Cubs

At Cubs camp, Jon Lester won’t hide from the yips

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At Cubs camp, Jon Lester won’t hide from the yips

MESA, Ariz. – Jon Lester took the first step long ago, admitting he had a problem and even telling reporters he experienced the yips way back in high school.  

The Cubs can’t pretend Lester’s throws to first base aren’t an issue. Joe Maddon can’t spin it away with his storytelling and sense of humor during the manager’s daily media sessions.  

The Cubs are trying to attack the problem head-on, even if it meant Lester pitching on Field 1 during Tuesday morning’s controlled scrimmage against minor-league players at Sloan Park.

[RELATED - Cubs ace Jake Arrieta feels ready for 250 innings this season]

It left beat writers comparing notes on how many times – at least three – Lester’s pick-off throws to first base wound up near the chain-link fence. In this intimate setting, you could hear the frustration and listen to the guttural noises as he finished his pitches in front of dozens of fans.

“God damn it!” Lester screamed after one of those wild throws.

But once Lester got out of the Arizona heat and into the clubhouse, he could unwind – we’re talking about practice – and focus on the positives, like throwing out Dan Vogelbach in the second inning when he tried to take a walking lead off first base.  

“I’m really a no-BS guy,” Lester said at his locker. “I’ll sit here and I’ll tell you if I have a bad start. I’ll tell you if I think I threw the ball better than what the results were. I’ve tried to always be honest with you guys – and I hope that you see that and you hear that. This is something that obviously I can’t run from. This isn’t something that you can hide.

“It’s obviously out there. Everybody knows. And it’s something that I’m continually trying to tackle every day and get better at. That’s all that I can do.”

Last week’s rough Cactus League start again exposed the mental block that got so much attention during the first year of a $155 million megadeal. Opponents stole 44 bases off Lester, who led the majors in that category while putting together a strong season overall (3.34 ERA in 32 starts, 207 strikeouts in 205 innings).

“We just got to keep working through it,” Maddon said. “At some point, you have that breakthrough moment – and the epiphany occurs – and then all of a sudden it becomes a lot easier to do those things. You don’t give up on it.

“Just like I’m talking about ‘embracing the target,’ you attack those particular items. You avoid avoidance. And I think if you avoid avoidance, then eventually it can play out.”

Whether or not the light bulb goes off, Lester is trying to manage the issue with personal catcher David Ross, a quick delivery to home plate and varying times to disrupt runners’ rhythm. 

Lester made an underhand throw to first base when he fielded a ball in the third inning. He handled a bunt in the fourth inning with a one-hop throw to second base.     

When the Cubs started the fifth inning with a runner on base, Lester asked for him to go back to first after a rundown, keeping it a stretch situation that would test the weakness and making it look worse from the outside.

“Hopefully, there’s something that clicks,” Lester said. “We find some type of mechanical thing that I can focus on and makes it easier for me. Right now, it seems the thing that really helps me is that step-off (move). It just makes me throw the ball. 

“It’s always been a work in progress. I don’t think this is something that just arose and came up out of nowhere.”

[MORE: Could Kris Bryant be a free agent in 2020?]

It’s not something that prevented Lester from throwing more than 1,800 innings in The Show, making three All-Star teams and winning two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox.

It’s amazing this didn’t become more of a thing in the Boston market, where so much gets magnified and overblown, though the American League is a different game that doesn’t rely as much on speed.  

“This, for me, is not a matter of picking off the Billy Hamiltons,” Lester said. “This is a matter of keeping (close) the guys that should be close and limiting those attempts. The Dee Gordons, the Billy Hamiltons, those guys are going to get their bags no matter what you do. It’s a matter of limiting the guys like Anthony Rizzo who shouldn’t steal 15 bags.” 

Lester knows the questions will keep coming this spring, and he expects to make his next start in an actual Cactus League game.

“Honestly, I’m not worried,” Maddon said. “If you watch him in practice, he does it well, actually. So it’s something that he’s capable of doing. And the phrase is ‘avoid avoidance.’

“I don’t want us to avoid those kind of moments, or not talk about them, or putting them off in the corner. I think that’s when it gets actually worse. If there’s an ability to overcome all this, we have to continue to be open about it.”

Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason

With the MLB offseason about to kick off, we run down the boldest predictions for the Cubs winter from around the NBC Sports Chicago Cubs content team. Topics include where Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will sign, how much money they’ll get, what the Cardinals will do this winter, Cubs offseason trades and how Theo Epstein’s front office may add to the pitching staff.

 

One topic we could all agree on was David Ross' potential as Cubs bench coach if the incumbent Brandon Hyde ends up taking a job as manager for another team around the league.

 

Listen to the entire podcast here and check out all of our bold predictions below:

 

 

David Kaplan

 

—Anthony Rizzo and his new wife, Emily, will adopt Manny Machado, change his last name and see Manny Rizzo playing third base for the 2019 Cubs.

—Because of the Rizzo move, the Cubs will move Kris Bryant to a full-time outfielder.

—The Cubs will trade away Jose Quintana and sign Patrick Corbin.

—The Cubs will sign a pair of former Indians relievers for the back end of the bullpen in Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.

—The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber to the Royals for Whit Merrifield, who will start 155 games in the leadoff spot in the order.

—Joe Maddon will be a lot more consistent with the Cubs' lineup and batting order all season.

 

Kelly Crull

 

—Anthony and Emily Rizzo will receive more wedding gifts from Cubs fans than Kris and Jessica Bryan received.

—Anthony Rizzo will train this offseason so he will be able to sing — or play the piano — for the National Anthem at Wrigley in 2019.

—The Cubs will have no money left to remodel the media room at Wrigley Field.

 

Luke Stuckmeyer

 

—The Captain Morgan Club at Wrigley Field is going to be replaced by Kap's Kryo & Keto Korner.

—The Cubs will finally find a solution to the leadoff hitter issue.

 

Tony Andracki

 

—The Cubs sign Bryce Harper for less than $250 million. (He follows 23 people on Twitter)
—Manny Machado does not get a contract for more than $250 million, either.
—The Cardinals will sign Craig Kimbrel and either Machado or Josh Donaldson to play 3B. 

 

Rationale: St. Louis could really use the bat and closer and they have a sense of urgency in the division this winter we haven't seen from them in at least a decade. The Cubs and Brewers have clearly been better for two seasons now and look to have a better chance at contending than the Cardinals in 2019, as well. That can't be sitting well with the "Best Fans in Baseball." 

 

Jeff Nelson, producer

 

—The Cubs will trade 2 of the following players:  Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr.

—The Cardinals will sign Manny Machado to play third base.

—Because of construction delays, the visitors’ clubhouse will not be ready for the home opener, forcing the Pirates to dress at their hotel and come to the ballpark in full uniform.

Mike Piff, social media manager

—Cubs sign Nick Markakis.
—Cubs sign Tyson Ross.

Eric Strobel, producer

—The Cubs 2019 saves leader is not currently on the roster.

Rationale: We saw what happened to the bullpen in Brandon Morrow's absence; it got the job done by and large, but was not longer truly feared. Deep 'pens are the norm in October now with lockdown relievers being counted on more and more. The front office knows they can't truly entrust that kind of workload to Morrow with his injury history - Theo admitted as much in his end-of-season press conference. While they probably will not make a big splash, a huge focus of the offseason will be to surround Morrow/Strop/Edwards/etc. with as many talented arms as possible. The Cubs could very well enter next season without a designated closer, but if they do, it will not be Brandon Morrow.

Scott Changnon, multi-platform producer

—The Cubs will sign Bryce Harper.

Rationale: "I dunno, maybe."

Nate Poppen, producer

—Cubs sign Andrew McCutchen, plug him into CF and make Almora a 4th OF (or expendable)
—Bryce Harper signs with Yankees.
—Manny Machado signs with Angels.

Matt Buckman, producer

Non-roster prediction: The Cubs will welcome Sammy Sosa back to Wrigley Field. Sammy turns 50 this winter, and fueled by our wonderful documentary on 1998, the Cubs will finally mend their broken bond with Sammy and bring him back to Wrigley.

Roster prediction: The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber for a leadoff hitter. Joe has had to get very creative with the top of his order since Dexter Fowler left. Though the front office has downplayed the importance of a lead-off hitter the last two off-seasons, they will look to add one for 2019 so that Joe doesn’t have to be so creative. They won’t have a place to play Schwarber after they sign Harper so they will swap his power for a new “you go, we go” guy. Look at KC or TB as AL teams that need to add power and also have guys who could potentially lead off for the Cubs. Mallex Smith (TB) or Whit Merrifield (KC) would be interesting options.

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No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

Should the Cubs bring Jesse Chavez back for the 2019 bullpen?

This question shouldn't have anywhere near the polarizing effect the Daniel Murphy query had earlier this week, and for good reason.

It's hard to find any real downside for the Cubs working Chavez back into the fold next season. 

Sure, he's 35 and he'll turn 36 in August, but Chavez just had far and away the best season of his 11-year career and all signs point to it being legit.

He won't have a 1.15 ERA forever, of course, but he clearly found something with his mechanics that helped lead to the remarkable consistency he showed in a Cubs uniform (4 saves, 4 holds, 1.15 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 42 Ks in 39 IP). 

The Cubs will be looking to add some reinforcements to their bullpen this winter and Chavez fits the bill in many areas.

When asked about how to address the bullpen this winter, Theo Epstein said his front office will be "looking for guys who can throw strikes and execute a gameplan and take the ball and pitch in big spots."

The Cubs have publicly placed an emphasis on "strike-throwers" out of the bullpen over the last two winters now and that is right up Chavez's alley.

He threw 68.5 percent first-pitch strikes while with the Cubs, which would've ranked near the top of the league in 2018, right up there with aces like Miles Mikolas, Clayton Kershaw, Aaron Nola and Justin Verlander. Among all relievers, Chavez ranked 5th in baseball in first-pitch strike percentage in the second half.

Expanding further (since the first pitch isn't the only one that matters): Chavez threw the fourth-most strikes in baseball among all MLB relievers after the All-Star Break. Since the day Chavez put on a Cubs uniform, Philadelphia's Tommy Hunter (70.5 percent) was the only reliever in baseball (minimum 30 innings) to throw a higher percentage of pitches for strikes than Chavez (69.8 percent).

If you want strikes, there's no better reliever on the market right now than Chavez.

He also shouldn't be all that expensive at age 35, even despite the breakout and high level of importance placed upon relievers these days. A similar deal to the one Brian Duensing got last winter - $7 million over 2 years - seems appropriate and would be a steal if Chavez can continue to find even a modicum of the success he had since putting on a Cubs uniform.

Speaking of the Cubs uniform, Chavez reportedly doesn't want to wear another logo in 2019, saying this after the NL Wild-Card Game:

That was an emotional time, but Chavez repeatedly raved about the Cubs clubhouse and culture throughout his time in Chicago and really appreciated the way his teammates made him feel comfortable from Day 1.

When the Cubs first acquired Chavez in that under-the-radar trade, they touted his versatility which has become a valuable asset, especially in today's game where relievers are often asked to pitch multiple innings. If necessary, he could also represent depth for the starting rotation, having made 70 starts over his MLB career. 

Unless there's a surprising market that develops for Chavez, bringing him back to the North Side of Chicago on a 1- or 2-year deal is a no-brainer.