19 for '19: Can Jon Lester and Cole Hamels fight off Father Time for another year?

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19 for '19: Can Jon Lester and Cole Hamels fight off Father Time for another year?

Talking about aging athletes is an abnormal experience. 

For instance, both Jon Lester and Cole Hamels are 35. That is objectively -- in baseball terms -- old. Of course, 35 is not actually old, because as I approach 30 I'm realizing that it's the new 20 and that's what I'll say about that. 

This discussion, however, does take place within the realm of baseball terms. So for now, we'll say 35 is old. Sorry, Jon. Sorry, Cole. 

The saying goes that Father Time is undefeated, and unless you go to Germany for magic knee surgery or Massachusetts for weird Alex Guerrero massages, it's held pretty firm. Most of the Cubs' starting rotation has bigger immediate concerns (like Joey Votto or Paul Goldschmidt or Christian Yellich or Yasiel Puig), but they're also pitching against Father Time. If that sounds overly dramatic it's because hell yeah, baseball *is* overly dramatic. The Cubs need Lester and Hamels to be good this year - there's no path to an NL Central pennant without them. With each nearing the wrong side of 30, is there enough left in the tank? 


At this point in his career, Lester's value lies in his durability. He's pitched at least 180 innings in each of the last 11 seasons, while breaching 200 innings in eight of those. That's 2282.2 innings over the last decade +, and only five other qualified starters have logged more in that time. 

You don't need to look too hard to see Lester's decline. Since coming to Chicago, his K/9 has dropped almost two full batters while his BB/9 has risen proportionally. A 5-win player at the peak of his career, Lester's at best a 2-3 win player now. Homers are starting to be an issue, as 2 of the 4 seasons in which he's averaged more than one home run per nine innings have come in the last two years. The amount of hard contact he allows grows each season, though it should be noted that even Lester's "bad" contact numbers are still mostly better than league average; they're just trending in the wrong direction. 

Lester's decline is not news, nor should it be. Throwing a baseball over and over and over again is taxing, and Lester has done a whole lot of that over the last decade. The Cubs aren't paying Lester $22.5 million this year for the pitcher he was - they're paying him that because he has a 2.51 ERA in 154 playoff innings. He was masterful in the Cubs' season-ending loss vs. Colorado, striking out 9 over six innings of one-run ball. He's one of this generation's premier postseason pitchers, and that alone is worth twenty-two million dollars. He's earned his Opening Day start, and with the injury woes surrounding others within the Cubs' rotation, getting 6+ innings from Lester more often than not is infinitely valuable. 


So, turns out that Hamels and Lester have basically had the same career: 

Hamels (13 years): 2553 IPs, 3.40 ERA, 3.66 FIP, 23.0 K%, 6.8 BB%, 1.17 WHIP
Lester (13 years): 2366 IPs, 3.50 ERA, 3.61 FIP, 22.3 K%,  7.8 BB%, 1.25 WHIP

Hamels time in Texas was quite ugly, so it was a pleasant surprise to see him turn it around once he was traded to the Cubs. Some reasons for concern remain, though: he stranded runners on base at a clip (82%) that he hadn't since his time with the Phillies in 2014. That's likely to regress back closer towards his career norm, which sits at 76%. His Cubs' ERA was almost a full-run lower than his Cubs' FIP, another sign that he had a nice run of luck. At this stage in his career, he's most likely not a sub-3 ERA pitcher, like he was during his 76.1 Cubs innings last season. 

The optimist would point out that Hamels has talked at length about how a lingering oblique injury messed with his mechanics and left him searching for answers for the better part of two seasons. They'd say that getting out of Texas, where he was allowing almost 2 home runs per 9 innings, will do him wonders. They'd have a point; as he continues to distance himself from that disaster of a 2017 season, it's looking more and more like an aberration than a sign of things to come. His velocity was back up, and the renewed confidence in his four-seamer, along with a tinkered approach to right-handed hitters, did wonders. 

At this point in their window, the Cubs are relying more on veteran experience than they are raw talent - and that's fine. Not every team has the luxury of having four World Series titles between two starters. They may not be Cy Young candidates, but that's what Yu Darvish is for anyways! 

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Cubs release 30 minor leaguers, contribute to massive cuts across baseball

Cubs release 30 minor leaguers, contribute to massive cuts across baseball


The Cubs have released 30 minor league players, NBC Sport Chicago learned on Thursday, contributing to a massive wave of cuts across baseball.

According to a post on Brock Stewart’s verified Twitter account, the Illinois native was among those who the Cubs released  on Thursday. The 28-year-old right-handed pitcher was a non-roster invitee at Spring Training this year.

“Just got that call a little bit ago,” Stewart’s post read. “Very tough to hear and realize. I’m not done though. I’m ready to go. I’ll be ready whenever. I have worked hard and got better. This bulls**t will not get the best of me.”

Stewart quote-tweeted a report by ESPN’s Jeff Passan, which said across baseball, teams released “hundreds” of minor league players on Thursday. More cuts are expected, with the contraction of the minor leagues and the cancellation of the MiLB season likely on the horizon.

Many of the Cubs' cuts would have been part of the usual spring training process of finalizing the roster. But MLB shut down campus two weeks before scheduled season openers, due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Cubs' releases this week were in line with the majority of the industry, supporting Passan’s report that “upward of 1,000” players could be let go. 

NBC Sports Chicago confirmed that the Cubs have committed to paying weekly stipends to their minor leaguers though at least June, a month longer than required. That includes the players who were released Thursday. The Athletic was the first to report the continuation of Cubs farm system stipends.

In reponse to the coronavirus pandemic, all 30 MLB teams had agreed to pay minor leaguers $400 weekly stipends though May. While at least 10 teams, including the Cubs, are reportedly committed to extending pay through June at a minimum, the A’s notified their minor leaguers this week that their stipends would stop after May 31. It is unclear how many teams will continue to pay the players that they released. But according to a report by The Athletic, the White Sox will also provide the 25 minor leaguers that they have cut with stipends through at least June.

Gordon Wittenmyer contributed to the reporting of this story.

How the Cubs became unwilling symbols in union's fight against MLB owners

How the Cubs became unwilling symbols in union's fight against MLB owners

The Cubs found themselves Thursday at the center of rising tensions in the fight between owners and the players union over terms to play an abbreviated 2020 season during the coronavirus crisis — held up as a symbol of mistrust by the game’s most powerful agent.

In an email to clients obtained by the Associated Press, agent Scott Boras urges players to stand firm on the prorated-salary agreement with MLB struck in March and reminded them of record industry revenues and team valuations that were not reflected in salaries in recent years.

Boras used the heavily-leveraged Ricketts family purchase of the Cubs in 2009 and the family’s subsequent investment in Wrigley Field renovations that he also tied to debt financing in AP’s reporting of the email, which was confirmed by NBC Sports Chicago.

“Throughout this process, they will be able to claim that they never had any profits because those profits went to pay off their loans,” Boras wrote in the email. “However, the end result is that the Ricketts[es] will own improved assets that significantly increases the value of the Cubs — value that is not shared with the players.”

Recipients of the email were asked to “please share this concept with your teammates and fellow players when MLB request[s] further concessions or deferral of salaries.”

A Ricketts representative pushed back on Boras’ claim.

“The Ricketts family invested $750 million to save iconic Wrigley Field for fans today and for future generations. At every level they’ve built the best player facilities in the game,” Dennis Culloton said. “In 2019, the Cubs had one of the top baseball payrolls in the game. The fact of the matter is 70 percent of the team’s revenues which support the baseball operations come from having fans at the ballpark.

“Nevertheless, we thank Mr. Boras for weighing in.”

The Cubs were one of three teams to exceed MLB’s luxury tax threshold last year and carried a projected payroll into 2020 assured of exceeding it again, barring in-season trades of significant contract obligations.

Boras has talked publicly often in the past decade about the industry issues he raised in the email, including in relation to the Cubs.

It’s also not the first time the Cubs have been at the center of controversial issues during that time. Primarily as a response to new CBA restrictions on amateur signings and to the team’s heavy debt-management costs, the Cubs helped provide the modern-day tanking blueprint now widely in use — the first big-revenue team in the free agency era to use tanking to rebuild.

In this case, the Cubs example raised by Boras comes only two days after Tom Ricketts’ interview with CNBC in which the Cubs chairman suggests the club will make only 20 percent of normal revenue in a “best-case scenario” if an abbreviated season is played.

MORE: Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts: 'We’d definitely like to see baseball back'

Ricketts also estimated team losses include a 70-percent share of total revenues tied solely to stadium attendance.

Some have disputed his numbers — although few dispute the perfect-storm nature of this crisis as it relates to a big-market franchise that expected to start seeing a return on its sizable investment in a new TV network with a 2020 launch.

But owners, who have enjoyed a federal antitrust exemption for more than 100 years, never have opened their financial books to the union and as recently as 2016 and 2017 sold off its BAMTech streaming enterprise to Disney for more than $2 billion — resulting in $50 million payouts to each owner in 2017.

Counterintuitively, the next two free agent winters were the slowest since the collusion winters of the 1980s. And the average major-league salary dropped in consecutive seasons (2017-18) for the first time since the union began tracking salaries more than 50 years ago.

On Tuesday the owners proposed a sliding-scale formula for deeper salary cuts to play roughly half of a normal season — a proposal the union called “extremely disappointing.”

By Thursday the union still had not settled on what it might include in any potential counterproposal, much less when it might present one.

“Remember, games cannot be played without you,” Boras wrote in the email to clients. “Players should not agree to further pay cuts to bail out the owners. Let owners take some of their revenues and profits from the past several years and pay you the prorated salaries you agreed to accept or let them borrow against the asset values they created from the use of those profits players generated.”

On the issue of industry debt that could be impacting the kind of liquidity that might otherwise help owners withstand the crisis, Boras added:

“Make no mistake, owners have chosen to take on these loans because, in normal times, it is a smart financial decision. But these unnecessary choices have now put them in a challenging spot. Players should stand strong because players are not the ones who advised owners to borrow money to purchase their franchises, and players are not the ones who have benefitted from the recent record revenues and profits.”

One report Thursday suggested at least some owners would rather not play this season for fear of losing more money by playing an abbreviated season than not.

Ricketts does not appear to be in that group, saying during that CNBC interview the Cubs “definitely” want to get back on the field this year.

Part of the union’s position on sticking to the prorated-salary agreement from March involves owners’ continued unwillingness to provide enough financial documentation to support their claims of projected losses.

Said Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer, a member of the union’s executive board and a Boras client, in a tweet Wednesday night:

“After discussing the latest developments with the rest of the players there’s no reason to engage with MLB in any further compensation reductions. We have previously negotiated a pay cut in the version of prorated salaries, and there’s no justification to accept a second pay cut based upon the current information the union has received.

"I’m glad to hear other players voicing the same viewpoint and believe MLB’s economic strategy would completely change if all documentation were to become public information.”

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