Cubs

Cubs: Javier Baez beginning takeover of second-base job

Cubs: Javier Baez beginning takeover of second-base job

MILWAUKEE – Cubs manager Joe Maddon kept Javier Baez in the lineup the day after a full-speed, head-on collision with Jason Heyward in shallow center field left him looking like a boxer with a bloodshot left eye and dark bruising around that eyelid. 
 
Baez started all 17 playoff games at second base last year. Baez has now started four of the season's first five games at second base, pushing Ben Zobrist toward the outfield and into more of a super-utility role for the defending World Series champs.  

At what point does Baez become your everyday second baseman? (Hint: It's already happening.) 

"I haven't even thought about that," Maddon said before Saturday's game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. "Zo's at second base tomorrow. Javy's off tomorrow. Today's lineup was not based on the collision at all. I had that lineup made up before the game. 

"I'm going to try to balance it out as much as I can. Part of it is it's not just about Javy being the everyday second baseman. How do you get (Albert) Almora in the lineup? How do you get (Jon) Jay in the lineup? How do you keep Zo in the lineup as often as possible? That's really what it comes down to.

"So pretty much what you've seen to this point, I think, is like a good indicator of what we're going to be able to do with everybody being healthy."

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Baez generates more highlight-reel plays and buzz on social media, but Zobrist is still a clubhouse leader, All-Star second baseman and World Series MVP. Zobrist is in the second season of a four-year, $56 million contract signed with the idea of ending the 108-year drought and focusing on one position to help preserve his body through his mid-30s.

Beyond the respect for Zobrist, Maddon also seems to be trying to avoid anointing Baez, a player so confident he got the Major League Baseball logo tattooed onto the back of his neck as a teenager. Throughout spring training, Maddon answered questions about the second-base dynamics by identifying Zobrist as the primary option with Baez as a defensive rover.    

"It's always about semantics, man," Maddon said. "You got to be (careful). Whatever you say, it sticks. And then people hold you to that, which they should. When it comes to baseball players, man, if you say they're one thing and then try to make them into something else, it really freaks them out."

This is also the direction where Maddon sees the game trending, lineups built with analytics and matchups in mind, rosters becoming less top-heavy and revolving more around depth and flexibility. Maddon has talked about the year he never formally named a closer for the Tampa Bay Rays and just kept going to the same guy in the ninth inning for save situations. 

"Without naming a closer, without naming a second baseman, without a naming an eighth-inning guy or a seventh-inning guy, it really creates a lot more latitude, which you need in today's game," Maddon said. "Our group needs that. I think it's going to become more prominent throughout the industry where you might name a closer only and then the rest of the guys will just be out there and be ready. Position-player-wise, we're just different, I think, with all the versatility that we do have."      

Cubs add catcher José Lobatón on minor league deal with invite to Summer Camp

Cubs add catcher José Lobatón on minor league deal with invite to Summer Camp

The Cubs signed catcher José Lobatón to a minor league deal on Tuesday with an invitation to Summer Camp, per the club's transactions page.

Lobatón is a career .215/.293/.319 hitter and known more for his work behind the plate. He last played in the majors with the Mets in 2018, spending 2019 in Triple-A with the Mariners and Dodgers. He's also previously played for the Padres (2009), Rays (2011-13) and Nationals (2014-17).

Lobatón gives the Cubs veteran catching depth in the unique 2020 season. Willson Contreras and Victor Caratini are one of baseball's best 1-2 punches, and Josh Phegley could secure a spot on the club's initial 30-man roster, which must then be cut to 28 players after two weeks and 26 two weeks after that.

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The club hasn't announced if Lobatón will join the Wrigley Field training group or head to the alternate site in South Bend.

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How Cubs' coronavirus precautions add challenge to already daunting season

How Cubs' coronavirus precautions add challenge to already daunting season

Maybe this is as good as baseball’s coronavirus testing gets.

Players, managers, coaches and staff want better, and many say they expect continued improvement.

But with a week left before teams start leaving individual bubbles to travel for games, this may be where tests of faith start to fill the gaps in testing for the virus.

And that means players might have decisions to make all over again. It already means teams have been troubleshooting how scenarios that played out at Wrigley Field twice this week might be managed during games days.

“I think some more players will opt out,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said Wednesday after the Cubs held out six players from workouts as a precaution over “pending” results from Monday’s test.

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That could be an immediate cost. Thirteen players already have declined to accept the health risk and play this season, including Giants star Buster Posey and former Cy Young Award winners David Price and Felix Hernandez.

Angels superstar Mike Trout and Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish are among several others who have said they haven’t ruled out joining the 13, depending how safe things look as the game inches closer to a 60-game season to be played in the 30 home ballparks — many of which are located in COVID-19 hot spots.

The Cubs got word late Wednesday that none of the players they held out of practice had tested positive. But it’s at least the fourth time in six rounds of testing that results have been delayed or inconclusive enough to force the Cubs to reschedule workouts or hold out players and staff — and came two days after manager David Ross was among the group to miss workouts.

“There’s definitely a level of fire drill some mornings,” Ross said.

And this is where the teams have their work cut out, regardless of how strong their numbers remain when the season starts.

“This will present a problem if it happens within the season, and we’ll have to adjust,” Ross said. “But I think they’re working through that so we don’t have these problems when the season starts. … This is all new.”

But it’s also not likely to go away anytime soon, and almost certainly not by next week's openers — at least not as dramatically as players and other team officials would like to see.

MLB is using labs in Utah and New Jersey to turn around thousands of coronavirus tests every other day, which is subject to occasional issues involving a stressed national shipping industry when it comes to getting the samples to the labs and occasional batches that require quick retests because of inclusive results — or in some cases a positive result within a given batch.

RELATED: What the Cubs' Summer Camp testing delays mean for the regular season

The vast majority of delayed and retested samples produce negative results — as in the case of the Cubs’ half dozen on Wednesday. And MLB’s positive rate overall is about 1 percent.

Based on conversations with baseball people, not every team is approaching its “pending” cases with the same level of “abundance of caution” as the Cubs seem to be taking. Other teams are using case-by-case approaches or waiting until specifically positive results (or symptoms/risk behavior) to restrict activities.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Cubs remain the only team in the league without a known positive test among its players and coaching staff since intake testing began more than two weeks ago.

But what happens when the season starts, and a day like Monday or Wednesday comes up again — whether for the Cubs or an opponent?

“If we’re on a getaway day and Jon Lester’s our starter and has a pending test, it’s going to be hard for us to scramble,” Rizzo said. “I’m sure they’re working on it right now already to make sure that on Opening Day everything’s running as smooth as possible.”

But MLB does not appear to be in position to increase its testing capacity or delivery speed within the next week — especially when much of the country is experiencing surges in cases of COVID-19, positive rates and testing shortages.

One potential mitigating factor might be the fact that 48 of the Cubs’ 60 games (80 percent) are night games and two more are late-afternoon games. In theory, night games Monday and Wednesday of this week would have meant enough time in both cases to clear the “pending” results in time for the players in question to have played.

It may be small consolation to some.

“We didn’t sign up for these bad protocols as far as testing,” said Rizzo, whose Opening Day might already be in doubt as he battles a back issue. “The biggest thing for us is the safety.”

Neither he nor Ross are pointing fingers at MLB or the labs. They, along with other players and team officials, keep saying they expect the testing process to get even better.

But there may not be any specific reason to believe it will. And you can bank on roster rules staying where they are (nobody’s adding the kind of daily flexibility that would be certain to be abused — and would add to payroll costs).

So keep an eye on Mike Trout and Yu Darvish — and Sean Doolittle and Ryan Braun and everybody else who remains on edge about the risk this pandemic season poses?

“Listen, we are in a pandemic. We are all at risk,” Rizzo said. “We all want to play baseball because that’s what we love to do, and we have an opportunity to bring joy to a lot of people that are home, through these tough times.

“But we are all human. If guys start testing positive left and right and this gets out of control, I’m sure you’ll see some guys opt out.”

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