Eddie Butler shows Cubs the future is now and shuts down Cardinals

Eddie Butler shows Cubs the future is now and shuts down Cardinals

ST. LOUIS – The Cubs methodically built their franchise around talented young hitters and targeted free agents who would bring attitude and experience to the clubhouse. But to become contenders and eventually World Series champions, the front office also needed to get creative with in-season moves and the farm system had to deliver jolts of energy.

Whether it was rebuilding the bullpen on the fly with scrap-heap relievers in 2015, or making the blockbuster Aroldis Chapman trade with the New York Yankees last summer, or promoting Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. and trusting those rookies in pennant races, the Cubs could feel the shots of adrenaline.

Maybe that’s what Eddie Butler will provide at a time when the defending champs haven’t been playing with the same precise execution and laser focus.

Butler gave the Cubs exactly what they needed on Friday night at Busch Stadium, throwing six scoreless innings during a 3-2 win over the St. Louis Cardinals and earning at least another turn in the rotation.

“Of course,” manager Joe Maddon said afterward.

“Sounds good to me,” Butler said with a smile. “I’m going to go out there and keep attacking.”

Called up from Triple-A Iowa to replace the injured/ineffective Brett Anderson, Butler allowed only two infield singles to Aledmys Diaz, showing why the Colorado Rockies once made him a first-round pick and Baseball America saw him as a top-25 prospect.  

“To be honest, I didn’t even know that he threw that hard,” Contreras said. “And then once I saw the scoreboard, 96, 95 (mph), OK, we’re going to use the fastball, because they looked kind of behind on it. He had a good idea (of what he wanted to do).”  

Performing in front of a sellout crowd – at 47,601 it would be recorded as the third-largest regular-season mark in Busch Stadium III history – Butler felt so amped up that he allowed back-to-back walks with two outs in the first inning. 

Pitching coach Chris Bosio visited the mound at that point, Butler got the groundball in his matchup against Yadier Molina and the Cubs settled in to watch only their 14th quality start through 35 games.

Between Butler’s raw talent, Bosio’s no-nonsense approach and a sophisticated game-planning system, the Cubs think they may have found an answer for their 2018 rotation, when Jake Arrieta and John Lackey might be gone. But an 18-17 team needs to see results from Butler now.

“He’s been doing that at Triple-A (1.17 ERA), so that’s the part that I like,” Maddon said. “It’s not like he was just throwing in a pedestrian manner down there and came up here and all of a sudden had a good night. 

“He’s very interesting with a very good arm.”

That doesn’t mean there won’t be growing pains, the way it’s been with Contreras, a revelation as a rookie catcher last season and a player constantly finding himself in big moments.

Contreras drove two Mike Leake pitches into the right- and center-field seats that traveled 809 feet combined, giving him his first career multi-homer game. Contreras picked off Dexter Fowler at first base with a throw from his left knee to end the seventh inning, screaming and pounding his chest as he walked off the field. A wild Contreras throw to Anthony Rizzo on what should have been the game-ending strike three allowed the Cardinals to score an unearned run and put Cubs fans on edge.  

Whether or not it’s now or never for Butler, it’s hard to picture a better spot to launch his career, even when the Cubs are hovering around .500. 

“I plan on holding the spot,” Butler said. “I’m going to keep doing what I’ve been doing, trying to get quality starts, give these guys a chance to win every day. They’re going to put up runs and they’re going to play some ball behind us.”

Why Cubs, rest of baseball sweat as MLB battles coronavirus testing issues

Why Cubs, rest of baseball sweat as MLB battles coronavirus testing issues

It was never going to be perfect.

But Major League Baseball’s coronavirus testing system needs to be good enough.

That may not seem like an especially high bar to set.

But so far it has been a difficult one for baseball to clear.

In fact, the latest example of baseball's biggest challenge in pulling off a 60-game season played out at Wrigley Field on Monday. That's when the team that by all indications has done the best job of establishing and following safe practices had its manager and five other “Tier 1” members of the organization sit out activities “out of an abundance of caution” because their latest COVID-19 tests, from Saturday, remained “pending.”

Tier 1, by the way, comprises the 80-something members of the organization with the highest access, including players and coaches.

The results had been analyzed. But as pitching coach Tommy Hottovy explained, they appeared to be in a batch of samples that included at least one positive test, the batch involving multiple teams. So they were retested. Five of those retested samples, including manager David Ross’, were negative, the team said late Monday, with the sixth considered “compromised” and another test done.

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The sixth did not belong to a player.

Give the Cubs another gold star for getting through yet another round of tests — and yet another glitch in that process — without having a player test positive.

But give MLB another kick in the ass. The testing issues don’t seem to be as bad as they were throughout the league that first holiday weekend of processing. But it hasn’t fixed this thing yet, either.

Whether it’s a lab-capacity issue, a quality issue or a shipping issue, it’s not even close to good enough.

Not for 30 teams barely a week from leaving their individual training-site bubbles to start playing each other for two months. Not when more than one-third of those teams play in locales considered hot spots for the pandemic. Not in the world’s most infected country.

“We do feel comfortable in this bubble that we’ve kind of created here,” said Hottovy, who was hit hard by the virus for a month before camp started. “When the season starts though and we start traveling and we start putting ourselves in some different circumstances, we just don’t know what to expect with that.

“We’re still taking this day-to-day for sure.”

Players across baseball, including Cubs star Kris Bryant, said they were upset and surprised at how unprepared MLB’s testing system appeared to be when camps opened. Two weeks of testing later, and just enough issues persist to make the league’s entire 2020 undertaking look more tenuous than ever.

The season starts July 23. That’s not much time to get it “good enough” — never mind to get it right. But, again, we're not asking for perfection.

The league protocols require testing thousands of players and other team personnel every other day through the end of the season.

Imagine sitting a manager and three or four players from a single team on a game day because of “pending” or “compromised” test results. Imagine that happening two or three times a week to various teams. Or worse — imagine a given team doesn’t exercise “an abundance of caution” and puts the players or staff in question on the field or in the dugout and clubhouse anyway.

“The only concern that I have right now is how long the test will take to get the results back,” Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said on Thursday. “Other than that, I don’t think I am at risk inside of the ballpark because the Cubs have been doing the best they can to keep us safe in here."

“I don’t have any concerns about my teammates, because I trust them. I know we all are doing our best to keep [each other] safe, and that way we can have a season this year.”

Contreras expressed tolerance with the system so far and was reluctant to point a finger at MLB or anyone else.

“But how can that get better?” he said. “I have no answer for that.”

It doesn’t matter whose fault it is as much as it matters that an answer is found quickly.

Players, staff and their families already have taken on the daily stress and anxiety of this health risk and the every-other-day process of holding your breath until the next result comes in.

“You get that test day coming up when you might get results, and it’s a little bit of that unknown, a little bit of anxiety of, ‘Have I done everything right?’ “ Ross said. “You start running back the day since you’ve been tested and what you’ve done, where you’ve gone, who you’ve been in contact with, just in case something bad may come back on your test. It’s real.”

Thirteen players, including Giants star Buster Posey, already have declined to play this season, all but one without a pre-existing condition that would qualify as “high risk” under the agreement between players and management.

Angels superstar Mike Trout heads a list of several more who have talked openly about opting out at some point, depending on how things look as we get closer to games.

That includes Cubs starter Yu Darvish, who said Sunday, “I still have concerns” and that he has not ruled out heading home if he doesn’t feel it’s safe anymore for him or his family to keep playing.

Maybe Trout, Darvish, Posey and the rest of those players have the right idea.

In fact, maybe we’d all be better off if baseball rededicated its testing capacity to a general public that suddenly is facing shortages again in a growing number of hot spots.

But if baseball is going to stick to its plan and try to pull off this season, then it needs to get this right. Right now.

Nobody’s expecting anything great at this point. Maybe not even especially good. But good enough? In the next week or so?

Would that be too much to ask?


How Cubs' Jon Lester just got 126 innings closer to returning to Chicago in 2021

How Cubs' Jon Lester just got 126 innings closer to returning to Chicago in 2021

One more year of Jon Lester?

A few months ago that looked uncertain at best — figuring to come down to a $25 million decision for the Cubs to mull at the end of this season (or a $15 million decision, given the $10 million buyout on the option clause).

But the vesting part of Lester’s hefty seventh-year option on his original six-year, $155 million contract suddenly looks tantalizingly within reach for the longtime ace.

Major League Baseball and the union have finalized an agreement on multiple details for calculating contracts in 2020, including vesting contract options, according to documents obtained by NBC Sports Chicago.

Performance thresholds for vesting options will be prorated for the 60-game season and rounded up to the next out. 

So that 200-inning threshold Lester needed to reach to assure the additional $25 million year — a threshold he hasn’t reached since 2016, when he was 32?

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In a season only 37.04 percent as long as normal, that means 74 1/3 innings earn the extra year.

It’s still roughly the same average of innings for 12 projected starts (6.17) this year as it would have been for 32 (6.25) in a full season.

But that’s a lot fewer potential aches, pains and injuries to navigate for two months compared to six months — and a stretch that doesn’t include the bone-chill cold of April and weather volatility of May.

Lester, who ranks eighth on the all-time list of postseason innings pitched, said when spring training opened in February he “obviously” wanted to finish his career as a Cub.

“Hopefully, I have a good year, and it’s null and void, and we don’t have to talk about it,” Lester said then of trying to vest the option.

“I signed here hoping that the option was kind of going to take care of itself and [I’d] finish out the seventh year. After that, I can’t predict tomorrow, let alone what’s going to happen two years down the road.”

Lester pitched in his first intrasquad game of the restarted training period on Sunday and looked strong enough to get sent out to face two more batters after finishing his scheduled two innings — retiring seven of nine, with one reaching on an error and another on a 15-foot tapper in front of the plate.

“He was commanding all of his pitches,” catcher Willson Contreras said. “From what I saw, he’s looking in good shape.”

Monday's agreement between MLB and the union also included details on calculating awards bonuses, roster bonuses and contract escalators. And unlike the normal injured list, players won't lose "active time" on the roster while on the COVID-19 IL.

The Athletic was first to report Monday's agreement.