Chicago Cubs

Cubs showing the next Mark Prior and Kerry Wood what it takes

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Cubs showing the next Mark Prior and Kerry Wood what it takes

The Cubs bookended their rookie development program around Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. The next generation got to hear about how you carry yourself in the big leagues and what it takes to make it in Chicago.

Do they have any idea what theyre getting into? That question might have gone through your mind on Thursday if you were watching those 12 prospects working out inside Northwestern Universitys field house in Evanston.

It shouldnt have been hard to see the warning signals. Last years Cubs Convention was overshadowed by the sexual-assault allegations against Starlin Castro. The night before, the Internet exploded with Deadspins story about Manti Teos fake dead girlfriend and the scandal at the University of Notre Dame.

Everyones under a microscope, said Jason McLeod, the vice president of scouting and player development. So weve spent a lot of time trying to help talk about those types of things and letting them know what to watch for. Of course, we cant be babysitters 247, but we can give them the tools to make good decisions. Ultimately, thats what were trying to do.

McLeod highlighted seminars on media training and how to deal with social media and watching what they put on Twitter (because team officials are definitely tracking it).

The run of guest speakers included baseball czar Theo Epstein, chairman Tom Ricketts, president of business operations Crane Kenney, pitching coach Chris Bosio and Bears linebacker Nick Roach, along with presentations from nutritionists and strength and conditioning staffers. It started last week with Wood and was scheduled to end Thursday afternoon with Prior at Wrigley Field, leading into this weekends convention at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers.

Who better to know and understand having all the hype, having all the pressure, being the young guy coming up and then performing in this environment? McLeod said. Who better than those two guys? Those had to have been two of the most hyped Cubs prospects of the last 15-20 years.

Prior, who hasnt pitched in the big leagues since 2006, is said to be looking for another chance to play, though that isnt expected to come with the Cubs. McLeod didnt know all the details about how it ended here, but hes friendly with Prior because theyre both San Diego guys.

The audience included four position players Javier Baez, Jae-Hoon Ha, Matt Szczur and Logan Watkins and pitchers Dallas Beeler, Marcus Hatley, Barret Loux, Trey McNutt, Zach Rosscup, Nick Struck, Robert Whitenack and Tony Zych. The ETA for these prospects could be within the next year or two.

McNutt remembered being blown away as a kid in 1998, watching Woods 20-strikeout game against the Houston Astros on television at his grandfathers farm in Alabama: It was like: Oh my God, this guys awesome.

During this trip to Chicago, McNutt made a point to ask Wood how he threw that curveball and took mental notes on the grips.

Its real awesome to get their opinion, McNutt said, (see) the way they carried themselves to the majors, (hear) what they accomplished, how they accomplished it.

The Cleveland Indians are widely credited with first developing this kind of assimilation program several years ago. Epstein, McLeod and general manager Jed Hoyer had worked to put together a similar one for the Boston Red Sox.

One of the challenges we had in Boston was really getting young players to come up and be able to perform at a high level right away in a big market, Hoyer said. The difference between playing in the minor leagues and the big leagues is enormous anywhere. But now you take it to a big market like Boston or Chicago and its really difficult the media pressures, the fan pressures.

We want these guys to be able to come up here and get used to what its like to live here, what its like to deal with the media, whats expected of them every day. Because at some point, theyre going to get called up for the first time and theyre going to be scared to death to go out and face Adam Wainwright.

We want them to focus on facing Adam Wainwright and not focus on: How much do I tip this guy? How do I get to the ballpark? (So) they can worry about playing baseball when they get here and not feel totally overwhelmed.

Cubs say this isn’t the beginning of the end for their ace: ‘I believe in Jon Lester’

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USA TODAY

Cubs say this isn’t the beginning of the end for their ace: ‘I believe in Jon Lester’

MILWAUKEE – Cubs executives bet on Jon Lester because they had so much inside information from their time together with the Boston Red Sox and believed he would age gracefully with his fluid left-handed delivery, imposing physical presence and competitive personality.

The Cubs also went into it with their eyes wide open, knowing the history of nine-figure contracts for pitchers and how those megadeals usually lead to a crash.

“I think it’s way too early to talk about that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said Thursday at Miller Park, where Lester’s mysterious struggles overshadowed the beginning of a four-game showdown against the Milwaukee Brewers that could decide the National League Central race.

The night before at Tropicana Field, Lester got rocked in an 8-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, leaving him with a 5.91 ERA in four September starts since coming off the disabled list. Lester has a body of work that will make him a borderline Hall of Famer, but he’s given up 27 hits and 12 walks in 21.1 innings since the Cubs activated him after a left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue diagnosis in the middle of August.

“With any pitcher, you want to have that guy pitching at the top of his game going into October,” Hoyer said. “There’s no question. The timing of last night’s game, obviously, isn’t ideal. But we have two starts and we’ll hope he bounces back from that. We can’t control the timing.”

Almost exactly halfway through a six-year, $155 million commitment, the Lester investment has already paid for itself, because the Cubs are the defending World Series champs and couldn’t have done it without him. Period. But Lester is also 33 years old and has already thrown almost 2,200 innings in The Show, plus nearly another season in 14 career playoff series.

“Nope, nope, nope,” manager Joe Maddon said when asked if Lester was getting examined.

“Listen, I know a lot of people are concerned,” Maddon said. “I’m not overly concerned, because the guy’s been good for a long time. As long as he says he’s healthy – which he has – I’m fine. If he’s hurting at all – but he’s not revealing – that’s a different story entirely.

“But for right now, I believe he’s well, so I anticipate good.”

Maddon’s answers left a little wiggle room, but Lester didn’t want to make excuses and said there’s nothing wrong physically. If that’s the case, it would be foolish to write off someone who’s survived a cancer scare, thrived in the American League East, embraced the challenge of playing in two of baseball’s biggest markets and won three World Series rings.

“He has evolved as a pitcher,” Hoyer said. “When we first had him with the Red Sox, he was throwing 97 (mph). With most guys, you have to get past that loss of velocity, and the great ones do that.

“He’s always thrown hard, but he’s been kind of 93-94 tops the last few years. He’s got four pitches. He’s got a good sinker now. He’s got a good cutter. A changeup, curveball – they all come out of the same place. I think right now it’s about making some mistakes at the wrong time, and his stuff hasn’t been probably as dominant as he would want.”

This could just be a blip on the radar. But the Cubs didn’t earn the luxury of treating late September like spring training and warming up for the playoffs. These games matter, and that usually brings out the best in their ace.

“I believe in Jon Lester,” Maddon said, writing it off as a few “hiccup” games. “It’s unusual to see him struggle like that, primarily with his command. The velocity was down – but where the pitches were going – I’m not used to seeing that.

“I got to believe that’s going to get rectified soon. Guys like him, I’m normally not into physical mechanics this time of the year. But I’d bet if, in fact, there’s something wrong, it’s going to be more mechanically speaking.

“I just want to be very patient about this. I think he’s fine. Until I hear that he’s not well – which I’ve not heard at all – I think he’ll be fine.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Previewing Cubs-Brewers NL Central showdown

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SportsTalk Live Podcast: Previewing Cubs-Brewers NL Central showdown

On the latest SportsTalk Live Podcast, Hub Arkush (670 the Score/Pro Football Weekly), Phil Rogers (MLB.com) and Jordan Cornette (ESPN 1000) join Luke Stuckmeyer on the panel.

Jake Arrieta returns for the big NL Central showdown. Len Kasper joins the guys from Milwaukee for a preview. Plus, who should be the Cubs Game 1 starter in the NLDS?

Also, the panel discusses Mike Glennon’s leash on Sunday, the Aaron Hernandez CTE diagnosis and if Yoan Moncada’s hot September means big things in the future.

Listen to the full SportsTalk Live Podcast right here: