Cubs

Jon Lester and Jose Quintana give Cubs a one-two punch for this pennant race and beyond

Jon Lester and Jose Quintana give Cubs a one-two punch for this pennant race and beyond

BALTIMORE – A media scrum that began with Theo Epstein’s classic “Ask wetbutt” response to what the Cubs do next ended with the team president laughing as he concluded a long answer on the Jose Quintana/Jon Lester comparison: “I think Jose’s got him on throwing to first base.”

“And Jon’s got him on throwing the cutter, so I think they’re probably even,” Epstein said after literally knocking on the bench in the visiting dugout at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

A Cubs team that at times has seemed too quiet came out firing one-liners after the All-Star break, hitting bombs all over the stadium and onto Eutaw Street, sweeping the Orioles and feeling the bounce from that blockbuster trade with the White Sox.

For some of the same reasons that the Cubs invested $155 million in Lester, Epstein sacrificed top prospects Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease to get another All-Star lefty who can anchor the rotation through 2020.  

“There are some similarities in their delivery, their effort levels and how clean their arms work,” Epstein said. “And – knock on wood – how clean their injury histories have been, how consistent they’ve been.

“They manipulate the baseball a little bit differently. Jon obviously cuts the ball a lot more than Quintana does. But, yeah, they’re pretty good comps. They’re right next to each other on the most valuable pitchers (rankings) the last three, four years in baseball.

“Lefties with great deliveries – repeatable deliveries – excellent command, the ability to get soft contact and miss a bat now and then, and not beat themselves.”

The Cubs purposely gave Lester some extra rest coming out of the All-Star break and will start him against Julio Teheran and the Atlanta Braves on Monday night at the new SunTrust Park. The hope is that will help Lester recover from the worst outing of his career – giving up 10 runs and getting two outs in an ugly loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates that ended the first half – and a workload that includes nine playoff series across the last four years.  

Teheran actually tops the “Similarity Scores” on Quintana’s Baseball-Reference page, a top-10 list that also includes Dallas Keuchel, Chris Archer, Marco Estrada and Yu Darvish.

“We’re completely different pitchers,” Lester said. “I think people want to compare because we’re left-handed. I don’t like putting two people together. We’re all different. We all go about things a different way. I know he’s a very solid, good pitcher and has been doing it for a while.

“The thing I respect, obviously, is his ability to take the ball every five days. He pitches 200 innings and goes about his business the right way. As far as the other stuff on the field, I don’t like pigeonholing people.”

Lester is five years older than Quintana, who at 28 already has four consecutive seasons with 32 or 33 starts on his resume (while playing for White Sox teams that averaged almost 90 losses a year). Between 2013 and 2016, Lester (18.3) and Quintana (18.1) rank sixth and seventh in terms of pitcher WAR on the FanGraphs database, trailing only Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, David Price and Corey Kluber.

The history of nine-figure megadeals for pitchers shows Lester should crash at some point. But there are also reasons to believe that Quintana could rise while pitching in the National League with a Gold Glove-level defense behind him and Bryzzo Souvenir Co. generating more offense.

First impression: Quintana looked extremely comfortable in a pennant race, putting up seven scoreless innings, 12 strikeouts and zero walks in his Cubs debut. The Cubs believe they’ve found the one-two punch that can get them back to October, year after year. Left unsaid: Your move, Brewers.

“Well, Jon is the best left-hander in the league,” Quintana said, “and now he’s my teammate, so that’s an honor for me. I’m real excited. I can’t wait to work with him and learn with him and help this team (show) what we can do.”

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

The day after Kris Bryant suggested that first-time fatherhood and the dramatic reality of world events have changed how he looks at his future with the Cubs, general manager Jed Hoyer outlined why it might be all but moot.

Setting aside the fact that the Cubs aren’t focusing on contract extensions with anyone at this time of health and economic turmoil, the volatility and unpredictability of a raging COVID-19 pandemic in this country and its economic fallout have thrown even mid-range and long-term roster plans into chaos.

“This is without question the most difficult time we’ve ever had as far as projecting those things,” Hoyer said. “All season in projecting this year, you weren’t sure how many games we were going to get in. Projecting next season obviously has challenges, and who knows where the country’s going to be and the economy’s going to be.”

Bryant, a three-time All-Star and former MVP, is eligible for free agency after next season. He and the club have not engaged in extension talks for three years. And those gained little traction while it has looked increasingly likely since then that Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, would eventually take his star client to market — making Bryant a widely circulated name in trade talks all winter.

MORE: Scott Boras: Why Kris Bryant's free agency won't be impacted by economic crisis

The Cubs instead focused last winter on talks with All-Star shortstop Javy Báez, making “good” or little progress depending on which side you talked to on a given day — until the pandemic shut down everything in March.

Báez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber are both also eligible for free agency after next season, with All-Star catcher Willson Contreras right behind them a year later.

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None has a multiyear contract, and exactly what the Cubs are willing to do about that even if MLB pulls off its 60-game plan this year is hard for even the team’s front office executives to know without knowing how hard the pandemic will continue to hammer America’s health and financial well-being into the winter and next year.

Even with a vaccine and treatments by then, what will job markets look like? The economy at large? The economy of sports? Will anyone want to gather with 40,000 others in a stadium to watch a game anytime soon?

And even if anyone could answer all those questions, who can be sure how the domino effect will impact salary markets for athletes?

“There’s no doubt that forecasting going forward is now much more challenging from a financial standpoint,” Hoyer said. “But that’s league-wide. Anyone that says they have a feel for where the nation’s economy and where the pandemic is come next April is lying.”

The Cubs front office already was in a tenuous place financially, its payroll budget stretched past its limit and a threat to exceed MLB’s luxury tax threshold for a second consecutive season.

And after a quick playoff exit in 2018 followed by the disappointment of missing the playoffs in 2019, every player on the roster was in play for a possible trade over the winter — and even more so at this season’s trade deadline without a strong start to the season.

Now what?

For starters, forget about dumping short-term assets or big contracts for anything of value from somebody’s farm system. Even if baseball can get to this year’s Aug. 31 trade deadline with a league intact and playing, nobody is predicting more than small level trades at that point — certainly not anything close to a blockbuster.

After that, it may not get any clearer for the sport in general, much less the Cubs with their roster and contract dilemmas.

“We have a lot of conversations about it internally, both within the baseball side and then with the business side as well,” Hoyer said. “But it’s going to take a long time and probably some sort of macro things happening for us to really have a good feel for where we’re going to be in ’21 and beyond.”

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Cubs GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Cubs GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Veteran umpire Joe West made waves Tuesday downplaying the severity of COVID-19 in an interview with The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. 

“I don’t believe in my heart that all these deaths have been from the coronavirus," West said. "I believe it may have contributed to some of the deaths.”

As far as the Cubs are concerned, those comments don’t represent how to treat the virus. In fact, they’ve gone out of their way to ensure everyone treats it with equal severity.

“That’s one of the things we've really tried internally to instill in our players and our coaches,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Tuesday, “[that] everyone here has to take it equally [serious].”

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Hoyer noted like the world, MLB isn’t immune to people having different viewpoints on the virus — those who show concern and those who don’t. This echoes comments made by manager David Ross earlier on Tuesday, and Hoyer said those he’s talked to with the Cubs don’t feel the same way as West.

The Cubs had an up close and personal look at pitching coach Tommy Hottovy’s battle with COVID-19 during baseball’s shutdown. It took the 38-year-old former big leaguer 30 harrowing days to test negative, and in the past week many Cubs have said watching him go through that hit home. 

“When you get a 38-year-old guy in wonderful health and he talks about his challenges with it,” Hoyer said, “I think that it takes away some of those different viewpoints.”

To ensure everyone stays safe and puts the league in the best position to complete a season, MLB needs strict adherence to its protocols.

“I think that's one of our goals and one of the things that we feel is vital is that we have to make sure everyone views this the same way, because we can't have a subset of people within our group that don't view it with the same severity,” Hoyer said.

“That’s not gonna work. We're not gonna be successful."

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