Cubs

Cubs say this isn’t the beginning of the end for their ace: ‘I believe in Jon Lester’

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USA TODAY

Cubs say this isn’t the beginning of the end for their ace: ‘I believe in Jon Lester’

MILWAUKEE – Cubs executives bet on Jon Lester because they had so much inside information from their time together with the Boston Red Sox and believed he would age gracefully with his fluid left-handed delivery, imposing physical presence and competitive personality.

The Cubs also went into it with their eyes wide open, knowing the history of nine-figure contracts for pitchers and how those megadeals usually lead to a crash.

“I think it’s way too early to talk about that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said Thursday at Miller Park, where Lester’s mysterious struggles overshadowed the beginning of a four-game showdown against the Milwaukee Brewers that could decide the National League Central race.

The night before at Tropicana Field, Lester got rocked in an 8-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, leaving him with a 5.91 ERA in four September starts since coming off the disabled list. Lester has a body of work that will make him a borderline Hall of Famer, but he’s given up 27 hits and 12 walks in 21.1 innings since the Cubs activated him after a left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue diagnosis in the middle of August.

“With any pitcher, you want to have that guy pitching at the top of his game going into October,” Hoyer said. “There’s no question. The timing of last night’s game, obviously, isn’t ideal. But we have two starts and we’ll hope he bounces back from that. We can’t control the timing.”

Almost exactly halfway through a six-year, $155 million commitment, the Lester investment has already paid for itself, because the Cubs are the defending World Series champs and couldn’t have done it without him. Period. But Lester is also 33 years old and has already thrown almost 2,200 innings in The Show, plus nearly another season in 14 career playoff series.

“Nope, nope, nope,” manager Joe Maddon said when asked if Lester was getting examined.

“Listen, I know a lot of people are concerned,” Maddon said. “I’m not overly concerned, because the guy’s been good for a long time. As long as he says he’s healthy – which he has – I’m fine. If he’s hurting at all – but he’s not revealing – that’s a different story entirely.

“But for right now, I believe he’s well, so I anticipate good.”

Maddon’s answers left a little wiggle room, but Lester didn’t want to make excuses and said there’s nothing wrong physically. If that’s the case, it would be foolish to write off someone who’s survived a cancer scare, thrived in the American League East, embraced the challenge of playing in two of baseball’s biggest markets and won three World Series rings.

“He has evolved as a pitcher,” Hoyer said. “When we first had him with the Red Sox, he was throwing 97 (mph). With most guys, you have to get past that loss of velocity, and the great ones do that.

“He’s always thrown hard, but he’s been kind of 93-94 tops the last few years. He’s got four pitches. He’s got a good sinker now. He’s got a good cutter. A changeup, curveball – they all come out of the same place. I think right now it’s about making some mistakes at the wrong time, and his stuff hasn’t been probably as dominant as he would want.”

This could just be a blip on the radar. But the Cubs didn’t earn the luxury of treating late September like spring training and warming up for the playoffs. These games matter, and that usually brings out the best in their ace.

“I believe in Jon Lester,” Maddon said, writing it off as a few “hiccup” games. “It’s unusual to see him struggle like that, primarily with his command. The velocity was down – but where the pitches were going – I’m not used to seeing that.

“I got to believe that’s going to get rectified soon. Guys like him, I’m normally not into physical mechanics this time of the year. But I’d bet if, in fact, there’s something wrong, it’s going to be more mechanically speaking.

“I just want to be very patient about this. I think he’s fine. Until I hear that he’s not well – which I’ve not heard at all – I think he’ll be fine.”

David Bote, the Cubs and the case for slow development

David Bote, the Cubs and the case for slow development

The first time I was called up to the big leagues was in June of 1996. Of course a big part of the excitement was dreaming about the future. The dream was fueled by an imagination that had run wild since competitive Wiffle ball against my brother. Thoughts of fairways for infields, white pearly baseballs to hit for batting practice, digging into the batter’s box against pitchers that were statues in my mind: Fernando Valenzuela, Dwight Gooden, Orel Hershisher.

But in time you look backwards with a new appreciation for the time spent, the lessons learned, the hard knocks of minor league baseball. It is much easier to see those experiences with gratitude when a major league future becomes real.

David Bote knows these lessons well. Six years of minor league service to tap. Touching on every level at least once, but mostly more than once. He had years when he had the tough job of trying to explain how playing at every A-ball level in one year is playing for three different teams in three different cities. A-ball can be short-season A, low A, or high A (there is even a middle A, like the Midwest League.) He even had years when he was in Triple-A and A-ball in the same season.

Bote’s stats were solid, consistent, steady; adjectives that may cause evaluators to overlook you or ignore you completely, especially when a player does not have the high draft status to garner extra attention. Bote was a player that had quick bat speed and he finally came around at the right time for his opportunity.

Today, exit velocity makes him a beneficiary of a modern metric system that appreciates this skill because we can now quantify the potential offensive numbers he could put up with it. But since he was not really putting them up against minor league pitching, evaluators had to dig deeper. (.262 with .411 Slugging over 7 seasons.) They did not have to dig too deeply to know that he was trending upward. His best seasons were at the higher levels. (AKA “He put it all together”)

I played with dozens of minor league players over my career. The vast majority of which did something better than I could, even with my first rounder status. There were plenty with more power, a few with more speed or arm strength, professional baseball life makes you humble enough to realize that in every category there is superior talent. Ego check is daily. By the time I reached Triple-A, most of the players, both teammate and opponent, replaced having a singular stand-out ability with a balance of different skills. You had to know how to play the game by then if you were going to go any higher, unless of course you were anointed or just had undeniable ability and productivity.

In Triple-A Iowa, I played with players like Todd Haney (13 minor league seasons), Jeff Gardner (10 minor league seasons), and Mike Carter (10 minor league seasons). Haney and Gardner had some big league time when all was said and done, but they also had over 1,000 minor league hits. When Gardner got his 1,000th hit I was his teammate, I remember he said after I congratulated him: “Well think about what that actually means.”

He made it clear that 1,000 hits in the minor leagues was a dubious honor. Whenever we admired him too much he would drop this other line “You want to trade futures?” He knew time was working against him and his steadiness was most likely going to get minimized in the long run.

Mike Carter put up the numbers, too. He won the Triple-A batting title with balanced splits in nearly every aspect of offense. In his exit meeting with our manager, he said the manager told him “in every category you did well, your numbers were great across the board.” He never got called up.

What stood out about these players was polish. You knew it when you saw it.  It was a shiny maturity that comes with experience and allows players to truly know the game well. Ways that don’t make highlight reels or light up a scouts gun. They knew how to slide, they knew where to be on cutoffs and relay, they could bunt, they were an amazing double play combination, they understood how to cut down a slump, they gave advice that was helpful.

You come to understand that numbers do not stand alone, but they stand with time. The slow cooking of development that takes place in the minor leagues tells that story. Players that are productive, quick learners with talent (that may be under the radar) usually get better with time. This is not just better in the ways we count, but in qualitative ways, too. Bote is showing strong offensive capability, but it is the completeness that make us wonder how he was not in someone’s starting lineup sooner. He has been a fantastic defender, heads-up baserunner, and shown calm under pressure situations. He has clearly seen a thing or two.

When Kris Bryant was sent down after his monster spring in 2015, it caused outrage throughout baseball. It was understandable because of how dominant he was that spring. But he was also a top flight draft pick (1st round), a top prospect and in today’s game, when you have such pedigree and perform superbly even for a short period of time, you are supposed to advance. Teams invested a lot of money in you, you can extend your career the sooner you arrive and create a longer horizons for an organization to be relevant with other young, inexpensive players. So instead of dominating every level over time, you can dominate a situation, a month, a summer, and advance.

Yet even with a royal baseball line and a great work ethic, conversely, the “David Bote” big leaguer can have an advantage, the simple wisdom that comes with having to make constant adjustments at every level over a long full minor league seasons (and winter or fall ball.) There is no illusion as to what he must do to earn and sustain a shot, he has to stand out and produce to get an opportunity, every day and in every way. He has to be well-rounded, versatile, patient. He did not have the luxury of draft status or having a singular talent that stops a scout in his tracks.

A Kris Bryant is rare, even though there are a whole host of super talented and wise young players throughout MLB. Some have played a lot of baseball as our culture has adopted the year-round, travel squad environment of playing youth sports (or in their native countries) like they are producing mini-professionals. But you cannot replicate time or as Dusty Baker once yelled at us in 2003. “Some of you may be smarter than me, but none of you have been around as long as I have.” (My favorite Baker quote.)

David Bote has been around the block and back. On his journey, he hit every stop, and clearly learned at every corner. And we should never underestimate a player that has had the drive to endure the road to the big leagues one level, one year at a time. We may be waiting for him to come down to earth, but we should consider that part of his excellence is that he had to be rooted on earth from day one. For that, he knew this may be his one and only window.

And like any rabid underdog, you will have to close that window on his head if you ever dare try and close it. By then, he may already be on the other side.

As they work to get healthy, Cubs unsure if Drew Smyly will be an option down the stretch

As they work to get healthy, Cubs unsure if Drew Smyly will be an option down the stretch

While the focus surrounding the Cubs' disabled list has centered on the trio of stars (Kris Bryant, Yu Darvish, Brandon Morrow), Drew Smyly continues to fly in under the radar.

You can't blame Cubs fans for forgetting about him given he's never thrown a pitch for the team after signing a two-year, $10 million deal over the winter.

As Smyly continues to rehab from Tommy John surgery, his status for 2018 is becoming more and more of a question mark. What once appeared a strong possibility for a late-season return has now delved into one big #ShrugEmoji.

Last month, Smyly was throwing simulated games against Cubs hitters and hoped to go on a rehab assignment in the minor leagues by Aug. 1. It's now Aug. 16 and he has yet to begin that rehab stint.

Joe Maddon said Wednesday things are still status quo on the 29-year-old left-handed pitcher. The issue with Smyly isn't pain in that surgically-repaired elbow, he explained, but more on his body recovering at a slower rate than he would like.

"It's hard to put into words — I'm healthy, I'm throwing, it's just like the recovery standpoint, the bounce-back from the next day/the next couple days is not where I really want it to be," Smyly said. "So that's the hardest part — that's like the final hurdle. Just being able to pitch and then being like, 'OK, I'm good to pitch in a couple days as a reliever or five [days as a starter].' 

"It's just not really responding the way I want it to. It's completely normal. It's just part of the of the rehab process — shortening the window. When I'm on the mound and well-rested, I feel great and I walk off it excited where I'm at and ready for the next step. I kinda wake up the next day and the soreness just lingers."

Recovery from Tommy John is never linear; little things are different for each guy and each process.

That's why the Cubs backloaded Smyly's contract. They never went into 2018 planning on penciling him into the rotation or bullpen in September.

But up until a couple weeks ago, it looked very possible that Smyly could be a wild card for the Cubs pitching staff.

"I don't know if he's gonna be well enough to do that," Maddon said. "I know Drew really well and I know how good he is. It's enticing. You'd love to see it happen, but let's just get him well first."

Maddon managed Smyly with the Tampa Bay Rays in the second half of the 2014 and current Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey worked with the southpaw for the 2015-16 seasons, as well.

Smyly has extensive experience as both a reliever (71 appearances) and starter (85 starts) over his five-year MLB career. He boasts a 3.74 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 8.7 K/9, but hasn't thrown a pitch in a meaningful game since Sept. 26, 2016 (almost six weeks before the Cubs won the World Series).

"I'm so eager to get out there," Smyly said. "This is the hardest part for me, because you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. When I'm on the mound, I feel great and I'm healthy and it's an exciting feeling.

"And then you kinda wake up the next day and you're like, 'Um, I'm still sore from it.' And so it's just been maintaining that hope and still not rushing it and taking it slow. When I signed with the Cubs, the goal was always 2019, but obviously I want to play. They know I want to play, just trying to push through."

Smyly feels like he's close and has helped work through his frustrations by talking with fellow teammates and friends — like Darvish and Tyler Chatwood — who have gone through the Tommy John process.

Once his body starts responding and recovering the way he would like the final hurdle for Smyly would be to pitch with maximum effort in a game environment. Sim games and bullpens are great, but there's no way to actually simulate the adrenaline and speed of an actual game. For now, he's still working with the training staff in Chicago.

The postseason is still more than six weeks away and the Cubs have so many other questions to answer on their roster outside of Smyly. 

But for a team that could use some more quality left-handed depth in the bullpen, it's hard to look at Smyly inches away from a return and not wonder — "what if?"

"I'm just champing at the bit to get out there," he said. "But it's excitement, too, because we go out there and we expect to win every day and that's a fun feeling. In the dugout, the energy in the ballpark, the atmosphere here, the fans every day — I get goosebumps just sitting in the dugout watching the team play.

"I'm anxious for that feeling myself to be on the mound. It'll come in good time. I'm very hopeful that it'll be this year, still, but if it's not, then it'll be next year. ... Counting down the days until I'm out there, man."