Cubs

March Madness: Projecting Opening Day roster for Cubs

March Madness: Projecting Opening Day roster for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs have already decided who should face Dexter Fowler and the St. Louis Cardinals in front of a sellout crowd at Busch Stadium and a national audience on ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball."  
 
"Of course," manager Joe Maddon said Tuesday at the Sloan Park complex. "But I just got to talk to the people. And I just can't say it without talking to them first."
 
Jon Lester – who started Game 1 in all three playoff rounds last year – would be the obvious choice for the Opening Night assignment on April 2. But the Cubs also have a Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta), an ERA titleholder (Kyle Hendricks) and another three-time World Series champion (John Lackey) in their rotation. 
 
Recognizing the wear and tear from back-to-back playoff runs – and anticipating another stressful October – The Big Four is being held back until at least the second weekend of Cactus League play and slowly ramping up again. 
 
It's another sign March Madness isn't happening at a camp where maybe 23 or 24 spots on the 25-man roster had been secured before pitchers and catchers even reported to Arizona and the franchise no longer has to deal with the 1908 baggage. 
 
A look at where things now stand for the defending World Series champs, with injuries being the biggest X-factor between Mesa and St. Louis:  
 
• Whether or not Brett Anderson has the inside track to the fifth-starter job, it's still extremely difficult to see the Cubs stashing him in the bullpen, given his extensive medical file, inexperience as a reliever and Mike Montgomery's comfort level as a swingman.     
 
Why mess with Anderson's routine if he can click with pitching coach Chris Bosio and resemble the groundball pitcher who made 31 starts and put up a 3.69 ERA for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2015? 
 
"He's really baseball bright," Maddon said. "He knows what he's doing out there. I love his stuff. I know him and 'Boz' are working on different thoughts mechanically to help prevent injury. But I like it a lot – not a little bit. This guy is really good. The big thing is just health with him. You keep this fellow healthy – he can throw some significant numbers up there."
 
There's an element of luck involved – and some came into the organization with durability on their resumes – but the Cubs had five pitchers make at least 29 starts last season and hope that infrastructure will help Anderson.
 
"We've addressed it with him," Maddon said. "We've given him different thoughts. I'm sure every team that he's played with has had the same kind of thoughts. But maybe just the mechanical tweak, maybe a different method of work within a clubhouse, strength and conditioning, trainers, etc., maybe that'll help."

[RELATED: Brett Anderson’s main takeaway from Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio]
 
There are a lot of maybes with Anderson, a Tommy John survivor who underwent surgical procedures on his lower back in 2014 and 2016. But the Cubs also see a lot of upside and motivation in a lefty working on a one-year, $3.5 million incentive-laden deal.  
 
"I would be curious to see this guy with a full season of good health," Maddon said, "because it might even be better than a lot of teams' third and second starters. This guy is that good. With health, there's no telling.
     
"If we could get him out there for like 160-175 (innings), if he could do something like that, my God, it would be like outstanding."
 
• Working backwards from All-Star closer Wade Davis and Maddon's "hybrid moment" for Anderson or Montgomery, the Cubs appear to have six relievers for six slots on what figures to be a 13-man pitching staff: Koji Uehara; Pedro Strop; Hector Rondon; Carl Edwards Jr.; Justin Grimm; and lefty Brian Duensing. 
 
"The pitching's really gotten significantly better," Maddon said. "With good health, it's going to be very difficult (making those decisions). These guys have been impressive. I'm not all about the spring-training evaluation. Going off their track records and maybe projecting a little bit, we have a lot of interesting pitching candidates. It's gotten a lot thicker."
 
• One wild card is Rule 5 lefty Caleb Smith – who spent last season with the New York Yankees' Double-A affiliate – and how creative the Cubs get with the roster sleight of hand. (Remember how Major League Baseball took away a Cubs' pick in the 2013 Rule 5 draft and gave it to the Philadelphia Phillies to settle the Lendy Castillo grievance.)  
 
"We're going to be forced to try to look under the hood a little bit more," Maddon said. "If you're overwhelmed, then you're going to probably try to manipulate it to the point where you can keep a guy like that."
 
• The Cubs have 11 locks among the position players, a group of versatile defenders who give Maddon so much flexibility with lineup decisions and in-game moves: Willson Contreras; Miguel Montero; Anthony Rizzo; Ben Zobrist; Addison Russell; Kris Bryant; Javier Baez; Kyle Schwarber; Jason Heyward; Jon Jay; and Albert Almora Jr.     
 
That means the last bench spot could come down to outfielder Matt Szczur (no minor-league options left) or the whims of infielder Tommy La Stella (who initially refused to report to Triple-A Iowa last summer and talked about considering retirement).
 
"That's probably a fairer question on March 25," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "So many things can happen between now and then, as far as injuries and things like that. We're going to have some hard decisions at the end of camp. We have a lot of talent here. 
 
"People know what the bones of our team are, but we definitely have to make some tough decisions as far as the construction of the pitching staff and the bench."

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?

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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.

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