White Sox

Papelbon sees big things for Theo, Cubs


Papelbon sees big things for Theo, Cubs

PHILADELPHIA Theres the image of Jonathan Papelbon, eyes bulging, mouth wide open, about to leap into the arms of catcher Jason Varitek.

Papelbon had just closed out Game 4 of the 2007 World Series, sweeping the Colorado Rockies and setting off celebrations across Red Sox Nation.

The three Boston executives now running the Cubs Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod look back on that night at Coors Field and feel vindicated.

There was Papelbon, the guy with the Irish jig, saving the game for Jon Lester. Future MVP candidates Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia formed the top of the lineup. All had become part of a homegrown core drafted and developed by the organization.

So Cubs fans can see Epstein, the parallels between Fenway Park and Wrigley Field and conjure up the curse-busting mythology from 2004. But the new 50 million closer for the Philadelphia Phillies says only believe the hype up to a certain point.

You look at the 04 team, he basically kind of just took over, Papelbon said Sunday. But he was able to come back and do it again and put together a solid organization in 07.

I dont think (Theo) helping a team win a World Series after 86 years is one of his (biggest accomplishments). It is publicly. To me, its not, because that wasnt his team. That wasnt his system. That wasnt his way.

What makes him special to me is what he was able to put together for the team in 07. Because you look at that team and we were a very young team. Yet we also had older guys that helped (show us how it) should be done. ... Thats what made him good in Boston.

When Epstein became the youngest general manager in baseball history in late 2002, he inherited a 93-win team built around Cooperstown-level talents Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez, plus foundation pieces like Varitek, Johnny Damon and Derek Lowe.

Epstein put the finishing touches on that forever team in 2004, when Cubs manager Dale Sveum was the Red Sox third-base coach. That blueprint cant be carbon copied on the North Side.

It was a lot different in Boston, Sveum said. We had just come off (a season being) one pitch away from the World Series. They were already built to win there and were building right now to get there.

Theos here to build a whole organization, not just a baseball team.

That will happen through under-the-radar decisions, and by stockpiling talent. Papelbon pointed to trading Marlon Byrd to the Red Sox for Michael Bowden, the 47th overall pick in the 2005 draft.

Its kind of funny because Ive already noticed some of the moves that hes made, Papelbon said. Ive made little mental notes in my head (like): Wow, that looks familiar.

Papelbon became almost iconic in Boston, fist-bumping the cop working security outside the Red Sox bullpen and running out to the mound. The Dropkick Murphys Im Shipping Up to Boston would blast from the Fenway Park speakers.

The adrenaline fueled Papelbon, who last season became the fastest player in major-league history to reach 200 saves. He was competitive, going year to year when he was arbitration-eligible, at a time when the Red Sox were locking up younger core players with contract extensions.

Did Theo and I always see eye to eye? Papelbon said. No, we didnt, but there were times that we did and we understood that it was a business.

Did we bump heads at times? Yeah, but we were able to get the business side of things done and it made it easy for me to want to go out and perform.

Papelbon said it wasnt that difficult to leave the Red Sox. He told himself that when he reached free agency, hed go to the first team that showed real, strong interest and offered a fair deal.

The closer cashed in last November with the Phillies, a team with this mandate: World Series or else.

Ive always had a good relationship with people in Boston, Papelbon said. The reason why Im not there right now is because I saw Theo leave. I saw Tito (manager Terry Francona) leave. There was kind of a light bulb that went off in my head: Hey, things may not be the same if I come back.

Epstein had grown restless after almost 10 years in the Fenway Park fishbowl. He left Yawkey Way for the biggest challenge in baseball.

Hes got pieces of the puzzle to do it, Papelbon said. I dont know how long its going to take now. Nobody knows that, but I do know that hes going to do some good things for that organization.

Its like when you play somebody in chess and theyre always beating you. Its like they can think two moves ahead. Hes got that talent. Hes always lurking in the bushes.

Luis Robert hits home run while falling down during White Sox intrasquad game

Luis Robert hits home run while falling down during White Sox intrasquad game

They say Luis Robert can do it all.

Who knows how often he'll be called upon to hit a home run while falling down, but it turns out he can do that, too.

Robert lifted a Carlos Rodón pitch out of Guaranteed Rate Field during Saturday's intrasquad game on the South Side. While it was happening, or perhaps immediately afterward, he fell over and landed on the other side of home plate.

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Worrywarts have no need to panic, he got right up, picked up his batting helmet and trotted around the bases. The next inning, he returned to his spot in center field.

So instead of a terrifying moment, the White Sox rookie delivered a kooky — and frankly, kind of amazing — highlight for the ages.

And so his legend grows.

Robert has already been the player to command the most fan interest during "Summer Camp" workouts. He heads into his first big league season as the most hyped White Sox prospect in recent memory, topping the excitement levels generated by the debuts of Eloy Jiménez, Michael Kopech and Yoán Moncada.

All that buzz comes after he thrilled minor league crowds last season with a combination of tape-measure home runs, blazing speed and highlight-reel catches in center field. That jam-packed toolbox has evaluators labeling him as the best of the White Sox collection of talented youngsters, and he's already being talked about as the game's next superstar.

"I see or hear all of that stuff," Robert said through team interpreter Billy Russo earlier this week. "I try to not pay attention to that. I know what I can do, and sometimes if you hear all that stuff, you’re going to have more pressure on you. And that might not be good for you because there is more. It’s good if people say that, but I just try to not pay too much attention to it.

"My expectations and goals are always the same. Give 100 percent, always, on the field, help the team as much as I can and hopefully go to the postseason. And if I’m lucky enough, maybe win the Rookie of the Year. Those are my goals, and if I stay healthy I feel confident I can do that."

RELATED: White Sox rookie Luis Robert confident in 'pretty hot' start to his '20 season

Robert has some challenges in this most unusual of baseball seasons. While getting his first taste of major league pitching, he was expected to have a full six months to make any necessary adjustments. Instead, he'll have just 60 games. Jiménez showed how useful having an entire season can be, starting slowly during his rookie campaign in 2019 only to figure things out in time for a white-hot month of September. If Robert doesn't catch fire immediately, he might not have the time to adjust before the season's almost over.

But that's not worrying Robert too much.

"If, for whatever reason, I don’t start the season as hot as I know I can, I will do my best to make the adjustments as fast as I can," he said. "But of course that’s not my mindset right now.

"I’m pretty sure I’m going to be able to start the season pretty hot and display all my talent. I will have to adjust as much as I can if I have any trouble."

After seeing what he did Saturday, maybe he's right.


Why longtime Cubs ace Jon Lester has never been more important to team

Why longtime Cubs ace Jon Lester has never been more important to team

This isn’t exactly the way Jon Lester envisioned the final year of his $155 million free agent deal with the Cubs.

A couple of months ago it was difficult to envision anything this season, much less the scene at Wrigley Field he has been part of the past week — and certainly not the mask he has at all times and the piped-in ambient crowd noise he’ll hear for the first time when he pitches in an intrasquad game Sunday night for the first time during this restarted training camp.

“It’s weird,” the five-time All-Star said. “It’s unique. The cool part is everybody’s taking it in stride. All this stuff with the mask and the protocols and the testing and all that is weird but now we just have to adapt and make it kind of normal.”

That’s not going to happen. Not for the Cubs or any other team, no matter how long this 30-team, 1,800-player effort at playing baseball during a pandemic lasts.

But for the Cubs, Lester might be as close as normal gets in the middle of all the “weird.”

When asked Saturday about what Lester brings to the team, the first words out of manager David Ross’ mouth were, “his presence.”

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It’s been there since 2015 as the stabilizing, credibility-building influence for a team that went from last place to 97 wins in his first season and a rise to that historic championship in his second.

Lester has earned two All-Star selections, made 10 postseason starts and four Opening Day starts for the Cubs during his five seasons in Chicago.

And just because he won’t start this year’s opener or that he’s coming off a disappointing 2019 season (4.46 ERA) doesn’t mean he won’t have a major influence on this team’s chances to focus and have success on the field this year and, perhaps just as important, off the field as it navigates the COVID-19 risks.

“Jon’s done so much for this group and this organization as far as preparation off the field, how he goes about his business prior to his start day, the routine he has when he comes in here,” said Ross, a teammate before he became Lester’s manager. “He doesn’t vary from that routine.

“His resumé obviously speaks for itself of what he’s done. But outside of what he’s done on the field, I think he’s influenced this organization as a whole in a really good way."

Lester, 36, is the most accomplished, longest-tenured player on the club — a career workhorse and three-time champion who’s five years older than one of the coaches and closer in age to four more than he is to any of his teammates.

So when Lester wears a mask, those around him notice.

“I think we’re all a little nervous,” he said. “Nobody wants to get this thing. You have to just believe in the testing process; you have to believe in kind of the bubble community we’re trying to create here; you have to believe in these things [holds up a mask].”

RELATED: Cubs COVID-19 tests return negative, Theo Epstein cautions against complacency

Whether Lester is able to achieve the bounce-back performance in a short season that he sought when he started the original spring training in February, he starts the second training camp behind the four other projected starters in a rotation already missing Jose Quintana (thumb injury) — all of whom started twice in scrimmages the first eight days of workouts

“I had a hard time just diving into going and trying to throw bullpens and trying to simulate innings [during the uncertainty timeline of the shutdown],” said the only Cubs starter who didn’t try to ramp up aggressively ahead of camp. “I figured that if I kept my body in shape and kept my arm going [in the weight room] that I would be fine when we got to this stage — it would just be a little slower.”

He said the “multiple factors” involved in that approach includes knowing himself well enough at this point in his career to trust what he needs to get ready — even in a short, “weird” prep period.

“I feel like I’m in a good place,” he said.

Who’s going to tell him he’s not? After the past five years, who’s going to suddenly decide they don’t trust what Lester brings to his job, or even the rest of the room?

In February Ross looked at a “leaner” version of Lester and said he had no concerns about the longtime ace and where he would be once the season started: “I know what his mentality is,” he said. “He is a guy that still has the top-of-the-rotation potential for me.”

That mentality. The presence. Lester’s belief and lead role in creating a “kind of normal.”

It might put him at the top of the Cubs’ rotation in more ways this year than he ever has been in his career.

MORE: Jon Lester on shortened 2020 MLB season: 'A trophy's a trophy'