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Cubs have a long way to go to catch up with Cardinals

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Cubs have a long way to go to catch up with Cardinals

Agents used to love playing the Yankees against the Red Sox and getting that huge markup from New York or Boston.
But now the Yankees are working to get under the 189 million luxury-tax threshold by 2014, while the Red Sox hit the reset button with last summers blockbuster trade with the Dodgers.
So the winter meetings that begin Monday could become the battle for Los Angeles, with the Dodgers and Angels fighting over Zack Greinke.
Cubs fans have put their faith in Theo Epsteins Red Sox model. Theyre jealous of the 6 billion television contract the Dodgers could be getting from Fox Sports. But really their focus should be some 300 miles southwest of Wrigley Field.
The Cardinals wont be major players on the lobby scene inside the Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, Tenn. But quietly they have already built the scouting and player development machine the Cubs like to talk about, and they have flexed their financial muscles with a payroll around 110 million last season.
A lot of people always think working in St. Louis: Eh, its not Chicago, New York or L.A., Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. But there is pressure to win, to do it right. I think thats a great thing about St. Louis.
One year ago, the Cardinals had already lost one franchise icon (Tony La Russa), and were bracing for the possibility of losing another (Albert Pujols). They were hoping they made the right hire with a rookie manager (Mike Matheny).
This is The Cardinals Way. They defended their 11th World Series title by winning 88 games, and were one victory away from clinching the National League pennant.
Mozeliak pointed to chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., who led the group that purchased the team in 1996. Between 1996 and 2011, La Russa won two World Series rings and endured only three sub-.500 seasons. Mozeliak who replaced Walt Jocketty in October 2007 joined the organization after the 1995 season.
Its been a very stable environment, Mozeliak said. You can have that when youre having success, but I think now its sort of grown and become expected.
I always say to people (that) St. Louis is a wonderful place to be in baseball, because our fan base expects to win. Actually, they demand it. And I think thats a great compliment to them, because they show up. Were drawing three million fans. And as long as we put an entertaining product out there, they support it.
Ownership instability handcuffed Jim Hendry, who was never able to build off the 2008 team that won 97 games and a second straight division title. The Cubs went all-in trying to win one for the Tribune Co. after a last-place finish in 2006, but for years there had been issues with draft budgets and the ability to make international investments.
Clearly, the Cubs have a long-range plan now. But its not like the rest of the baseball world is going to stand still. In late October, Hall of Fame writer Rick Hummel wrote a 2011 Cardinals obituary in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. An authoritative voice told you whats coming next.
Never, in my 40 years covering this team, have I been so entranced by the number of good arms the Cardinals have as potential starters, Hummel wrote. Most of those plus-90s spent the postseason in the bullpen, with Lance Lynn emerging for two starts, but the Cardinals never have had as many hard throwers as they have now, with right-handers Lynn, Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly, and Carlos Martinez lurking in the minors.
Then there is Trevor Rosenthal, who is the first Cardinal in my memory to hit 100 miles an hour consistently. Rosenthal also seems to have a working knowledge of a breaking ball but, for my money, I dont want to see somebody throwing 100 mph pitching two innings out of the bullpen. He seems ready for much more and is the most exciting young pitcher to come along here since Rick Ankiel, with Alan Benes and Matt Morris before that. But none of those could throw 100 miles an hour, and you see how interested the San Francisco and Washington hitters were about facing that kind of heat.
The Cubs once felt that way about Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano. What could possibly go wrong?
The organizations that youre certainly envious of are the ones that seem like they have young pitchers all over the place, general manager Jed Hoyer said. Granted, those can be fleeting. Certainly, the 2003 Cubs looked like they were in the catbird seat and soon enough they were all injured and thats what happens. Thats the nature of pitching.
(But) look at the Cardinals right now and its a pretty nice position to be in when theyve got guys like Shelby Miller and Rosenthal coming out of the bullpen in the LCS. Thats having some organizational depth when a guy like (Jaime) Garcia goes down and you (dont) miss a beat. Thats when you know youve drafted well, developed well and made good trades. Thats the position we need to be in.
The last time the Cardinals lost 101 games in a season was 1907. The Cubs have so many needs that pitching will drive several key decisions, from the starter they could sign to join Scott Baker and Scott Feldman in the rotation, to the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft, to next summers trade deadline.
From Day 1, Hoyer said, weve been staring at the same picture. Its a minor-league system that was devoid of pitching prospects. Its upper levels arent producing the depths that we need.
Its not a problem were going to fix this offseason. Were going to do our best and spend our money as wisely as possible this offseason to improve it, but organizationally its a three-, four-, five-year project. Its drafting pitchers. Its trading for pitchers. Its signing pitchers. I guess you never feel like you have enough pitching depth.
Epstein and Hoyer made their bones in the American League East by taking down the Evil Empire. This isnt the frenzy of Yankees-Red Sox, but if the Cubs are going to matter, they will have to find a way to respond to the Cardinals.

Cubs' Tommy Hottovy: 'Scary part' of COVID-19 is how fast deadly virus spreads

Cubs' Tommy Hottovy: 'Scary part' of COVID-19 is how fast deadly virus spreads

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy is home in Kansas City for a couple rare days during the baseball season. His mom wants to meet him for lunch, and his sister, a grade-school teacher in town, just had a baby that he hasn’t had a chance to see yet.

“How much would I love to go get to see her and my new nephew?” Hottovy said. “Can’t do it. Just can’t.”

Not this time. Not with what’s at stake. Not when possible threats to health and professional purpose lurk in every unfamiliar hallway, byway and unmasked face while the Cubs navigate their first multi-city road trip of the season.

Don’t believe the risk of spread and large-scale COVID-19 team outbreaks are that sensitive, extreme and potentially swift? Just ask the Marlins and Cardinals, whose outbreaks in the first week of play put their seasons on hold and threatened the status of the league’s season.

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“I’m not leaving the hotel. I told my family and friends and everybody [in Kansas City],” Hottovy said. “We all signed up for this, to make sure that for this to work we all have to make those kinds of sacrifices. I love my family to death and would love to get to see them, but right now this is our home.”

The Cubs second trip, which started with a 6-1 victory Wednesday in Kansas City and continues to St. Louis before finishing in Cleveland next week, coincides with stepped-up COVID-19 protocols from Major League Baseball following the Marlins and Cardinals outbreaks.

The Cubs already had protocols in place that exceeded MLB’s original mandates and that are in compliance with the new mandates. And a month into the league’s restart they remained the only team without a player having tested positive for the virus.

RELATED: Cubs better prepared than MLB to finish COVID-19 season — which is the problem

In fact, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant decided on his own to start wearing a protective mask on the bases when the Cubs played last week in Cincinnati, where three Reds players were sidelined either by positive tests or self-reported symptoms as that series opened. And first baseman Anthony Rizzo told ESPN 1000 on Tuesday that he plans to keep a mask in his pocket while in the field in St. Louis and will consider wearing it when somebody reaches base.

“No matter what measures you put in place, when you’re trying to pull off a season that requires travel in the middle of a global pandemic, it ultimately does come down to personal responsibility,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “And everyone is at the mercy of the least responsible person because of the nature of the spread of this disease.”

Nobody knows that more than Hottovy and many of the Cubs who watched their pitching coach deteriorate in real time during daily Zoom sessions in May and June until the worst symptoms of his frightening monthlong bout with the virus forced him to hand off his job duties.

Whether Hottovy’s experience led directly to the Cubs’ more extreme safety policies or the individual players’ apparent hyper diligence, MLB’s recent coronavirus outbreaks and other cases at least raise questions about whether some teams and players — or even the league — respect the potential severity of a virus that has killed more than 158,000 Americans in five months.

“I don’t think people underestimate that aspect of it; I think they underestimated how easy it was to spread,” Hottovy said of the outbreaks — including a Cardinals outbreak that reportedly was traced to one asymptomatic, outside individual familiar with the team.

Hottovy called the highly contagious nature of the virus “the scary part of this,” both in terms of the potential to quickly render an organization unable to field a team as well as the subsequent, inherent risk that poses to family members and others who might, in turn, be among those who then become severely impacted by the virus.

And the hardest part, he said, is not letting down your guard within the team bubble when it’s easy to trust that when it’s only teammates in the room that it’s OK to disregard masks, distancing and other safety measures.

“That’s when it gets dangerous,” said Hottovy, whose team talks often about assuming everyone — including each other — has the virus.

So just like in Cincinnati, neither he nor anyone else in the Cubs’ traveling party plans to go anywhere but to and from hotels and ballparks during their trip.

“Listen, you don’t have to search too far for a reason to take it serious,” Cubs second baseman Jason Kipnis said.

“I have three of my close friends who got it, that are over it. But the symptoms are as real as it gets from the sounds of it. And I think you have guys who are risking stuff coming and playing this season, whether it’s Craig [Kimbrel] and his daughter [heart condition] or Anthony [Rizzo] and Jon [Lester] with their [cancer] history.

“You’re paying respect to them and doing your teammate justice by not being the one to kind of go out,” Kipnis added. “It’s one of those years where, hey, you’ve got to buckle down and stay the course. I think everybody’s going through it, so you don’t want to be the one that kind of screws this one up.

The Cubs’ 10-2 start to a 60-game season seems to further incentivize that discipline — some players in recent days even suggesting the discipline in following the protocols has carried into the professionalism on the field.

It’s impossible to know if any of it will be enough for the Cubs to keep their moving bubble secure, much less whether the two outbreaks that MLB seems to have withstood will provide the significant enough wakeup call that MLB and team officials have suggested.

“The vast, vast majority of everyone involved in this enterprise, the players and staff, are doing a solid job so far in making a lot of sacrifices,” Epstein said. “And we just have to get everybody on board. And hopefully these two outbreaks are enough to get everyone to the point where we have essentially perfect execution going forward, because that’s largely what it will take.”

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Cubs' David Ross defends Javier Báez, doesn't 'nitpick' baserunning lapse

Cubs' David Ross defends Javier Báez, doesn't 'nitpick' baserunning lapse

Cubs shortstop Javier Báez recognizes he should have run out of the batter’s box.

“It was my mistake,” Báez said after Wednesday’s 6-1 Cubs win over the Royals. “I thought that ball was foul.”

With two on and no out in the fourth inning Wednesday, Báez hit a towering pop fly down the right field foul line. He hesitated in the batter’s box for a few moments, leaving shortly before the ball dropped in fair just inside the line.

“I kind of lost it, but the wind started bringing it back,” Báez said. “Even [Royals catcher Salvador Pérez] was kind of surprised and he was like, ‘I think it’s gonna be fair,’ so I started running.”

Báez wound up with an RBI single, scoring Kris Bryant from second and moving Anthony Rizzo to third with no outs. He likely could have wound up at second base with a double, setting up the Cubs with two runners in scoring position and no outs. 

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The inning ended shortly after, as Willson Contreras grounded into a 6-4-3 double play, scoring Rizzo to take a 2-1 lead, and David Bote struck out two batters later. In the end, the moment didn’t hurt the Cubs, who never trailed after taking that fourth inning lead.

After the game, Cubs manager David Ross defended Báez and said he didn’t talk to him about running that ball out.

“I think that’s a really close play,” Ross said. “If I want to be the type of manager that nitpicks every little thing... These guys go out and play their butt off every single night for me and for this group. 

“If I feel like they’re dogging it, we’ll have a conversation. I feel like that’s a play that he may have assumed was foul. I think Javy’s one of the most exciting players and he plays hard every time I see him out there on the field. 

“So, I don’t have a problem with a guy that brings it every single day.”

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