Cubs

Why Cubs won’t match Willson Contreras up with Jon Lester yet

Why Cubs won’t match Willson Contreras up with Jon Lester yet

The Cubs aren’t going to get in Jon Lester’s head – and stick him with a rookie catcher – when their $155 million asset is pitching like this.

Lester’s comfort level during Year 2 of that megadeal – and the established sense of routine that’s helped him win two World Series rings and put him in position for a fourth All-Star selection – will trump the possibilities the Cubs envision for Willson Contreras.

Lester is 9-3 with a 2.06 ERA and 92 strikeouts through 91-plus innings this season while working with personal catcher David Ross, who knows which buttons to push and how to minimize some of the lefty’s throwing issues.

“You watch the game and you watch the communication between those two guys,” manager Joe Maddon said before Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field. “David knows exactly what to say to him and when. You can’t underestimate all the little nuance that goes on between the mound and the plate. David’s playing at a very high level right now, so I would not mess with that.”

Ever? “Grandpa Rossy” is supposed to be on his farewell tour, Contreras is viewed as the catcher of the future and Lester is signed through at least 2020.

“I’m not saying never,” Maddon said. “I’m just saying for right now. Obviously, if something were to happen to David – which I would hate to see happen – you might have to make some alterations. But for right now, I’m fine with that.

“And the thing about Willson – understand he’s looking really good right now. He’s young, he’s learning. You keep him fresh mentally and physically, he’s going to look like that all year. You don’t want to put too much on his plate right now.

“I’ve been through that before (with) the new kid on the block. Everybody wants the new flavor. And all of a sudden, the flavor can lose some of its edge if you expose it too often.

“Just let him play. Let him be Willson. Let him be 24 years old. Let him be a new player in the big leagues and let him grow into this whole thing. He’s going to be here for many years. He’s going to be really good.

“But I like the potential for him to break in this way, with two really outstanding veteran catchers around him. Any young catcher would benefit from that.”

Back in spring training, Miguel Montero understood Contreras would be coming for his job and promised to help with the transition. Montero is owed $14 million next season and will turn 34 during the final year of that contract.

The Cubs are far more focused on Contreras managing personalities, absorbing game plans and making adjustments behind the plate than worrying about how he performs offensively. Not after watching him win a Southern League batting title last year at Double-A Tennessee and then put up a 1.030 OPS during his first 54 games this year with Triple-A Iowa.

But at some point – either through injury, Ross retiring and/or the inevitable churn within perennial contenders – Contreras will have to catch Lester.

“My impression of Willson already is: You give him a plan to work with, he will devour that plan and take it out on the field,” Maddon said. “He is insatiable when it comes to the need (and want for) information. He looks you straight up, straight in the eye.

“(Catching/strategy coach Mike) Borzello is perfect for him also. ‘Borz’ loves spewing it out – and this kid loves listening. It’s a great match. Like I said, Willson right now is in the perfect situation to learn from two outstanding veteran catchers (and our coaching staff). It’s optimal for a young catcher.”

When the Cubs wanted to continue with the Kyle Schwarber catching experiment – before the season-ending outfield collision in early April and reconstructive knee surgery – they knew Jason Hammel had the right personality to go along with it.

The Cardinals jumped Hammel for four runs within the first three innings on Tuesday night, and the Cubs won’t be in a rush to pair up Contreras with Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta. (Montero will get that assignment on Wednesday afternoon, weather permitting.) But Contreras can also compensate for his defensive inexperience with a game-changing arm and middle-of-the-order presence (1-for-3 with a walk and a run scored).

“We’re building better rhythm as we go,” said Hammel (7-3, 2.55 ERA). “He’s still learning the pitching staff. It’s hard to learn a new guy every time out there.

“I felt like sometimes the ball was coming back harder to me than I was throwing it to him. The kid’s got a cannon.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”