Cubs

Cubs GM Hoyer putting pieces of the puzzle together

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Cubs GM Hoyer putting pieces of the puzzle together

Its getting harder to see the Cubs making any made-for-TV moments or generating much controversy this winter, which is exactly how this front office likes to operate.

For all the marketing and image-making that will take place when the Cubs Convention opens on Friday at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers, general manager Jed Hoyer is going to stick with the disciplined plan.

It really doesnt sound like the Cubs are going to pull out a surprise and sign outfielder Michael Bourn, who would cost them their second-round draft pick and part of their signing-bonus pool. Nor are they actively looking to add another closer-type into the ninth-inning mix.

One year ago, the Cubs were locked in a standoff with a franchise icon, while their All-Star shortstop had to deny sexual assault allegations. The new executives who had generated so much buzz were still feeling out the fans, the media and the leftover employees in the front office.

No one knew if Anthony Rizzo was going to be a total bust or a superstar, or if Jeff Samardzija could back up all that talk about being a starter. Even if there are no definitive answers yet, the Cubs are in a different place now: Year 2 of their rebuilding project.

Kerry Wood is not walking through that door.

Roughly 90 minutes after team president Theo Epstein said that you cant make baseball decisions based on public relations, the Cubs announced their new deal with Wood, who magically appeared on the balcony at last years convention and soaked in all the cheers inside a hotel ballroom.

Starlin Castro who was wanted for questioning last January now has generational wealth and the security of a contract that could keep him on the North Side through 2020.

The Cubs showed they were willing to spend money on the right players. They certainly had their reasons for pursuing Anibal Sanchez who turned down a five-year, 77.5 million offer and returned to the Detroit Tigers and signing Edwin Jackson to a four-year, 52 million deal.

But it also didnt hurt that those upside pitchers on the right side of 30 werent attached to the one-year, 13.3 million qualifying offers made under the new collective bargaining agreement. That was central to the offseason plan of attack.

We talked about all the free agents, Hoyer said on Chicago Baseball Hot Stove on Tuesday. Where we are as an organization, we want as many draft picks as possible. We want as much money in the draft as possible. So we would have given up a pick, theoretically, for the right player, the right fit.

And we will going forward. But right now, I think holding onto our picks is something that makes sense and were looking to build as much talent in the minor leagues as possible. We need a lot going forward.

While Bourn and pitcher Kyle Lohse sit on the market, super-agent Scott Boras sold the Washington Nationals on another one of his high-profile clients. Rafael Soriano got a reported two-year, 28 million deal on Tuesday to close for a team with World Series ambitions.

There are still interesting names left Brian Wilson, Jose Valverde, Francisco Rodriguez and Matt Capps to name a few though Hoyer said its unlikely the Cubs would add another late-inning reliever with experience as a closer to compete with Carlos Marmol and Kyuji Fujikawa.

Well probably go forward with what we have now, Hoyer said. Of course, if theres just a bargain or a player that we feel like is at an incredible price we might add him. But at this point, we feel really good. There also is a point at which were full on the roster were taking a spot away from somebody. We really do like the way our bullpen and our rotation fit together now.

That puzzle should include Matt Garza, who wished Marmol good luck in November when it looked like the closer would be traded to the Los Angeles Angels before the Dan Haren deal fell apart. Garza whos recovering from a stress reaction in his right elbow is throwing from about 150 feet out and progressing toward working off the mound.

Right now, hes following the normal pitching progression, Hoyer said. He feels really good and we dont see any reason hes going to be restricted going into spring training. At this point, hes gotten over some of those early hurdles in the rehab and we feel like hes just going to be a normal pitcher, a healthy guy in spring training ready to go. Hes excited. I always joke: You can see how hes doing. He talks about it on Twitter all the time.

Like Garza, Alfonso Soriano will have to answer questions about the trade rumors this weekend, though only one player has the power to accept or reject any potential deal. The Cubs were said to be in tire-kicking mode at the winter meetings, and the Philadelphia Phillies were rumored to be one team that might be a fit, given their need for a power bat in the outfield.

Soriano who once considered Philadelphia before signing his 136 million megadeal with the Cubs likes the idea of playing in a big market for a contender on the East Coast and has no-trade rights. Hes scheduled to attend the convention and should get an audience with the front office.

No one was more different than his reputation than Sori, Hoyer said. I know the fans were frustrated with him and we wondered what we were walking into. He was the ultimate professional in the clubhouse. He really has taken Castro under his wing.

His preparation is off the charts. I think a dozen players in baseball went 30 homers and 100 RBI (last season). What we got in our first year was terrific. He knows how we feel about him. Weve had communication with him over the course of the winter. Well keep having that communication.

But all of our thoughts on Sori are positive. He was so good for us last year, both on (and) off the field. (It) wasnt necessarily exactly what we expected going in. (It) was just a wonderful revelation for us.

The work on the 2013 team isnt done yet. Garza, Samardzija and reliever James Russell have filed for arbitration. CBSSports.com reported that the Cubs have been in contact with outfielder Scott Hairston, and theyre quite good at going into stealth mode, so maybe there will be a surprise or two this weekend.

But after a 101-loss season, this group is getting ready for their close-up, and maybe well begin to see if this city will have the patience for another one.

How the Cubs pitching staff prepared for a three-week Summer Camp

How the Cubs pitching staff prepared for a three-week Summer Camp

As the Cactus League shuttered its doors and Cubs players scattered across the country – some headed home, others stayed in Arizona —Tommy Hottovy stepped into uncharted territory.

Hottovy has been the Cubs pitching coach since December of 2018, so he’s guided his pitchers through offseasons before. But going from ramping up in Spring Training to not knowing when Major League Baseball would return? No one had a play book for that.

“Our philosophy was be over-ready and not try to play catchup,” starting pitcher Tyler Chatwood said. “So, luckily we were able to do that.”

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Fast forward to Sunday, Day 3 of Cubs Summer Camp. By the end of the holiday weekend, four of the Cubs’ five presumptive starters had thrown at least two innings in an intrasquad scrimmage and four relievers had also gotten time on the mound.

“It’s just a testament to the work those guys put in over the process,” Hottovy said.

During the shutdown, Hottovy held regular meetings with the pitchers via video conference. They bounced ideas off each other and discussed their overall approach.

“We had so many resources between Tommy, Rossy (manager David Ross), the whole coaching staff staying in touch with us the whole time,” right-hander Kyle Hendricks said. “And then other players. So, we really did it as a group.”

Out of those conversations, Hottovy learned that many of the pitchers wanted arm strength to be a focus during the break.

“Not just pitch-count wise,” Hottovy said, “but to feel that their arm was in the right throwing shape.”

So, he incorporated that into the pitchers’ throwing programs.

Each pitchers’ program was catered to the resources and facilities he had access to, as well as his own goals. But before ramping up for Summer Camp, most of the starting pitchers were throwing one bullpen session early in the week and a simulated game later in the week. As the season got closer, they added a second bullpen.

RELATED: Why Jon Lester hasn't yet thrown live batting practice in Cubs Summer Camp

“The reason I liked getting to those two bullpens,” Hottovy said, “was because now you kind of start simulating what it’s like to be on a five-game rotation.”

By the time they entered camp, many of the starting pitchers were already throwing multiple-inning simulation games. By Day 2 of camp, the Cubs were ready for a short intrasquad game. Hendricks threw three innings, and Yu Darvish threw two.

“Both of them had actually thrown more pitches in a simulated outing prior to coming here,” Hottovy said, “but we wanted to back that off a little bit, obviously knowing that the intensity was going to go up. They’re back on the field with players behind them facing more of our lineup, more of our hitters.”

On Sunday, the Cubs stretched an intrasquad out to five-innings. Chatwood and Alec Mills started, and Dan Winkler, Duane Underwood, Rex Brothers and James Norwood all pitched in relief.

“Everything’s based off pitching,” Ross said and then laughed. “We give the pitchers a hard time all the time; the pitchers kind of dictate how long the day’s going to go because these guys have got to get their pitch counts up.”

With less than three weeks until the season opener, Hottovy’s job still doesn’t return to normal. Instead of setting a schedule based on the order of the pitching rotation, he’s “front-loading” the starters. He also is preparing some relivers to throw extended innings.

“Right now, in my mind we have seven opening day starters,” he said, “…You can’t space them out too much in my opinion just because you can’t take that chance.”

 

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Cubs, MLB face daily reminders of COVID-19 risk, decision to keep going

Cubs, MLB face daily reminders of COVID-19 risk, decision to keep going

Long after the Cubs finished their three-inning, Fourth-of-July vacation from the pandemic Saturday, manager David Ross returned by himself to the field, where he spent a few minutes of mostly quiet time, a few grounds-crew members working on the mound and batter’s boxes in the background.

“Just taking a minute, trying to enjoy what I get to do, what this whole process is,” said Ross, who walked around and gazed at the Wrigley Field green expanse and out at the scoreboard with the U.S. flag against the blue sky, then snapped a picture.

“Everybody was gone, just finished a workout and I had a minute,” he said, “and it just looked cool, on the Fourth of July. Just a little moment for me.”

The rare moment of calm amid the COVID-19 storm that rages with renewed force across much of the country and that roars against everything baseball is trying to build this summer was gone almost as soon as it began — Ross pulling the mask back across his face as he headed back indoors toward his office and eventually home.

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By the time the Cubs got together again Sunday, it was time for another round of coronavirus testing and another wait to see if they’ll remain one of only two teams without a known case among the players.

In between, they played five more innings of baseball and wondered how long 30 teams in 28 cities can keep their training camps functional and a 60-game season in play.

“We had meetings, and everybody knows what’s at risk,” said fourth starter Tyler Chatwood, who pitched three innings Sunday. "My wife is pregnant, and I have a two-year-old at home. So, I think the toughest part for me is not seeing them, but this is what I want to do.

“We all want to stay as safe as possible and we all want to get the season in.”

If Chatwood, Ross and the rest of the Cubs weren’t sure how persistent the micro-commitments and significant the undertaking of this 1,700-player effort, they have been bombarded with reminders each day — from Sunday’s testing to the news that high-profile pitchers Felix Hernandez and David Price and Cleveland bench coach Brad Mills have opted out of the 2020 season over the risk, to Giants star Buster Posey and Phillies $118 million pitcher Zach Wheeler telling media they might yet make the same decision.

Ross reiterated the day-to-day nature of evaluating the landscape and risk and navigating the protocols and emotions.

“Everybody definitely has their radar up and wants to know we’re doing everything possible,” he said. “Our guys are extremely bought-in. But everybody has a little bit of a pause as you come to the park and what each day’s going to be like.”

Sunday was only Day 3 of a 21-day training camp before a season would open on July 24.

It was only Day 2 for some other teams. And some teams, such as the Oakland A’s, postponed Sunday’s scheduled full-squad workout because their intake testing hasn’t been completed. Sean Doolittle of the Nationals told media the team in the nation’s capital is short on some basic PPE supplies, such as masks, and he remains concerned about the league’s ability to pull this off safely.

And a few miles to the south, the White Sox on Sunday said two of their players have tested positive.

MORE: White Sox announce two players test positive for COVID-19

“This not a small undertaking, trying to get a season up and running and then manage it for a 60-game season,” said Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, who suffered through a frightening, painful month-long bout with COVID-19. “I think we’re giving it the best chance to be successful.”

In addition to Hottovy, Royals manager Mike Matheny also revealed over the weekend, he battled the virus about a month ago.

As news continues to surface about positive tests, and stars as big as Mike Trout of the Angels openly talk about whether they might opt out, the Cubs mask up in their clubhouse, continue to wash and distance and ask their own questions.

“Guys are doing a great job,” Ross said. “We’re doing everything possible. But for sure, there’s a lot of pause around the league, and rightfully so.”

Not that anyone in baseball is judging anyone who chooses to opt out. In fact, far from it, Ross said. 

“These are serious issues that to a man everybody has to look at their situation individually and make a tough choice,” he said. “This is an extremely difficult environment for these players to be in. They’re having to alter their routines, continue to have other things on their mind, other than performing baseball, and still trying to make it fun.”

Hottovy said he had to make his own tough choice to return after talking about the concerns with family. Ross said some Cubs have family members at home with high-risk conditions for severe reactions if infected by the virus.

So far, the Brewers and Cubs are the only teams that have not reported any positive tests among its players.

MORE: David Ross indicates no Cubs players have tested positive for COVID-19

“It doesn’t mean somebody’s not going to test positive through no fault of their own,” Ross said “We’re at the mercy of this virus.

“But I’m super proud of our guys, how serious they’re taking it and how they’ve come in so far.”

And so far, they’ve stayed together. Whatever doubts might persist. Whatever might be around baseball’s next corner.

Said Hottovy: “How it’s managed, how we handle it on a day-to-day basis and manage it not only as an organization but across baseball is going to determine how this thing goes in the long run.”

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