Cubs

As advertised: Jose Quintana stars in Cubs debut

As advertised: Jose Quintana stars in Cubs debut

BALTIMORE – As much as the crosstown Jose Quintana trade stunned the baseball world, the full ripple effect won’t be known for years.

The Cubs now have another All-Star lefty to pair with Jon Lester through 2020 and team president Theo Epstein is already thinking about how Quintana’s team-friendly contract could create the payroll space to add another superstar and build a dynasty on the North Side.

We don’t even really know how good Quintana can be after spending almost his entire career on bad White Sox teams, never pitching in the playoffs and getting most of his exposure through MLB Trade Rumors. 

But this is exactly what Epstein envisioned when he gave up two blue-chip prospects in last week’s blockbuster deal, exactly what manager Joe Maddon hoped Quintana’s presence would do for a quiet clubhouse after an underachieving first half.      

In a dazzling debut, Quintana absolutely shut down Baltimore in Sunday’s 8-0 win, the Cubs roaring out of the All-Star break with a three-game sweep where they scored 27 runs and got the kind of pitching that can carry them into October.

Maddon didn’t hesitate when asked for his most encouraging sign this weekend: “Energy.”

“I really believe that if we play with that kind of internal fire, that energy,” Maddon said, “we’re going to win a lot of games in the second half.”

If this is how Quintana is going to respond to pennant-race pressure – and a sign that the defending champs have finally shaken off the World Series hangover – then Epstein’s front office will keep looking to add before the July 31 trade deadline and try to pack as much talent on the 25-man roster as possible.

Looking like a Game 1 starter in a playoff rotation – or Game 2 out of respect for Lester’s three World Series rings – Quintana struck out five of the first nine Orioles he faced and didn’t allow a hit until Adam Jones drove a ground-rule double into the left-field seats leading off the fourth inning.

At that point, the Cubs already had a six-run lead, the kind of offensive support Quintana rarely worked with while putting up a losing record (50-54) and getting 65 no-decisions since his big-league debut with the White Sox in 2012.

“That’s in the past right now,” Quintana said. “Honestly, sometimes I haven’t thrown the ball well, so it’s not about hitters. That happens. I’m just focused here and want to keep doing my job.

“I’m happy being here, and to see these teammates and how they play baseball. Every day is a good day, a good chance to get a W. I’m excited for that. I want to be part of that.”

Working quickly and efficiently on an 84-degree afternoon against a strong American League lineup, Quintana needed only 100 pitches to cruise through seven scoreless innings, allowing only two more singles and finishing with 12 strikeouts against zero walks.

It may have taken until Game 91 for a team that plays from behind and in scramble mode far too often, but Quintana probably put together the best pitching performance so far this season and made it look effortless.

“I really liked his routine on the mound,” Maddon said. “Really, tremendous focus per pitch. That’s what I took away from it. And then he’s able to execute. The ball had great carry at home plate. The curveball – not overusing it – using it at the right time. The changeup became more effective. But more than anything, I like the method. Deep breath, then he goes into his delivery, here comes the next pitch.”

Those 12 strikeouts matched the franchise record Matt Garza set in his Cubs debut on April 3, 2011. By early July that year, Garza said “we’re right where we need to be” after a comeback win in Washington left the Cubs 17 games under .500.

Where the Garza trade with the Tampa Bay Rays tried to patch things together and reopen a window that had already slammed shut, the Quintana deal showed a franchise that knows what it wants and where it plans to go.

“It obviously just gives us that extra confidence,” said Kris Bryant (3-for-4, 19th home run). “We have a lot of the same core that we had last year and we won the whole thing. And to add him for an extra three more years, too, I think it’s a great move.

“He’s going to be here for a while and I think we all feel really great about that.”

The Cubs are now 46-45 after being at the .500 mark 21 different times this season. The clubhouse understood the message the Quintana trade sent loud and clear: It’s go time.

“He could really be a big boom to us, there’s no question,” Maddon said. “Everybody else saw it. All the other starters saw it. We grab a lead, and then he pitched really well with a lead. There was no messing around. There were no walks. There are no bad counts.

“He made them put the ball in play and he’s punching guys out. He gets to two strikes, he was burying the curve and elevating with the fastball. He just did everything really well. Coming over from the White Sox to the Cubs, middle of the season, there’s got to be something going on there. And he handled it extremely well.”

Why Cubs, rest of baseball sweat as MLB battles coronavirus testing issues

Why Cubs, rest of baseball sweat as MLB battles coronavirus testing issues

It was never going to be perfect.

But Major League Baseball’s coronavirus testing system needs to be good enough.

That may not seem like an especially high bar to set.

But so far it has been a difficult one for baseball to clear.

In fact, the latest example of baseball's biggest challenge in pulling off a 60-game season played out at Wrigley Field on Monday. That's when the team that by all indications has done the best job of establishing and following safe practices had its manager and five other “Tier 1” members of the organization sit out activities “out of an abundance of caution” because their latest COVID-19 tests, from Saturday, remained “pending.”

Tier 1, by the way, comprises the 80-something members of the organization with the highest access, including players and coaches.

The results had been analyzed. But as pitching coach Tommy Hottovy explained, they appeared to be in a batch of samples that included at least one positive test, the batch involving multiple teams. So they were retested. Five of those retested samples, including manager David Ross’, were negative, the team said late Monday, with the sixth considered “compromised” and another test done.

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The sixth did not belong to a player.

Give the Cubs another gold star for getting through yet another round of tests — and yet another glitch in that process — without having a player test positive.

But give MLB another kick in the ass. The testing issues don’t seem to be as bad as they were throughout the league that first holiday weekend of processing. But it hasn’t fixed this thing yet, either.

Whether it’s a lab-capacity issue, a quality issue or a shipping issue, it’s not even close to good enough.

Not for 30 teams barely a week from leaving their individual training-site bubbles to start playing each other for two months. Not when more than one-third of those teams play in locales considered hot spots for the pandemic. Not in the world’s most infected country.

“We do feel comfortable in this bubble that we’ve kind of created here,” said Hottovy, who was hit hard by the virus for a month before camp started. “When the season starts though and we start traveling and we start putting ourselves in some different circumstances, we just don’t know what to expect with that.

“We’re still taking this day-to-day for sure.”

Players across baseball, including Cubs star Kris Bryant, said they were upset and surprised at how unprepared MLB’s testing system appeared to be when camps opened. Two weeks of testing later, and just enough issues persist to make the league’s entire 2020 undertaking look more tenuous than ever.

The season starts July 23. That’s not much time to get it “good enough” — never mind to get it right. But, again, we're not asking for perfection.

The league protocols require testing thousands of players and other team personnel every other day through the end of the season.

Imagine sitting a manager and three or four players from a single team on a game day because of “pending” or “compromised” test results. Imagine that happening two or three times a week to various teams. Or worse — imagine a given team doesn’t exercise “an abundance of caution” and puts the players or staff in question on the field or in the dugout and clubhouse anyway.

“The only concern that I have right now is how long the test will take to get the results back,” Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said on Thursday. “Other than that, I don’t think I am at risk inside of the ballpark because the Cubs have been doing the best they can to keep us safe in here."

“I don’t have any concerns about my teammates, because I trust them. I know we all are doing our best to keep [each other] safe, and that way we can have a season this year.”

Contreras expressed tolerance with the system so far and was reluctant to point a finger at MLB or anyone else.

“But how can that get better?” he said. “I have no answer for that.”

It doesn’t matter whose fault it is as much as it matters that an answer is found quickly.

Players, staff and their families already have taken on the daily stress and anxiety of this health risk and the every-other-day process of holding your breath until the next result comes in.

“You get that test day coming up when you might get results, and it’s a little bit of that unknown, a little bit of anxiety of, ‘Have I done everything right?’ “ Ross said. “You start running back the day since you’ve been tested and what you’ve done, where you’ve gone, who you’ve been in contact with, just in case something bad may come back on your test. It’s real.”

Thirteen players, including Giants star Buster Posey, already have declined to play this season, all but one without a pre-existing condition that would qualify as “high risk” under the agreement between players and management.

Angels superstar Mike Trout heads a list of several more who have talked openly about opting out at some point, depending on how things look as we get closer to games.

That includes Cubs starter Yu Darvish, who said Sunday, “I still have concerns” and that he has not ruled out heading home if he doesn’t feel it’s safe anymore for him or his family to keep playing.

Maybe Trout, Darvish, Posey and the rest of those players have the right idea.

In fact, maybe we’d all be better off if baseball rededicated its testing capacity to a general public that suddenly is facing shortages again in a growing number of hot spots.

But if baseball is going to stick to its plan and try to pull off this season, then it needs to get this right. Right now.

Nobody’s expecting anything great at this point. Maybe not even especially good. But good enough? In the next week or so?

Would that be too much to ask?

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How Cubs' Jon Lester just got 126 innings closer to returning to Chicago in 2021

How Cubs' Jon Lester just got 126 innings closer to returning to Chicago in 2021

One more year of Jon Lester?

A few months ago that looked uncertain at best — figuring to come down to a $25 million decision for the Cubs to mull at the end of this season (or a $15 million decision, given the $10 million buyout on the option clause).

But the vesting part of Lester’s hefty seventh-year option on his original six-year, $155 million contract suddenly looks tantalizingly within reach for the longtime ace.

Major League Baseball and the union have finalized an agreement on multiple details for calculating contracts in 2020, including vesting contract options, according to documents obtained by NBC Sports Chicago.

Performance thresholds for vesting options will be prorated for the 60-game season and rounded up to the next out. 

So that 200-inning threshold Lester needed to reach to assure the additional $25 million year — a threshold he hasn’t reached since 2016, when he was 32?

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In a season only 37.04 percent as long as normal, that means 74 1/3 innings earn the extra year.

It’s still roughly the same average of innings for 12 projected starts (6.17) this year as it would have been for 32 (6.25) in a full season.

But that’s a lot fewer potential aches, pains and injuries to navigate for two months compared to six months — and a stretch that doesn’t include the bone-chill cold of April and weather volatility of May.

Lester, who ranks eighth on the all-time list of postseason innings pitched, said when spring training opened in February he “obviously” wanted to finish his career as a Cub.

“Hopefully, I have a good year, and it’s null and void, and we don’t have to talk about it,” Lester said then of trying to vest the option.

“I signed here hoping that the option was kind of going to take care of itself and [I’d] finish out the seventh year. After that, I can’t predict tomorrow, let alone what’s going to happen two years down the road.”

Lester pitched in his first intrasquad game of the restarted training period on Sunday and looked strong enough to get sent out to face two more batters after finishing his scheduled two innings — retiring seven of nine, with one reaching on an error and another on a 15-foot tapper in front of the plate.

“He was commanding all of his pitches,” catcher Willson Contreras said. “From what I saw, he’s looking in good shape.”

Monday's agreement between MLB and the union also included details on calculating awards bonuses, roster bonuses and contract escalators. And unlike the normal injured list, players won't lose "active time" on the roster while on the COVID-19 IL.

The Athletic was first to report Monday's agreement.

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