,” said veteran starter John Lackey (5-9), who gave up three homers in 5 1/3 innings Wednesday. “There’s a learning curve coming into the league, I don’t care who you are.

“We’ll see what happens,” added Lackey, who wouldn’t comment on the Montero move in a clubhouse context. “But it’s nice to have a veteran catcher every now and then.”

Team officials admitted the unusually swift action might not have been taken if Montero wasn’t a backup, if his own ability to throw to the bases wasn’t as big an issue (0-for-31 on steal attempts), if the team was performing better and maybe even if they didn’t already considered him an occasional agitator.

That personality edge also played roles in the development of Albert Almora Jr. (when Montero got in his face as a brooding Class AA player), and in Arrieta’s 2015 Cy Young season through some tough-love counsel. Last season Montero took rookie catcher Willson Contreras under his wing and often spoke up for teammates too young or new to the team to do it themselves.

“I’ve got the utmost respect for Miggy,” Almora said. “He helped me a lot.”

Contreras declined to talk with reporters before Wednesday’s game.

Arrieta, who accepted Montero’s apology by phone late Tuesday night, said he was “sad” to see Montero go.

Arrieta and Anthony Rizzo – who during his weekly paid radio gig Wednesday called out Montero for calling out Arrieta – both said the Cubs’ clubhouse chemistry would have been fine without cutting Montero loose.

“We’re grown men,” Rizzo said.

Said Arrieta: “I don’t think either way it would have fracture the clubhouse. Certain things are handled [best] behind closed doors. But Miggy wears his heart on his sleeve, and that’s one of the main reasons we all liked him.”

Maddon disagreed.

“Regardless of what Jake said regarding Miggy that it would not have impacted the clubhouse, I think it would have,” he said. “There’s too many young guys.

“With this young and impressionable group – a really good group that’s going to be together for a long time – you don’t want to foster, nurture, condone that kind of message.”

Epstein said the problem isn’t a fragile clubhouse dynamic.

“It’s just that I think it’s an important time for us to come together as a team and for us to establish our identity,” he said, citing the up-and-down performances and results and injuries to key players. “I don’t think we’ve found our edge yet that we’ll need to play with to win games. Wins don’t just happen because you’re talented and you show up.

“You have to come to the park with an edge every day and come together as a team every day and play to win,” he added, “and play with a certain edge that we’re striving for as a group. I think we all feel that way, and we’re going to find it.”

He made a point to separate the Montero moment from the larger picture.

“Miggy’s not to blame at all for the issues that we have as a team right now,” Epstein said. “He should not be a scapegoat for what’s going on. This was just an example of someone publicly not being a good teammate and making comments that weren’t accountable and weren’t supportive and weren’t in furtherance of the team concept and how important it is to place the team before oneself.”

On the other hand, given the opportunity, maybe the timing was right for a statement.

Epstein said part of finding a team identity “is overcoming some adversity together, going through some things together and bonding.”

“It doesn’t always happen. You can be searching all year,” he said. “Maybe this is something that – not the act itself because that’s not what it’s all about – but maybe how our guys respond to the situation and how they respond to just reinforcement of the team concept and how important it is to place the team before oneself and what that inspires in guys and how that allows guys to lead and the importance of being supportive, accountable teammates.

“The more that comes to the fore, the more that manifests, the better.”

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

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