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NL Central report card: Grading the offseason

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NL Central report card: Grading the offseason

Monday, Feb. 7, 2011
4:48 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

While digging your car out of the snow, your mind drifts to Arizona sunshine. The end of the Super Bowl signals the beginning of baseball. Within days, pitchers and catchers will report to spring training.

There was yellow police tape around the sidewalk at Clark and Addison after the storm ripped off a Wrigley Field panel. By Sunday night, the graffiti had been removed from the side of the Harry Caray statue at Sheffield and Waveland.

Jim Hendry had a tight budget while remodeling the 2011 Cubs, but pulled off several accounting tricks to add a power-hitting, Gold Glove first baseman (Carlos Pena), a bullpen game-changer (Kerry Wood) and a front-line starter (Matt Garza).

There is a certain segment of the fan base that will never trust what the Cubs general manager does. But those moves addressed the three biggest needs identified at the organizational meetings.

If you asked us back then in October (and) we knew (we) only had room for three big pieces, Hendry said, if wed have taken those three names around Halloween, wed have jumped up and down.

The Cubs also retained Mike Quade, a manager comfortable in the job and popular within the clubhouse. Overall this grades out as a B and should be enough to hang around in the National League Central, which hasnt won a playoff series since 2006. Heres a look at how the rest of the division rebuilt this winter.
Brewers: A-

This is a small-market team trying to win now. Milwaukee decided to keep Prince Fielder for his walk year and unloaded its farm system for two accomplished starters who wont be free agents until after the 2012 season.

The Brewers hope Zack Greinke will again pitch like a Cy Young Award winner, re-energized after moving out of Kansas City. Shaun Marcums numbers, like Garzas, should improve outside the brutal American League East. With Yovani Gallardo, already an All-Star at 24, this rotation could work into October.

A lineup anchored by Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart and Casey McGehee shouldnt have any trouble scoring runs. It will be up to a first-year manager Ron Roenicke, the former Angels bench coach to make it work. No pressure.

Reds: B

With a surplus of young pitchers and a good core of position players, the Reds should be a factor for years to come. The pieces are already in place. Cincinnati reached extensions with manager Dusty Baker, NL MVP Joey Votto, pitcher Bronson Arroyo and outfielder Jay Bruce. World Series MVP Edgar Renteria was added to the bench.

The defending division champion gets the benefit of the doubt.

Im an old-school guy that says Cincinnati is the favorite because they won it (last year), Quade said. Theyre young, theyre talented and theyve won it before. Dusty does such a good job why not? But Im also an underdog player, so well see how that all shakes out.

Astros: C-

Their identity began to change last July, when the Astros traded Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, two faces of the franchise. Those deals eventually produced players the Astros are trying to build around, like first baseman Brett Wallace and pitcher J.A. Happ. Houston remade its middle infield with Bill Hall and Clint Barmes, but didnt create much buzz.

The Astros, who havent made the playoffs since their run to the 2005 World Series, need a new direction. Their most crucial decisions will be made off the field in 2011, as chairman Drayton McLane has put the team up for sale.

Pirates: D

Credibility is a major issue when you lose 105 games and havent enjoyed a winning season since 1992. Pittsburgh wont be a destination for free agents, so its front office will be judged on what it does in the draft, international market and player development.

The Pirates made a good hire in Clint Hurdle, an experienced manager who once took the Rockies to the World Series. They did modest deals with first baseman Lyle Overbay and pitchers Kevin Correia and Scott Olsen. It wont be enough to finish above .500.

The Pirates have a beautiful downtown ballpark, in a great sports city with teams that win Super Bowls and Stanley Cups. Those fans deserve better.

Cardinals: Incomplete

The Cubs rolled their eyes at Ryan Theriots comments, and from the right side of the rivalry the shortstop will get a chance to show that hes more than a one-dimensional singles hitter.

The Cardinals are also overlooking defense with Berkman, hoping that at the age of 35 he can play the outfield again. Yet in bringing Jake Westbrook back to a rotation that includes Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia, they should have the pitching depth to stay relevant into September.

All that ignores the Albert Pujols question that hangs over the franchise. This will be pass-fail: Either sign him to an extension before he reports to Jupiter, Fla., or he walks into free agency as the 300 million man everyones talking about next offseason.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

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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