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Kerry Wood, Sammy Sosa and the Hall of Fame guessing game

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Kerry Wood, Sammy Sosa and the Hall of Fame guessing game

The Hall of Fame shutout only reinforced the belief that everyone from Kerry Woods generation will be under suspicion. The Cubs icon heard it years ago after he reinvented himself as a reliever and transformed his body.

Im warming up in spring training: Yeah, look at him. Man, he must have done steroids. Look how skinny he is! Wood recalled. No, Im not a starter and Im not eating for four days in between starts anymore. Im actually pitching every day and in way better shape than I was as a starter and then you get accused.

But you play in that era and thats (how it goes). Were all going to deal with that. Everybody that played in that era is going to deal with people not knowing.

RELATED No-confidence vote for Sammy Sosa in Hall of Fame shutout

Now speaking from the perspective of a retired player, Wood told that story Thursday on Chicago Tribune Live. Wood said he was not surprised at all that the Baseball Writers Association of America didnt elect anyone from a Hall of Fame ballot that included Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa.

The day after those judgments on Cooperstown and The Steroid Era, Major League Baseball and its players union announced significant chances to its drug-testing program. It will now include unannounced, random blood testing for human growth hormone during the regular season.

The two sides also authorized the World Anti-Doping Agencys Montreal Laboratory to create a longitudinal profile program for each player to track testosterone levels and other data points and detect the use of prohibited substances.

I am proud that our system allows us to adapt to the many evolving issues associated with the science and technology of drug testing, Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. We will continue to do everything we can to maintain a leadership stature in anti-doping efforts in the years ahead.

If the entire industry was slow to react when Bonds, Clemens and Sosa rewrote the record books, it should also be noted that baseball is now trying to get ahead of the curve.

MORE Writers don't feel Sosa worthy of Hall

As part of the current labor deal, the Major League Baseball Players Association agreed to blood testing for HGH during last years spring training, the offseason and for reasonable cause. This takes it another step further.

The NFL hasnt tested players for HGH yet or settled on the proper procedures with its union even though that drug program became part of the framework for a collective bargaining agreement finalized in the summer of 2011.

Players want a program that is tough, scientifically accurate, backed by the latest proven scientific methods, and fair, MLBPA executive director Michael Weiner said in a statement. I believe these changes firmly support the players desires while protecting their legal rights.

This should shed more light on the game. No one knows how opinions might change or what new pieces of information could surface. Bonds, Clemens and Sosa could go another 14 rounds on the Hall of Fame ballot, every winter from here until 2027.

That means the museum in upstate New York is going to stay relevant, no matter who does or doesnt get elected, especially in a culture where everyones supposed to have a take, so many more media outlets need to fill space and were addicted to social media.

The New York Times left the front page to its sports section on Thursday almost completely blank, underneath the headline Welcome to Cooperstown. What would the NHL give to set the agenda and take over that kind of news hole?

Wood said he didnt even realize Sosa received only 12.5 percent of the vote he stopped scanning after looking at the first few players at the top of the BBWAA list.

Bonds went 7-for-21 with six walks against Wood, but didnt hit any of his 762 career home runs against Kid K. Because Wood grew up in Texas and had that blazing fastball, he would get the comparisons to Clemens, the seven-time Cy Young winner.

Wood doesnt expect known PED users to get into the Hall of Fame, reasoning that if Pete Rose can be barred because of a gambling scandal, then this will also be fair game.

The question must cross the mind of every voter: How do you know?

Wood burst onto the scene as the National Leagues Rookie of the Year in 1998, the same season Sosa put up 66 homers and 158 RBI and won the MVP award. Their careers didnt exactly follow the script you might have written back then. They werent said to be extremely close, but Wood had to give Sosa credit for this.

I want my teammates to be ready to play the game, Wood said. He was prepared to play every day and had good energy to play every day and he stepped up for us for a lot of years.

Its disappointing that were actually sitting here talking about guys with those types of numbers not being able to get into the Hall of Fame because of something they may have done or may not have done. Thats where you get into that slippery slope when you start trying to guess who did and who didnt.

Tougher drug tests may never completely silence the whispers, and cheaters will try to find ways around the system, but this at least should start to lift the cloud of suspicion.

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

How you evaluate Cole Hamels’ 2019 performance depends on which half of the season you look at.

Hamels was the Cubs’ most reliable starting pitcher through June, putting his name firmly in the conversation to make the All-Star Game. Through his first 17 starts, he held a 2.98 ERA, with 97 strikeouts and 35 walks in 99 2/3 innings.

That 17th start – June 28 against the Reds – represented a turning point for the left-hander, however. After throwing one warmup pitch ahead of the second inning, Hamels took a beeline for the Cubs’ dugout, exiting the game with a left oblique strain.

Hamels quickly detecting the strain was key, as he avoided a more significant injury and only missed one month as a result. However, he never got back to his pre-injury level after returning. In 10 starts, he posted a 5.79 ERA, walking 21 batters in 42 innings as opponents slashed .315/.397/.506 against him.

Which of the two pitchers does Hamels more closely resemble at this point? That’s what teams will have to evaluate this offseason, when the soon-to-be 36-year-old lefty hits free agency for the first time in his career.

On top of his oblique strain, Hamels also missed a start in September with left shoulder fatigue. By the time he returned, the Cubs were eliminated from postseason contention, but he wanted one last chance to show what he’s capable of before free agency.

“I don’t want to put that in the back of teams’ heads of how I finished,” Hamels said the day before his final start of the season. “I think I’m capable of what I was able to do in the first half - that’s who I am - and I can still get those good results for hopefully [the Cubs], if they consider that.

“But also, for other teams to know that I’m not the type of player that’s on the regression. This is what we’re gonna expect. It’s more so what I was able to do in the first half - the type of player that I am and the results that I can get out on the field.”

He certainly backed those words up, shutting down the Cardinals – who hadn’t clinched the NL Central yet – in the second-to-last game of the regular season. Hamels pitched four innings, allowing no runs on just two hits.

Hamels looked stellar in that game, but it doesn’t change the fact that returning from an extended injury absence isn’t easy on pitchers. They need time to regain command of their pitches, plus any amount of arm strength lost during their time on the shelf.

Hamels made two rehab starts at Triple-A before rejoining the Cubs on Aug. 3. He was determined not to return too quickly, as he did so with the Rangers in 2017 after straining his right oblique. That wound up negatively affecting him the rest of the season.

Still, maybe one or two more rehab starts this time around would’ve served him well, though he felt that he could compete at the majors without his best stuff. Plus, it’s not like he was guaranteed to find his groove again by pitching in more minor league games.

Results are all that matter in the big leagues, however, and they show that while the Cubs starting rotation was okay, it wasn’t the difference maker capable of leading the team to October, as anticipated. Cubs starters finished the season with a 4.18 ERA, 10th in MLB and sixth in the National League.

Hamels’ post-injury woes played into those numbers, and he’s determined to bounce back in 2020 to prove his second half performance was a fluke. His first half showed that he still can pitch at a high-level, but he may not be in the Cubs’ plans for next season, regardless.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said of the team’s rotation at his end-of-season press conference. “It’s an accomplished and experienced group, but with experience means that we could stand to add some younger talent, refresh the group as well.

“We certainly need to add depth and we need to add some youth and a little bit of a different look to the staff, as well, going forward.”

Those comments seem to indicate that Hamels won’t be back next season. The Cubs have Adbert Alzolay, Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills as internal rotation options for 2020 and could look outside the organization for more. Hamels also made $20 million in 2019, so freeing up his salary would help the Cubs address other roster needs.

The Cubs could do a lot worse than having a healthy Cole Hamels in their rotation, though. He’s enjoyed a resurgence since the Cubs acquired him and has had plenty of success against the NL Central and at Wrigley Field overall during his career:

vs. Brewers: 20 starts, 8-5, 3.53 ERA
vs. Cardinals: 17 starts, 5-6, 2.21 ERA
vs. Pirates: 13 starts, 5-4 record, 2.52 ERA
vs. Reds: 20 starts, 11-2 record. 2.30 ERA
at Wrigley Field: 25 starts, 7-4 record, 2.20 ERA

Granted, a large portion of those starts came earlier in his career. But with how competitive the NL Central was in 2019 and will be in 2020, the results can’t be ignored.

“Obviously I do very well at Wrigley, so I hope that’s a consideration - I love to be able to pitch there,” Hamels said about the Cubs possibly re-signing him. “For some reason, it’s just the energy and I’ve mentioned it before, it’s baseball to me. And that’s what I really feed off of and that’s hopefully what they think about.”

But if the Cubs decide to part ways with Hamels, he’ll have his fair share of suitors. The Brewers and Reds each could benefit from adding starting pitching this offseason, and Hamels would bring a ton of experience to two squads that will be competing for postseason spots in 2020.

“Otherwise, I know the other teams in the division are gonna think about it,” Hamels said with a laugh. “If you have to come to Wrigley three different times [as an opponent], I don’t pitch bad there.

“I just want to win. I think that’s it. When you get the taste of it early and then you don’t have it for a while, that’s what you’re striving for. To play this game and in front of sellouts and the energy and the expectation of winning, it’s why I enjoy the game.

“That’s what I want to be able to continue to do for the few years I have left.”

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Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is one step closer to becoming the unquestioned face of Major League Baseball.

For the next year, El Mago will be the cover boy for video-game-playing baseball fans, as Baez announced on his Twitter Monday morning he is gracing the cover of MLB The Show 2020:

On the eve of Game 1 of the World Series, Playstation released a video depicting why they chose Baez as the new face of the game:

Last year's cover featured Bryce Harper, announced before he even signed with the Phillies. 

Baez also joins the likes of Aaron Judge, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Barry Bonds and David Ortiz as cover athletes for the PS4 game.

The 26-year-old Baez has become one of the most recognizable figures in the game, playing with a flair and swag that includes mind-bending baserunning maneuvers and impossible defensive plays. 

Case in point:

Baez missed the final month of the 2019 season with a fractured thumb, but still put up 29 homers and 85 RBI while ranking second on the team in WAR. In 2018, he finished second in NL MVP voting while leading the league in RBI (111) and topping the Cubs in most offensive categories. 

Theo Epstein said he never deems any player as "untouchable," but Baez is about as close as it gets for this Cubs team right now. He made the switch to shortstop full time this year and wound up with elite defensive numbers to go along with his fearsome offense and an attitude and mindset the rest of the Cubs hope to emulate.

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