Why Jose Quintana’s thumb injury is a gut punch to Cubs’ bullpen

Why Jose Quintana’s thumb injury is a gut punch to Cubs’ bullpen

When Cubs manager David Ross met via Zoom earlier this week in his first chat with beat writers since March, he raved about how ready his five-man starting rotation appeared to be and — more important, he said — how much he liked sixth man Alec Mills as a swingman who could provide important length in the bullpen.

All of a sudden, with the news of starter Jose Quintana’s thumb injury to his pitching hand, Mills is the presumptive fill-in for the rotation. And just like that, a bullpen full of new faces and uncertainty is a man down before summer training camp even starts.

“This injury certainly challenges our depth in an area where we had some concerns already about our depth,” team president Theo Epstein said of a rotation that drops off quickly after Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester.

The Cubs don’t even have all their COVID-19 intake test results back, and an old-fashioned, off-field, dish-washing injury is the first threat to the sweet part of what looked like potentially a short but sweet 2020 season.

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Fifth-starter Tyler Chatwood, who was demoted to the bullpen midway through the first season of a three-year contract in 2018, already was back in the rotation because of some of those depth issues.

RELATED: Strange Cubs injuries of recent memory

With Quintana out until at least mid-to-late-August in a best-case scenario, Chatwood takes on even more significance, with right-handers Colin Rea and Adbert Alzolay moving into the sixth-man/swingman mix behind Mills.

With only 60 games on the schedule, bullpens around baseball already figured to be disproportionate difference makers for success in a season too short to take the traditional month to figure out roles or to reconfigure through trades and other acquisitions.

It looked like an especially big challenge to a first-year manager such as Ross.

“Look, given the situation we’re all in as an industry starting this season with so much uncertainty surrounding us, I think it would be foolish for us to expect everything to go smoothly and to have all our players available to us at all times,” Epstein said.

“We didn’t necessarily see this circumstance coming with Q. It’s obviously something you can’t anticipate. But we know there are going to be absences that we have to fill, and there’s going to be adversity that we have to overcome.

“And there’ll be impacts to the rotation and the bullpen, and we’ll have to find a way to respond."

Alzolay, who originally was assigned to the depth pool of players to train in South Bend, is under consideration to be moved to Wrigley to join the big-league camp. Rea already was on the big-league camp roster.

RELATED: Cubs announce initial 50-man pool of eligible players for 2020 season

The Cubs may stay in-house to replace Quintana at least until better determining the timeline for his injury. General manager Jed Hoyer said two days after Quintana’s injury that the club was “not down the road” on talks for any possible additions to the roster and expected to open camp with those on the roster submitted Sunday.

With veteran relievers Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop and Brandon Kintzler departing as free agents since last year, the Cubs already were relying on a new and uncertain mix that included veteran closer Craig Kimbrel (who struggled after joining the team at midseason), less experienced holdovers Kyle Ryan and Rowan Wick and a handful of additions including Jeremy Jeffress, Casey Sadler, Ryan Tepera and Dan Winkler.

“No one’s going to feel sorry for us,” Epstein said. “This this is a bump in the road that we just  have to overcome.”

Quintana, who required five stitches to close a cut suffered while washing dishes Saturday at home in Miami, underwent “microscopic surgery” on the left hand Monday to further determine the extent of the injury, at which point a cut to a “digital sensory nerve” was discovered and repaired.

The Cubs said the plan is for him to remain shut down for two weeks before resuming any throwing and then be re-evaluated. That likely pushes his debut in a best-case scenario into at least mid-August. 

But the uncertainty at the outset and the sensitive nature of the area of injury suggests his already short season could be in jeopardy with any setback or adjustment to the timeline.

“There’s a best-case scenario in which it heals quickly and his thumb feels good and he can resume a pretty rapid ramp-up from that point,” Epstein said. “He’s been built up. He’s pretty far along.

“But there’s certainly another scenario in which the nerve takes longer to heal and he’s going to be significantly delayed.”

The Cubs open training camp Friday at Wrigley Field with the season scheduled to start July 23 or 24.


Cubs' Tommy Hottovy: 'Scary part' of COVID-19 is how fast deadly virus spreads

Cubs' Tommy Hottovy: 'Scary part' of COVID-19 is how fast deadly virus spreads

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy is home in Kansas City for a couple rare days during the baseball season. His mom wants to meet him for lunch, and his sister, a grade-school teacher in town, just had a baby that he hasn’t had a chance to see yet.

“How much would I love to go get to see her and my new nephew?” Hottovy said. “Can’t do it. Just can’t.”

Not this time. Not with what’s at stake. Not when possible threats to health and professional purpose lurk in every unfamiliar hallway, byway and unmasked face while the Cubs navigate their first multi-city road trip of the season.

Don’t believe the risk of spread and large-scale COVID-19 team outbreaks are that sensitive, extreme and potentially swift? Just ask the Marlins and Cardinals, whose outbreaks in the first week of play put their seasons on hold and threatened the status of the league’s season.

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“I’m not leaving the hotel. I told my family and friends and everybody [in Kansas City],” Hottovy said. “We all signed up for this, to make sure that for this to work we all have to make those kinds of sacrifices. I love my family to death and would love to get to see them, but right now this is our home.”

The Cubs second trip, which started with a 6-1 victory Wednesday in Kansas City and continues to St. Louis before finishing in Cleveland next week, coincides with stepped-up COVID-19 protocols from Major League Baseball following the Marlins and Cardinals outbreaks.

The Cubs already had protocols in place that exceeded MLB’s original mandates and that are in compliance with the new mandates. And a month into the league’s restart they remained the only team without a player having tested positive for the virus.

RELATED: Cubs better prepared than MLB to finish COVID-19 season — which is the problem

In fact, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant decided on his own to start wearing a protective mask on the bases when the Cubs played last week in Cincinnati, where three Reds players were sidelined either by positive tests or self-reported symptoms as that series opened. And first baseman Anthony Rizzo told ESPN 1000 on Tuesday that he plans to keep a mask in his pocket while in the field in St. Louis and will consider wearing it when somebody reaches base.

“No matter what measures you put in place, when you’re trying to pull off a season that requires travel in the middle of a global pandemic, it ultimately does come down to personal responsibility,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “And everyone is at the mercy of the least responsible person because of the nature of the spread of this disease.”

Nobody knows that more than Hottovy and many of the Cubs who watched their pitching coach deteriorate in real time during daily Zoom sessions in May and June until the worst symptoms of his frightening monthlong bout with the virus forced him to hand off his job duties.

Whether Hottovy’s experience led directly to the Cubs’ more extreme safety policies or the individual players’ apparent hyper diligence, MLB’s recent coronavirus outbreaks and other cases at least raise questions about whether some teams and players — or even the league — respect the potential severity of a virus that has killed more than 158,000 Americans in five months.

“I don’t think people underestimate that aspect of it; I think they underestimated how easy it was to spread,” Hottovy said of the outbreaks — including a Cardinals outbreak that reportedly was traced to one asymptomatic, outside individual familiar with the team.

Hottovy called the highly contagious nature of the virus “the scary part of this,” both in terms of the potential to quickly render an organization unable to field a team as well as the subsequent, inherent risk that poses to family members and others who might, in turn, be among those who then become severely impacted by the virus.

And the hardest part, he said, is not letting down your guard within the team bubble when it’s easy to trust that when it’s only teammates in the room that it’s OK to disregard masks, distancing and other safety measures.

“That’s when it gets dangerous,” said Hottovy, whose team talks often about assuming everyone — including each other — has the virus.

So just like in Cincinnati, neither he nor anyone else in the Cubs’ traveling party plans to go anywhere but to and from hotels and ballparks during their trip.

“Listen, you don’t have to search too far for a reason to take it serious,” Cubs second baseman Jason Kipnis said.

“I have three of my close friends who got it, that are over it. But the symptoms are as real as it gets from the sounds of it. And I think you have guys who are risking stuff coming and playing this season, whether it’s Craig [Kimbrel] and his daughter [heart condition] or Anthony [Rizzo] and Jon [Lester] with their [cancer] history.

“You’re paying respect to them and doing your teammate justice by not being the one to kind of go out,” Kipnis added. “It’s one of those years where, hey, you’ve got to buckle down and stay the course. I think everybody’s going through it, so you don’t want to be the one that kind of screws this one up.

The Cubs’ 10-2 start to a 60-game season seems to further incentivize that discipline — some players in recent days even suggesting the discipline in following the protocols has carried into the professionalism on the field.

It’s impossible to know if any of it will be enough for the Cubs to keep their moving bubble secure, much less whether the two outbreaks that MLB seems to have withstood will provide the significant enough wakeup call that MLB and team officials have suggested.

“The vast, vast majority of everyone involved in this enterprise, the players and staff, are doing a solid job so far in making a lot of sacrifices,” Epstein said. “And we just have to get everybody on board. And hopefully these two outbreaks are enough to get everyone to the point where we have essentially perfect execution going forward, because that’s largely what it will take.”


Cubs' David Ross defends Javier Báez, doesn't 'nitpick' baserunning lapse

Cubs' David Ross defends Javier Báez, doesn't 'nitpick' baserunning lapse

Cubs shortstop Javier Báez recognizes he should have run out of the batter’s box.

“It was my mistake,” Báez said after Wednesday’s 6-1 Cubs win over the Royals. “I thought that ball was foul.”

With two on and no out in the fourth inning Wednesday, Báez hit a towering pop fly down the right field foul line. He hesitated in the batter’s box for a few moments, leaving shortly before the ball dropped in fair just inside the line.

“I kind of lost it, but the wind started bringing it back,” Báez said. “Even [Royals catcher Salvador Pérez] was kind of surprised and he was like, ‘I think it’s gonna be fair,’ so I started running.”

Báez wound up with an RBI single, scoring Kris Bryant from second and moving Anthony Rizzo to third with no outs. He likely could have wound up at second base with a double, setting up the Cubs with two runners in scoring position and no outs. 

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The inning ended shortly after, as Willson Contreras grounded into a 6-4-3 double play, scoring Rizzo to take a 2-1 lead, and David Bote struck out two batters later. In the end, the moment didn’t hurt the Cubs, who never trailed after taking that fourth inning lead.

After the game, Cubs manager David Ross defended Báez and said he didn’t talk to him about running that ball out.

“I think that’s a really close play,” Ross said. “If I want to be the type of manager that nitpicks every little thing... These guys go out and play their butt off every single night for me and for this group. 

“If I feel like they’re dogging it, we’ll have a conversation. I feel like that’s a play that he may have assumed was foul. I think Javy’s one of the most exciting players and he plays hard every time I see him out there on the field. 

“So, I don’t have a problem with a guy that brings it every single day.”