Cubs

Braves Way: How Cubs are still focused on next wave of young talent

Braves Way: How Cubs are still focused on next wave of young talent

MESA, Ariz. – Chairman Tom Ricketts wants the Cubs to be known someday as one of the greatest sports franchises in the world, right up there with global brands like the New England Patriots, Manchester United and Real Madrid.

But the most relevant blueprint for baseball operations right now might be the Atlanta Braves model that won 14 consecutive division titles between 1991 and 2005, an unbelievable run that still only resulted in one World Series title.

In a "Chicks Dig The Long Ball" era, the Braves had 60 percent of a Hall of Fame rotation (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz) and a manager (Bobby Cox) who would get his own Cooperstown plaque.

The Braves Way still didn't only revolve around baseball immortals. The churn of young talent and under-the-radar contributors makes big-time prospects Eloy Jimenez and Ian Happ — and somehow finding a next wave of pitching — so important to The Plan.

"The Braves did such a great job during their run of always breaking in a guy or two," general manager Jed Hoyer said this week. "There's a lot of benefits to always trying to break in a guy every year, trying to add new blood every single year. Young guys are great even for a veteran team, because they provide the spark. They provide new energy.

"I thought Willson (Contreras) was a big part of that last year. Coming up in the middle of the season, it was like a great spark for our guys. Maybe one of these guys can provide that spark."

During that 15-year window, the Braves had 14 different players show up in the National League Rookie of the Year voting:  

1991: Brian Hunter, Mike Stanton
1992: Mark Wohlers
1993: Greg McMichael 
1994: Ryan Klesko, Javy Lopez
1995: Chipper Jones
1996: Jermaine Dye 
1997: Andruw Jones 
1998: Kerry Ligtenberg 
1999: Kevin McGlinchy
2000: Rafael Furcal 
2001: –
2002: Damian Moss
2003: –
2004: –
2005: Jeff Francoeur

The Braves produced Rookie of the Year winners in 1990 (David Justice), 2000 (Furcal) and 2011 (Craig Kimbrel). That gap in the early 2000s foreshadowed a relative down cycle where the Braves averaged almost 82 losses between 2006 and 2009 and made zero playoff appearances.

Jason Heyward's big-league debut in 2010 coincided with a run of four straight seasons where the Braves averaged 90-plus wins and made the playoffs three times.

[MORE: Why Joe Maddon sees Kyle Schwarber as the leadoff guy in Cubs lineup]

Baseball America put Jimenez (No. 14) and Happ (No. 63) on its preseason top-100 list of prospects. Whether it's making an impression on Joe Maddon's coaching staff, being showcased for a future trade or getting more comfortable in the spotlight, Jimenez and Happ will be two players to watch when the Cubs begin their Cactus League schedule on Saturday.

"Everyone thinks our future is here," Hoyer said. "It's really important to never get caught in that. You always want to have guys in the minor leagues ready to come up. Having organizational depth is really important. Those guys are good players and they're going to help us at some point."

Jimenez is a dynamic 6-foot-4 corner outfielder from the Dominican Republic who figures to begin his age-20 season at advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach. Happ, a 2015 first-round pick, finished last season at Double-A Tennessee and can switch-hit and move between the infield and the outfield.

Contreras is trying to make the leap from energizer to everyday frontline catcher. Albert Almora Jr. — who also contributed to a championship team as a rookie — is trying to earn the center-field job. The Cubs already trusted Carl Edwards Jr. in the 10th inning of a World Series Game 7 and now hope he can keep evolving into an Andrew Miller-type reliever.

The Cubs need the assembly line that's rolled out Anthony Rizzo (June 2012), Kyle Hendricks (July 2014), Javier Baez (August 2014), Kris Bryant and Addison Russell (April 2015) and Kyle Schwarber (June 2015) to keep delivering talent.

"It's something that we have to be really mindful of," Hoyer said, "to make sure that we continue to put a lot of focus on player development, the same kind of focus that we put on it when we were rebuilding, because those guys are going to have a huge impact on us."

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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