Theo delivers again as Cubs get huge boost in shocking Jose Quintana trade with White Sox

Theo delivers again as Cubs get huge boost in shocking Jose Quintana trade with White Sox

Cubs president Theo Epstein didn't hide his frustrations with an underachieving team hovering around .500, subtly calling out manager Joe Maddon in on-the-record group interviews, saying how the clubhouse didn't play with enough edge and the answers would realistically have to come from the 25 guys already in the room.

But "The World's Greatest Leader" — Fortune magazine's call — doesn't view things in absolutes. Epstein is always thinking three-dimensionally, analyzing the situation from 30,000 feet and never ruling anything out. Even when it looked like the organization-wide Cubbie envy would stop the White Sox from dealing one of their success stories to the North Side.

In a season where Epstein had already tried so many different forms of shock therapy with the defending World Series champs, the Cubs acquired Jose Quintana in Thursday's stunning crosstown trade with the White Sox, trying to jumpstart a 43-45 team out of the All-Star break while still building their rotation for the future.

This is the price for a frontline starter, even one with a career losing record (50-54) and a 4.49 ERA this season: stud outfielder Eloy Jimenez; 100-mph right-hander Dylan Cease; plus Class-A infielders Matt Rose and Bryant Flete.

But all those prospects are years away from Wrigley Field, if they ever make it at all. Even Jimenez, a blue-chip talent with the size, approach and right-handed swing that reminded the Cubs of a young Kris Bryant, hadn't made it to the Double-A level yet.

Quintana alone won't fix the Cubs. It's not like he will help them hit with runners in scoring position or tighten up the defense or heal all the nagging injuries that have contributed to the win-one, lose-one inconsistencies.

This does jolt the clubhouse, change the vibe around the team and give the 2017 Cubs an All-Star level pitcher for 14-ish starts.

[MORE: Why the Quintana trade makes perfect sense for everybody involved]

This is also insurance against Jake Arrieta and John Lackey leaving after this season. The Cubs dreaded the idea of having to replace at least 40 percent of their rotation this winter, knowing agents and other teams would sense the desperation.

As an added bonus, the Cubs will keep Quintana away from the Milwaukee Brewers, the first-place team they trail by 5.5 games in a National League Central race that just got a lot more interesting.

Ultimately, this is still a play for the future, with Quintana under club control through 2020 and the Cubs betting on his medical outlook and sturdy, reliable performance (at least 32 starts and 200 innings in each of the last four seasons).

Jimenez and Cease might become stars on the South Side as the White Sox methodically undergo a full-scale rebuild. But the Cubs are dealing from a surplus of position players and operating under the belief that young pitching goes poof.

The Cubs used money saved from Kyle Schwarber's below-slot deal in the 2014 draft to give Cease a seven-figure bonus and supervise his recovery from Tommy John surgery, hoping the volume/risk-management approach would yield some trade chips and/or the homegrown starting pitcher that has eluded the Epstein administration.

It's the same playbook the Cubs used in last summer's blockbuster "If not now, when?" trade with the New York Yankees for Aroldis Chapman. And the winter-meetings deal with the Kansas City Royals for All-Star closer Wade Davis. Except Quintana is viewed as a long-term building block for the next great team in Wrigleyville, not a mercenary or a one-year guarantee.

The rush of adrenaline will eventually wear off after Quintana's arrival, and the Cubs will find out if those answers really will come from within and when this World Series hangover will finally end.

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?


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.