Cubs

Lester thinks Cubs will give Cardinals a run for their money

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Lester thinks Cubs will give Cardinals a run for their money

ST. LOUIS – This is why the Cubs gave Jon Lester six years and $155 million guaranteed: To beat the best team in baseball – the franchise’s biggest rival – and transform this group into the kind of contender they watch here seemingly every October.

These are the benefits that come with having an ace: Boosting clubhouse confidence, giving a beat-up bullpen a break and stopping the four-game losing streak.

This definitely wasn’t one of Joe Maddon’s oil paintings, and the degree of difficulty became higher than it probably needed to be. But the Cubs still hung on for a 6-5 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday night at Busch Stadium.

Lester beat St. Louis twice during the 2013 World Series to win his second ring with the Boston Red Sox. So he’s not going to concede anything, even with the Cubs (14-12) in the middle of their youth movement and the Cardinals (20-7) jumping out to a 5.5-game lead in the National League Central.

“It’s May – we got a long ways to go,” said Lester, who went seven innings, giving up four runs (one earned). “They’re obviously a very, very good team, a team that’s built on a history of winning. They’ve got a certain way they go about things. We got to find our way. This team hasn’t done anything. We got a bunch of talent. But that doesn’t get you anywhere.

“We got to keep grinding it out and keep playing these guys tough. We’ve been in every game that we’ve played these guys. It’s not like we’re coming in here and getting our butts kicked.

“You play 162 for a reason. We’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing and see where we’re at – at the end.”

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Lester finished April at 0-2 with a 6.23 ERA but has notched two wins within the first week of May, chopping that ERA down to 4.04. If the All-Star lefty sharpens his cutter and really gets rolling, maybe this team will take off this summer.

“We can play with these guys,” Maddon said. “Head-to-head, I like it. Not a little bit. A lot. … I really believe that. We need more experience. We need a little bit more salt and pepper, a little oregano.

“We have to do a better job once you get on top of making pitches – and being more assertive – and the kind of things that take you to that level. But purely when it comes man-for-man, I’m good right now. I feel good about it.”

Lester walked up the dugout steps at 7:32 p.m. and jogged out to the mound with a 2-0 lead before he threw his first pitch. But the Cardinals are relentless, capitalizing on mistakes and creating their own sense of momentum. Lester couldn’t handle a throw from Anthony Rizzo while covering first base in the second inning, and that led to one unearned run.

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Cubs fans must have been feeling like here we go again: With two outs in the sixth inning, Jhonny Peralta hit a sinking line drive that went underneath Addison Russell’s glove and through his legs for an “E4” that led to two more unearned runs.

But Lester ended that second-and-third threat by striking out pinch-hitter Matt Adams swinging. And Lester pumped his fist after freezing Mark Reynolds with a 92 mph fastball to end the seventh inning, leaving the potential game-tying run stranded at second base.

The Cubs survived, with Pedro Strop needing a double-play ball to escape an eighth-inning jam with only one run scoring. And Hector Rondon putting runners on the corners in the ninth before getting his sixth save. But you definitely notice a team with a lot more nerve this season, and that should start with Lester.

“We haven’t been playing all that great,” Lester said. “We’ve had our chances and everybody knows that. But (it’s being) able to separate it and just go play a game. Yesterday was yesterday and we’re going to worry about today. For the most part, I feel like these guys have done a great job of that this year. You worry about the task at hand.”

In wake of Astros cheating scandal, Cubs proud they've won the right way

In wake of Astros cheating scandal, Cubs proud they've won the right way

The Cubs and Astros often are compared as franchises that rebuilt from the ground up before winning historic World Series titles. The Cubs snapped their 108-year championship drought in 2016, whereas the Astros won their first ever title a year later.

Both clubs reached baseball’s mountaintop behind young, talented position players — Kris Bryant, Javier Báez, Anthony Rizzo; George Springer, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa — and acquired an ace, veteran starting pitcher — Jon Lester; Justin Verlander — to help cook up the right recipe for winning.

Only now, Houston’s success has been tainted by their cheating scandal; the Astros used a camera located in center field at home games during the 2017 season to steal opposing teams’ signs. 

The scandal resulted in the Astros firing general manager Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch — who both received year-long suspensions from MLB beforehand. The Red Sox and manager Alex Cora — Houston’s bench coach in 2017 — have parted ways, as have the Mets and manager Carlos Beltran, who played for the Astros in 2017. 

While other clubs are in a whirlwind, the Cubs have made one thing 100 percent clear: they play the game the right way.

“We’re really clear about what the rules are. They’re posted for everybody. We talk every spring training about playing with integrity and expecting our players to play fair,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said Friday at Cubs Convention. “And they’ve done a great job of that. I was proud of Anthony Rizzo when he said yesterday that he can say with 100 percent certainty that we play within the rules. And I echo those thoughts, I know that.” 

New layers in the Astros scandal unearth seemingly by the day. Thursday, videos and images surfaced on Twitter possibly showing Houston players wearing wired buzzers under their jerseys. MLB said they found no such evidence in their investigation, however.

Sign-stealing in baseball is as old as the game itself but using technology to do so is problematic, as it goes from looking for a competitive advantage to downright cheating. Houston not only stole signs, but they did so in a way where their hitters knew the exact pitch coming their way.

“It’s unfortunate. It’s definitely surprising too,” Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber said Friday. “For me personally, this is the only organization I’ve been in and the way we go about our business is pretty straightforward, cut through. We go with the rules, we go out there and play baseball.

“To hear this is definitely upsetting. I can’t imagine how some of the teams feel that played them in that playoff series, knowing that this is a real thing and knowing that it was an advantage. For that to happen, it’s a shame.”

For the Cubs, their hubris is so strong they don’t feel the need to steal signs, according to right fielder Jason Heyward.

“Even when [former hitting coach] Chili Davis got to our team, he kind of mentioned to us about how teams in Boston,” Heyward said, “how they got together — and this is no pun intended on what just happened with the manager — but he would just say ‘Hey guys, just pay attention. If you’re on second base, look in and see if we can find a way to get a little bit of an edge late in the game.’

“We were all kind of like to ourselves ‘Well, we don’t really do that here. We never really needed it.’ That’s not being cocky or anything, but we never really needed it.”

“I got nothing against any team or any players, but I think we should play the game right and let your talent the competition decide who’s the best,” shortstop Javier Báez said. 

The Cubs maintain they’ve been playing the game the right way, and they’re extremely proud of that. This current era of Cubs baseball has netted four postseason appearances in five seasons, three trips to the NLCS and that one famous championship.

“Definitely feels good, the ways we did it, especially stepping on top in ’16,” Schwarber said. “I think it’s a better satisfying taste too, now that you can look back on it. I think it’s a little thing that you can say you’re proud of. 

“You hear people back in the steroid era say that they’re proud they didn’t take part in that. I think we can say the same thing too.”

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Forget winter of change, 'status quo' might be the new normal for Cubs

Forget winter of change, 'status quo' might be the new normal for Cubs

For the second straight offseason, Theo Epstein teased a winter of change after a disappointing end to the campaign.

And for the second straight offseason, the Cubs showed up for the annual fan convention without many significant changes to the roster. 

The fanbase has grown impatient and frustrated and itching for ways to improve upon a 2019 team that openly admits it did not perform up to its potential. 

"I understand the frustration," Epstein said Friday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. "There's a lot of days I'm frustrated, too, where you look out and there's a great fit on a player who you know you can recruit and sign a reasonable deal that he's worth and you can't get that player and that's frustrating.

"But that's the reality. Every club every winter has a certain landscape, certain paramaters they have to operate under. There are going to be times that we're gonna be really aggressive and have a ton of flexibility and every player is a possibility for us. We knew this was gonna be one of those offseasons where we were gonna be more active in trades than free agency and so there are days where we wake up frustrated or go home at the end of a long day frustrated. 

"So I certainly understand that from the fans, but then, I also look at the talent that we have on paper and I talk to our players and I get excited about how good of a team we can be."

The parameters the Cubs are working under includes a payroll that is already projected over the luxury tax for a second straight season, which the club wants to get back under and reset. That means the Cubs have yet to commit one single dollar in guaranteed big-league money this offseason, instead operating on the fringes of the roster to take fliers on pitchers (like Casey Sadler, acquired Friday) or position players (such as Hernan Perez on a minor-league deal) rather than re-signing Nicholas Castellanos or adding a bullpen piece with a long track record of success.

Epstein knows this isn't an ideal way to build a contender, but the Cubs aren't blowing it up, either. They're stuck in something of a baseball purgatory, trying to win in 2020 but also recognizing the need to improve the long-term health of the franchise. That means resetting the luxury tax, adding long-term pieces and potentially trading away short-term assets.

"We were an 84-win team last year, but underlying stats projected out, we were probably a 90-win team," Epstein said. "Not to say we didn't have issues — we did. Not to say we don't have holes now — we do. But there's significant upside with this group of players. We're not gonna whistle past a graveyard. We're gonna carry more risk into this year than we want to. More risk into this year than we traditionally have in the past and it's our job to operate our way around that.

"...We're gonna carry risk in the 'pen this year and we have to find a repeat where we find value in guys and guys improve and step up. We have risk with our rotation health. We don't have the type of depth and redundancy you'd like to have. And then at a couple positions, there's gonna be some risk with guys with real upside, but guys who if things don't break our way, we could have holes out there. And so that's on us and something we have to continue to plan for every single day. But we have real upside at every position, too."

Fans can laugh and scoff as Epstein and David Ross and the players talk about the potential for the 2020 Cubs to win the World Series or exclaim they're hopeful for the season ahead. But what else do you expect them to say? It'd be silly for the president or a manager or the star of a team to say "No, we don't expect to win this year." Especially when a team has as much talent on the roster as the Cubs have...even if there are holes and risks and not an ideal amount of depth.

Epstein is right — the 2019 Cubs *should have* finished with a 90-72 record instead of an 84-78 record. That's projected based off the Cubs' +97 run differential. The 89-73 Brewers, meanwhile, were projected for only an 81-win season based on their +3 run differential. 

However, those numbers are ultimately meaningless. The reality is the Brewers were in the playoffs (even if only for one game) and the Cubs spent the entire last week of the regular season knowing they weren't going to be partaking in any October action.

After another disappointing finish, Epstein and the Cubs brass wanted change. In a perfect world, they'd already have it — a reshaping of the roster to shake things up and get a different mix than the team that has fallen short of expectations the last two seasons.

But this isn't a perfect world and the Cubs front office isn't going to force things. They won't make a change just for change's sake.

"We're not in a position where we have to do anything," Epstein said. "I think you want to always avoid being put in a corner where you have to make a deal and your back's against the wall and you're gonna take any deal that's out there. We're not at all in that position, but looking at the horizon of the next two years, I think you would be wise at some point to do something that looks out a little bit more for the long term and a little bit less for the short term. But that doesn't have to happen now. We're not in a position where we have to move anybody.

"...What's most likely is status quo — it's hard to get long-term extensions done, it's hard to get trades done. We have what we feel is a pretty good club. We're trying to compete this year and we're not in a position where we have to do anything."

That's certainly a change from the tone set forth by Epstein in his end-of-season presser on the final day of September. But while the roster is essentially intact, the Cubs gave the rest of the organization a major face-lift, from the coaching staff to the scouting department to the strength and conditioning staff. 

Status quo is a good thing for those Cubs fans hoping Epstein's front office doesn't trade away their favorite player.

Kris Bryant is in attendance at Cubs Convention this weekend, but he's also dealing with a bout of the flu, so he did not speak to the media and had to pass on his now-annual segment on the Ryan Dempster show (which was anything but..."boring").

Epstein joked they might be doing a Muhammed Ali rope-a-dope where the Cubs lull everybody into the idea that nothing will happen this winter only for some major news to come down in the three weeks between the Convention and spring training. 

Things can change in a hurry when it comes to trade talks, but it's becoming more and more likely the Cubs will report to their complex in Mesa, Ariz., on Feb. 11 with a "status quo" roster.