Relocated bullpens create different atmosphere for Jon Lester, Cubs

Relocated bullpens create different atmosphere for Jon Lester, Cubs

Monday marked the Cubs' first game without bullpens in the field of play at Wrigley Field, which created a different warm-up environment for starter Jon Lester. 

A near two-hour rain delay and temperatures plummeting into the 30s didn't take away from the energy at Wrigley Field before the Cubs' 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers. The pregame player introductions, the banner-raising ceremony and the team strutting the World Series trophy in from right field produced waves of roaring cheers from the standing-room-only crowd of 41,166.

But Lester was largely separated from the party, taking his pregame warmups into the surprisingly quiet confines of the relocated Cubs bullpen under the left field bleachers. 

"When the doors are closed, it feels like you're in a offseason training facility throwing a bullpen with ESPN on the TV," Lester said. 

So Lester had bullpen coach Lester Strode open the green plexiglass doors separating the bullpen from the left field warning track during his pregame routine Monday to get more of the music and crowd noise. 

"It'll take a little bit of time," Lester said. "We're used to the other way. It'll take a bit of time and it really did help once they opened the doors. You still had the vibe from outside and you could feel that. It's nice warming up in a warmer environment than what it was outside. It'll take a little bit of time, it will. Any time you have change it's going to take a little bit to get used to it." 

Consider it a stark contrast to the last game played here on Clark and Addison before Monday night, when Lester fired six tense innings in a win-or-go-home World Series Game 5 against the Cleveland Indians. Lester threw his warm-up pitches that October night down the left field line, only feet away from an anxiously-energized crowd hoping to see the Cubs send the World Series back to Cleveland. 

The benefit, though, for starting pitchers of having the bullpens removed from the field is lessening whatever distractions may arise while preparing for a game. Monday was a prime example of that. 

"For a night like tonight, it was good," Lester said. "It was good. You had the separation and definitely distanced yourself from the crowd and what was going on. But leading up to that point, it was nice to be on the field and see everything and the team being introduced and all the applause and all that stuff, so it was good. But it was definitely easy to separate yourself when you got into the bullpen and got ready for the game." 

After emerging from under the bleachers, Lester fired six solid innings, allowing one run on four hits with one walk and seven strikeouts. While he didn't get much of an opportunity to take in the pageantry of Monday's banner-raising ceremony, he'll get the full experience of Wednesday's ring ceremony. 

"It was a special night," Lester said. "Definitely something that'll go down in my book as something that I'll remember for a long, long time. Now, I look forward to Wednesday and getting the fun stuff, getting the rings." 

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.”


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."