Jon Lester: MLB, union 'bending over backwards' to finalize health protocols

Jon Lester: MLB, union 'bending over backwards' to finalize health protocols

Cubs starter Jon Lester has a message for those keeping tabs on negotiations between MLB and the players union regarding health, safety and financial terms for a 2020 season.

"I think the biggest thing — and I’m guilty of it just like everybody else — you can't believe everything that’s put out there," Lester said on WSCR’s “Inside the Clubhouse” Saturday morning. “A couple of weeks ago, we had stuff being leaked that wasn't even presented to the players yet. 

“There is just a lot of stuff. I think people have a lot of time on their hands to — I don't want to say fabricate stories — but really try to dig and find things, possible leaks.”

MLB submitted its proposal for the 2020 season to the union last week. It includes a 67-page document highlighting the health and safety measures the league intends to implement amid a return during the coronavirus pandemic.

Any plan for the season can't be finalized until the two sides agree on the necessary safety protocols to resume play. Those discussions are ongoing, and then, the league and players have to come to a financial agreement, a proposal for which the league will deliver the players on Tuesday, a source told NBC Sports Chicago. 

RELATED: MLB, players prepared to move in negotiations with 2020 season on the line

Lester stressed patience as the players sort through the 67-page proposal, noting an agreement won’t happen overnight as players are bound to have numerous questions. And though the public perception may be the two sides are haggling over terms, Lester said both have been great and their No. 1 concern is the safety of players, coaches and other essential personnel.

“MLB — from the owners' side of it to the players' side of it — we’re bending over backwards to try to get this health side of it figured out,” he said. “The other stuff [financials], we can kind of figure out as we go. 

“But players, owners and doctors, everyone wants to be safe. So, we don’t want to rush into this thing and start risking health. Not only health based on this pandemic, but health physically for the player when it comes to a shortened spring training and trying to get revved up for a season that fast.”

Lester, 36, has been training at home to keep his strength up and throwing at a local Atlanta high school. He highlighted the biggest challenge in returning to play is the unknown of when he should start ramping his training up for a second "spring" training, unlike a normal season, when camp starts in February.

“Right now, there’s no date to build towards. That unknown is throwing you off mentally,” he said. “You can’t really get after it, you can’t really prepare like you would for a normal spring training. 

“That being said, when you get there, whatever that date may be, I know our medical staff, our coaching staff, we’re all going to be erring on the side of caution to get guys ramped up. We definitely don’t want to be coming in first day and throwing an inning or two innings to hitters and now you’re pushing yourself back to where you possibly can’t even play 81 games, or 82 games. There is just that fine line."

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Report: NBA in 'exploratory' talks with Disney to host season relaunch in July

Report: NBA in 'exploratory' talks with Disney to host season relaunch in July

The NBA appears to be on the doorstep of a concrete plan to relaunch. Could the Bulls relaunch with it?

Saturday, ESPN's Ramona Shelburne reported the league has begun "exploratory discussions" with the Walt Disney Corporation about relaunching its season at the Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, starting in late July:

The NBA later released a statement from league spokesman Mike Bass, which said the 220-acre complex would serve as a single site for games, practices and housing.

What this evolving restart scheme means for the Bulls remains to be seen; much will depend on the schedule format with which the league decides to push forward. Also on Saturday, Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that the NBA distributed a survey to GMs enumerating different formats the season could resume under — possibly a window into the league's thinking.

Those options range from skipping straight to a 16-team playoff, to a "Playoffs Plus" format that could involve anywhere from 18-24 teams, to resuming the regular season with all 30 teams. Both the "Playoffs Plus" format and the regular season scenario could reportedly involve a play-in tournament or group stage postseason round. Other questions in the survey included how late executives are willing to see the 2019-20 season run (with answers from Labor Day to Nov. 1) and how many regular season games should be played (72 or 76).

A 30-team regular season restart would incorporate the Bulls, as could a 24-team "Playoffs Plus" slate (at 22-43, the Bulls are currently paused with the 24th best record in the NBA).

But ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Friday that there is something of a prevailing sentiment to not bring every team back when the season kicks back up:

Several members of the league's board of governors believe that the NBA's preference isn't to bring every team to resume the season, but that remains undecided. First, the fewer teams, the fewer people at risk to spread or contract COVID-19. Also, with little chance to play more than five to seven regular season games, a month of preparation seems like an excessive investment for teams at the bottom of the standings.

Indeed, Wojnarowski also reported that the NBA is discussing a multi-step training camp program, that would break down as such:

  • Two-week callback of players into their respective markets, with designated qurantine
  • One-to-two weeks of individual workouts at team facilities
  • Two-to-three week format training camp

All of that work for five-to-seven games of potentially meaningless basketball does seem a tall ask — especially given the implications of expanding the bubble and further extending a season that is already running on severe delay. The finances aren't meaningless, of course, and that will be front-of-mind for the league as it undergoes the final stages of its decision-making process on the fate of the season over the final week of May.

When new guidelines are distributed "around June 1" (a date reported by Wojnarowski), hopefully they will bring more clarity.

RELATED: NBA Rumors: How league is moving toward season relaunch, including timetable 

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Why Cubs, MLB might face 2020 season without key players and what it means

Why Cubs, MLB might face 2020 season without key players and what it means

No fans at the games? That’s already the plan.

But what happens to the 2020 baseball season if it gets started in July without Angels superstar Mike Trout? Or without the defending champs’ All-Star closer, Sean Doolittle?

Or without Cubs ace Yu Darvish?

Those questions are among realistic scenarios that are part of what’s at stake as Major League Baseball and the players union negotiate the health and safety protocols required for an agreement to start the season during the COVID-19 pandemic — a process that began late this week after MLB offered a 67-page proposal earlier in the week.

RELATED: MLB's sweeping health-and-safety proposals would bring big change to baseball

Financial terms, which have yet to be discussed in detail since the sides reached agreement on an initial salary deal in March, have gotten most of the public attention in recent weeks (a new proposal by MLB reportedly is to be presented to the union Tuesday).

But nothing can happen on that until the testing and safety guidelines are worked out — which for many players could be a much bigger issue.

And that could remain an issue even after an agreement to start play is eventually reached.

While the sides had not reached that point in negotiations as of Friday, it’s clear based on multiple conversations that the union considers an important part of any agreement be protections for an individual who may choose to opt out of playing during the pandemic.

And it may not even be an especially contentious issue. 

Commissioner Rob Manfred already told CNN last week “if there are players with either health conditions or just their own personal doubts, we would never try to force them to come back to work. They can wait until they feel they’re ready to come.”

It’s not hard to imagine the potential competitive impact on an already altered season if even a few of the highest-profile players opt out.

Trout told ESPN his top concern during this "scary" time involves caring for his pregnant wife, who is due in August. MLB’s initial safety guidelines would seem to make participating in her regular care difficult if he abides by the plan, and perhaps even impossible when the time comes to be at a hospital.

“I’ll be there,” he told ESPN. “I’m not missing the birth of my first child. I know that.”

What would Trout’s absence do to the big-spending Angels’ plans to contend under new manager Joe Maddon?

And what about the Nationals’ plans to defend their World Series title without their closer, Doolittle, who has publicly expressed concern about a pre-existing condition that puts his wife at greater risk if infected?

And what about a Cubs team that even before the pandemic appeared to be — as first baseman Anthony Rizzo put it — “a bad start away from this team being blown up by the [trade] deadline.”

What happens to that calculus if the first player this spring to publicly show concern for the lethality of the virus chooses to skip the 2020 half-season out of an abundance of caution for himself and his family?

“I’m really worried about it,” Darvish said the first week of March, before MLB’s first memo to teams on the subject was distributed and more than a week before spring training was shut down.

Darvish, who on March 5 got tested when he experienced a cough rather than risk exposing teammates, had talked to team officials as soon as camp started about concerns dealing with a disproportionate number of media traveling from Asia. 

Darvish’s agent declined to address the question when asked his client’s thoughts on playing under MLB’s proposal and in light of Manfred’s comment. Darvish did not respond this week to multiple requests on the subject made directly to him.

The Cubs also have players with potentially higher-risk factors for COVID-19, including cancer survivors Rizzo and Jon Lester.

To be clear, no player is known to have publicly said he won’t play at this point; none can even be certain yet what the final the details of any agreement on safety measures will be.

Meanwhile, almost every player who has spoken publicly — including Trout — has expressed a desire to play this year, a sentiment expressed to Cubs officials from players in internal communications.

MORE: Players association responds to MLB health proposal, negotiations continue

And agent Scott Boras, for example, has said he has received no pushback from his client base on returning to play since some of MLB’s plans were leaked. His clients include Cubs centerfielder Albert Almora Jr. and third baseman Kris Bryant — the team’s player rep for the union, who became a first-time father last month.

But a season already assured of looking unlike any other before might also be assured of at least a few recognizable players skipping the season altogether because of inherent risk, no matter what the final agreement looks like.

Players with the greatest financial security also have the greatest freedom to exercise that choice. Trout’s the highest paid player in the game; Darvish is in the third year of a six-year, $126 million deal.

Such an impact could be as immediate as it is dramatic, competitively, for a team like the Cubs.

They already spent last winter fielding offers for players up and down the roster before essentially standing pat with a group that missed the playoffs last year — and without enough in the payroll budget left to significantly add.

It could mark an especially swift decline and selloff if any key player opts out of participating in a half-season attempt to win one more time with a core that won a title in 2016 — much less the majors’ all-time leader in strikeout rate coming off a dominant second half in 2019.

“I think each player has to make an individual choice. Are they willing to assume the risk?” said Chicago-based infectious-disease specialist Dr. Robert Citronberg. “No matter what strategy is employed, there’s going to be risk involved. It’s just a question of how much risk tolerance you have.”

RELATED: Why one medical expert remains skeptical of MLB's COVID-19 precautions

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