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Cubs Q&A with Ted Lilly: Winning it all, next steps, Kyle Hendricks

Cubs Q&A with Ted Lilly: Winning it all, next steps, Kyle Hendricks

MESA, Ariz. – Nothing summed up the win-one-for-the-Tribune Tower frenzy – and the passion felt by generations of Cubs fans – quite like this story: Former general manager Jim Hendry finalizing Ted Lilly's four-year, $40 million deal while hooked up to an EKG machine in a Florida hospital room during the winter meetings.  

That spending spree coming off a last-place finish in 2006 would lead to back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008, so much entertainment with larger-than-life personalities like Lou Piniella and Alfonso Soriano, two crushing playoff sweeps, years of ownership instability and ultimately a reckoning that would reshape the entire franchise. 

Theodore Roosevelt Lilly III rejoined the Cubs as a special assistant to the president and general manager three years ago during spring training, reporting to Arizona to offer his insight as someone who experienced Chicago's sky-high expectations and bitter disappointments.   

Q: Looking back on 2016, what separated that group from the other 100-something teams that came before?    

A: "This thing has been growing here for the last few years, this new culture of winning. The team that did this is special – talented, young, a lot of maturity for a young team, just impressive all the way around. There's some talent, but there's also some really good baseball players. Watching these games, these guys do a number of things that don't show up necessarily on individual statistics that help the team win games. 

"These guys have also (been) put into a really good environment to succeed. I think our player development did a good job. And at the big-league level as well, you've seen them get better."

Q: What did it mean for you to be part of the organization when the Cubs finally won it all?

A: "I understood the feeling of how special accomplishing that dream was. When I was here as a player, it was something that we talked about quite often, trying to make that a reality and all the different ways to try and get that done. 

"Having the opportunity to come over here and be a part of this, obviously I feel extremely fortunate to be involved in the organization in any capacity. I wasn't able to get a ring as a player and wanted to be connected with this organization. Early on, there were a lot of things going on here where you could envision this potential, this possibility of the Cubs finally getting it done."

Q: How would you describe Theo Epstein's management style?

A: "No stone left unturned. (Not that I'm around much, but) I've also witnessed a lot of trust that he has in the team (and everyone who's) involved in it. That was something that I just wasn't aware of – that it's on a level like that where there are these open arguments of opinions. Even if they're adamant, there's still this open-minded respect for the other guy's opinion (during these) high-level evaluations. (The draft room) is a great example."

Lilly has three young children and earned roughly $80 million during his playing career, according to the salary database at Baseball-Reference.com, absolutely maximizing his talent as a 23rd-round pick who earned two All-Star selections and lasted 15 years in the big leagues. Those would appear to be the opposing forces – comfortable stay-at-home dad vs. potential pitching specialist – in his second baseball act.  

Q: Do you have a sense of what you'd like to do next after getting your feet wet in the front office – something more or something different?

A: "It's hard for me to pin it down exactly as we sit here right now. I really like what I'm doing, just getting the opportunity to be around and learn from many different people, keeping my ears open and paying attention. 

"Whether it would continue to be here, which would be ideal, or go somewhere else, (I don't know). But from the people I'm around, there's just a lot to learn, like Joe (Maddon) and his ability to communicate."

There's obviously a left-handed/right-handed difference, but in the same way that Lilly used his smarts, guts and competitive nature, Kyle Hendricks showed that a frontline starter doesn't necessarily need to have a 6-foot-5-inch frame and 100-mph heat.

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Q: Could you explain what Hendricks did last year in going from a pretty good fifth starter to an ERA leader?

A: "If someone asked me: ‘Do you think Kyle Hendricks' stuff is pretty good?' I do. That term gets thrown out often. I also think of movement as stuff. That's a part of stuff. On both his sinker and his changeup, there's quite a bit of movement – and it's late and it's in the right direction. 

"So it may not have the numbers on the radar gun that we typically equate to stuff. But as far as depth in the zone – you watch how he can throw a breaking ball at whatever the velocity is – there's still some bite to it, which I consider to be pretty good stuff. If you can get a ball to move late, it's hard to hit. 

"Kyle and I are different styles, not so much the left- and right-handed thing, but also the movement. I didn't have the ability to make a pitch sink the way that he does. It's pretty special. And an X-factor that is a separator for him, without question, is the command."

The Cubs never would have added Hendricks to their minor-league inventory in the summer of 2012 if the Randall Delgado trade with the Atlanta Braves hadn't collapsed, and Ryan Dempster hadn't backed off his strong preference to go to the Los Angeles Dodgers and play with Lilly again.    

In a buzzer-beater before the July 31 deadline – on a day where Dempster played Golden Tee in the employee lounge, kicked up his feet up on a staffer's desk and watched the MLB Network coverage inside the team's Clark Street headquarters – the Cubs finally reached an agreement to waive his no-trade rights and acquire two Class-A prospects from the Texas Rangers.   

Q: Were you in the loop on that Dempster deal?

A: "Just a little bit, because there were some questions that were asked from our front office at the time about acquiring him. But I was a player, not front-office personnel. My involvement was very minimal. Ned (Colletti) had asked me questions about what we were getting, and I certainly made it clear that I believed he would help us.

"We're all glad that he went to Texas."

Yu Darvish: If Cubs didn't take COVID-19 seriously, 'I was ready to go home'

Yu Darvish: If Cubs didn't take COVID-19 seriously, 'I was ready to go home'

If Yu Darvish thinks baseball can pull off this high-risk, three-month season during a pandemic, maybe there’s reason to dream on the long shot coming in.

Then, again, the Cubs’ potential Opening Day starter has not ruled out changing his mind about playing — which underscores the daily fragility of the thread holding this 30-team, 30-site process together.

“Definitely, I came here to make sure everybody’s doing the right thing,” Darvish said through a translator. “I had in my mind if they’re not, I was ready to go home.”

Darvish was the first player in the majors last spring to publicly express fear of the COVID-19 spread and lethality of a virus that was blamed for fewer than 10 American deaths at the time — weeks before major sports were shut down across the country.

Four months and more than 130,000 U.S. coronavirus-related deaths later, he made the “tough” decision to play — with plenty of reservations.

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“Yes, definitely, I still have concerns,” he said Sunday, two days after Giants star Buster Posey became one of 11 players without a pre-existing, high-risk condition to decline to play this season.

MORE: Tracking MLB players who have opted out or declined to play in 2020

Under rules in the COVID-19 health and safety Operations Manual, players with high-risk conditions are allowed to change their minds in either direction when it comes to the opt-out decision. And they earn full service time for the year and prorated salary for the 60-game season if they don’t play.

Those such as Darvish who are not in that category don’t get service time or pay for the year if they decline to play and are not allowed to return once that decision is made official.

Asked if he still is leaving open the possibility of opting out of the season, he said, “Maybe. But at this point no, I don’t think so.”

In a baseball vacuum, Darvish offers the Cubs’ their best chance to have success during a 60-game season and any playoffs that might follow.

“The way he finished the season last year, how good he was for us, that’s the guy we’re counting on,” manager David Ross said, referring to a second half that included a 2.76 ERA and a 118-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13 starts.

But Darvish, a native of Japan, hasn’t viewed baseball in a vacuum since the year began — approaching Cubs officials upon his arrival for informal work before spring training began in February to address concerns about reporters who might travel from possible virus hot spots in Asia to cover him.

“I’m really worried about it,” he said then.

And then on March 5 he left the Cubs’ spring facility to see a doctor for a test after experiencing a cough, out of a fear he might expose teammates if he had the virus.

By the time MLB and the union agreed last month to terms for a season, the thought of playing during a pandemic had only become more serious for Darvish and many others throughout the game.

“It was tough because I have small children,” Darvish said of the decision. “During the spring we had a lot of thoughts about that, and it was tough decision.”

He said seeing teammates with similar family dynamics and concerns choose to play made it “a little easier to make the decision to play.”

But it’s a discussion among players and their families across the majors that isn’t going to go away — and figures to only intensify every time another batch of test results shows up late or another player tests positive somewhere.

MORE: Cubs COVID-19 tests return negative, Theo Epstein cautions against complacency

Not to mention continued spikes in new cases and deaths in cities and states across the major-league map.

“I think we’re all a little nervous. Nobody wants to get this thing,” Cubs veteran Jon Lester said. “You have to just believe in the testing process; you have to believe in kind of the bubble community we’re trying to create here; you have to believe in these things.”

That’s when Lester held up a mask during the Zoom session with reporters.

The Cubs — the only team in the league without a player testing positive through the first two weeks of intake and monitoring testing — have shown a commitment to safety protocols from top to bottom in the organization. Third baseman Kris Bryant wore his mask again while taking ground balls at third base Sunday, despite plenty of safe distance from the nearest player or coach.

“I know that some of the players are uncomfortable wearing it, but they do wear it,” Darvish said. “So it’s nice to see. I used to wear [masks] all the time in Japan so I’m very comfortable with this.”

Getting comfortable with the larger experiment, especially when teams begin to travel and inherent risks increase, could be an ongoing adjustment — for everyone from
Darvish, Lester and Bryant to Angels superstar Mike Trout, who continues to express concerns with his first child due next month.

“There’s a lot of stuff where you’re putting yourself out there and just kind of hoping,” said Lester, whose successful battle with cancer more than a decade ago qualifies him for a high-risk exemption to opt out.

“My own personal health really wasn’t my concern,” said Lester, who said the team doctor consulted with his oncologist in Chicago on the issue. “We do have some family stuff we’re trying to stay away from. But I think you just have to dive into this head-first and go with the protocols and wash your hands and be careful.

“You really have to concentrate on that and hopefully everything else kind of takes care of itself.”

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Why David Ross is 'excited' about umpire crew joining Cubs Summer Camp

Why David Ross is 'excited' about umpire crew joining Cubs Summer Camp

The days of Cubs mental skills coach John Baker holding an armchair cushion between him and the catcher as he calls balls and strikes may be over.

Professional umpires will soon take over the responsibility of calling the Cubs’ intrasquad scrimmages. Crew chief Tony Randazzo and his umpire crew will embed themselves at Cubs Summer Camp, manager David Ross announced Sunday.

“I think it’s going to affect the mental skills department too,” Ross said, laughing. “Yeah, I’m excited about getting real umpires up here. Bake’s been doing a good job for us, but every chance we get an opportunity to turn up the dial and make it as game-like as possible, the better.”

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From his playing days as a catcher, Ross is familiar with Randazzo. Ross said he’s excited about using the umpires as a “sounding board" for questions. 

The introduction of MLB umpires, which is expected to be implemented across the league, is also set up to give umpires practice before the regular season.

The Cubs’ earliest scrimmages, as well as Sunday’s intrasquad game, featured catchers calling balls and strikes, which Ross called, “fun and unique.”

“Being in that situation in the past,” the former catcher said, laughing, “you’re not going to make anybody happy when you punch them out.”

In the middle of the week, Baker took over umpiring duties. Baker has Tier 1 clearance – the Cubs deemed his role a priority, especially in the midst of a pandemic – so he has on-field access.

“Well, after umpiring 5 ½ (innings) tonight,” Baker posted to Twitter on Thursday, “I can say that that job is much harder than it looks on TV. I’m exhausted.”

 

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