Sign stealing? Cubs ‘absolutely clean’ — with a capital K

As the 2017 and 2018 MLB champs dig themselves deeper into the cheating scandal, the Cubs are one of few recent champs who have the contact-rate receipts to back up their claims of winning the 2016 title without illegally stealing signs.

SHARE Sign stealing? Cubs ‘absolutely clean’ — with a capital K
The Astros’ Michael Brantley is hit by a Jon Lester pitch in Houston last year.

The Astros’ Michael Brantley is hit by a Jon Lester pitch in Houston last year.

Bob Levey/Getty Images

MESA, Ariz. — Kris Bryant was the latest prominent Cub to swear, in the face of the Astros’ cheating scandal, that the Cubs did it the right way when they won their World Series title in 2016, a year before the Astros were determined to have stolen signs electronically and signaled to their hitters what pitches were coming.

“When you’re out there competing and you hear something like this, it’s disheartening, man,” Bryant, the Cubs’ union rep, said this week. “I can honestly say that what we did in 2016 is absolutely clean.”

Major League Baseball fined the Astros $5 million and suspended their general manager and manager, both of whom were subsequently fired. A similar investigation into the 2018 champion Red Sox is expected to conclude this month, already having cost their manager, former Astros bench coach Alex Cora, his job in January. Newly hired Mets manager Carlos Beltran, a reputed ringleader in the 2017 Astros scheme, also was fired.

Cubs team president Theo Epstein and first baseman Anthony Rizzo already were among those who had defended the Cubs as — in Rizzo’s words — “100 percent” clean.

Not that the Cubs raised any particular suspicions. If they’ve been using stolen signs to decode what pitches are coming, they’re not very good at it. They have swung and missed more than any team in the National League except the Padres the last three years and have the third-worst contact rate in the NL during that span.

Former Cub Addison Russell, the 2016 All-Star, admitted last year he didn’t always know his own team’s signs.

“I’ve been saying you could put a guy on at second, and he wouldn’t even know how to relay to each other [the catcher’s sign],” Bryant said. “That’s just something we’ve never concentrated on doing.

“We can all look in the mirror at night and be proud of everything that we’ve done here.”

Early bullpen watch

The new rule in baseball this year that requires a relief pitcher to face at least three batters puts a premium on relievers who are proficient against both right-handers and left-handers. That could be especially important to bullpen candidates with starting experience, such as Duane Underwood and Casey Sadler, both of whom are out of options this spring.

It also gives first-year manager David Ross and the analytics department a lot to talk about and examine in game strategy and roster-building over the next month.

“There’s a lot of different ways to look at it,” Ross said. “I know we talk about [how] the intentional walk’s kind of gone away. That might bring that back in. If there’s a bad matchup [but] a good matchup behind him, maybe put a guy on base.

“I don’t know if I want to share my secrets yet, but there’s some areas where that’ll come into play where you may be able to give a guy a batter faced without him actually facing the batter.”

Intentional walks no longer require throwing a pitch.

This and that

Ross said shortstop Javy Baez has been a full participant in camp and hasn’t expressed any issue with his left thumb, which he broke with a month left last season.

• Defensively versatile Ian Happ is going to get most of his work in center field to prepare for how he’ll be used during the season, Ross said. That makes David Bote and non-roster invitee Hernan Perez the primary alternatives to Bryant at third base when Bryant gets time in the outfield.

• The Cubs’ starter for their Cactus League opener Saturday is Alec Mills — better known around these parts at “Sir Alec Mills” when Joe Maddon was manager.

“Nobody calls me that anymore,” Mills said with a smile. “Which is OK. But I always liked the nickname, so it’s cool.”

• The Cubs didn’t post Saturday’s lineup Friday, but Ross confirmed he has Bryant and Rizzo slotted 1-2 — as he plans to use them during the regular season.

The Latest
“It was only because the patient received high-quality CPR immediately that she survived,” said a trauma physician at Stroger Hospital.
“If we had a quarterback last year, we could have won state,” Raiders coach John Ivlow said.
Someone wake Matt Nagy: This play is what the Justin Fields offense is supposed to look like.
The Bears’ pass rush looked good with Quinn and Al-Quadin Muhammad playing together for the first time. Matt Eberflus misses a challenge opportunity. And Trevor Siemian has looked competent as the backup quarterback.