What to make of Jeimer Candelario, the breakout star of Cubs camp so far

What to make of Jeimer Candelario, the breakout star of Cubs camp so far

MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs have won the World Series. 

They have an everyday lineup packed with young position players that aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

Sprinkle in a few veterans and the Cubs' big-league roster is already overflowing with talent, to the point where everybody's favorite barroom game right now is trying to figure out how everybody plays.

So why don't we throw another name in there? 

Jeimer Candelario is enjoying a breakout spring for the Cubs, leading the team in hits, (8), runs (5), games played (9) and at-bats (24) through the first week-and-a-half of game action.

The 23-year-old infielder has five hits in six at-bats in the Cubs' last two games before leaving Sunday's game after getting hit on the ankle with a pitch against the Texas Rangers. He was a homer shy of the cycle on Saturday against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"He's just different this year," Joe Maddon said. "He's more comfortable. ... He watches, he listens, he's quiet, but he's engaged. He's engaged really well. He's gonna be a nice player."

This is actually Candelario's second big-league camp with the Cubs and he made his major-league debut — and appeared in five games — as an injury call-up during the first week of July last year.

Maddon sees a guy that's more comfortable in his "major-league skin," an assessment Candelario agreed with. He said he feels more comfortable in the clubhouse, surrounded by players and coaches he already knows in a situation he's already been through.

"The way they take care of you — the teammates, how they treat you, how they respect you and how they go about your business," Candelario said, "it really gives you confidence and good rhythm here in big-league camp.

"When you don't know everybody well, you are kinda quiet and in your own spot. But right now, I know everybody here and I feel confidence and I feel blessed to be here with these great teammates and great people and great talent."

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Candelario exploded in spring training last year, too, hitting .350 with a 1.056 OPS and seven extra-base hits (four doubles, three homers).

But then he was sent back down to the minors — Double-A Tennessee, to be exact — where he struggled to the tune of a .219 average and .690 OPS in 56 games. He finished the year on a tear after being called up to Triple-A Iowa in June, hitting .333 with a .959 OPS in 76 games.

"Love the guy," Maddon said. "He showed it to us last spring. I think he went out at the beginning of last season and might've applied a little bit too much pressure to himself. Finally, the numbers righted themselves by the end of the year.

"... I think part of it was, he did so well here and then goes back. These are kids. The expectations they fill themselves with, sometimes, are unrealistic, like 'Oh, I did well in spring training, it should be easy.' Then all of a sudden, it's not and then you start to panic.

"I have a lot of faith in this kid. ... For me, the maturation for him is he feels good in his own skin. When that happens, heads up. It's like finding your voice; he's not quite there yet, but he's approaching that Stage 3: I belong here, I can do this.

"He's getting real close to that, from what I can gather. And once he really arrives there, heads up, 'cause he's got some big-boy tools."

Candelario's Triple-A explosion last season netted him spots on Baseball America's Top 10 Cubs prospects (7th) and Baseball Prospectus (5th). He did not appear on BP's 2016 list and came in at 10th on BA's rankings.

Candelario has been almost exclusively a third baseman as he climbed the ranks in the Cubs system, but he played 12 games at first base last year and started there in the place of Anthony Rizzo (tight back) Saturday and Sunday in Cactus League play.

Which brings us to where he fits in the big picture with the Cubs.

When you start rattling off the names of guys who can play third base (Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Tommy La Stella, even Ben Zobrist and Munenori Kawasaki), it seems like a really tough spot for Candelario to crack, even if Maddon loves his defense at the hot corner.

But if Rizzo went down for an extended period of time, Candelario figures to be toward the top of the list as a first base replacement if the Cubs deem his bat ready.

Maddon already confirmed Bryant and Baez are the backup first basemen at the big-league level right now, but if Candelario keeps hitting the way he has, he may force his way into the lineup if a need arises.

Even in the outfield, though he's never played there in the six seasons he's been in the Cubs system.

"He's the kinda guy you could put in the outfield if you wanted to, but he's so good on the dirt, you'd probably like to leave him there," Maddon said. "However, if the bat comes and these spots are taken, then you do something else."

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.