Lockout cuts off Cubs players from coaches as they navigate adjustments, injury

Codi Heuer had Tommy John surgery. Patrick Wisdom is making a mechanical tweak to his swing. Neither can talk to his coaches.

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Cubs third baseman Patrick Wisdom throws the ball to first during infield workouts at the MLBPA training site at Bell Bank Park in Mesa, Arizona.

Cubs third baseman Patrick Wisdom has been working out at the MLBPA training site at Bell Bank Park this week, as the lockout continues.

John Antonoff/Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — The day before the last collective-bargaining agreement expired, Cubs third baseman Patrick Wisdom got on a Zoom call with new hitting coach Greg Brown.

They’d exchanged texts and calls, but this was their last chance to talk mechanics before the expected lockout cut off their communication.

“It’s tough,” Wisdom said this week, “because we’re trying to fix a little mechanical thing. And so when [hitting coaches are] presenting you with something, you’re like, ‘OK, I’m gonna work on it.’ But now, I can’t talk to them or say, ‘Hey, are we still on the right path here? Am I doing the right thing?’ ”

On Wednesday, MLB and the players association again failed to reach a CBA deal by an owner-imposed deadline. The league announced it was removing two more series from the regular season schedule, pushing back Opening Day to at least April 14.

That also guaranteed more time without contact between major-league players and their coaches. MLB instructed team personnel, including coaches, not to contact players on 40-man rosters during the lockout.

The restriction makes things especially complicated for players making injury decisions during the lockout, like Cubs reliever Codi Heuer, who underwent Tommy John surgery this week.

The right-hander’s velocity waned late last season. But it wasn’t clear that he had sustained structural damage to his elbow until he started ramping up again this offseason, according to a source. Tommy John surgery usually requires about a yearlong recovery. But as long as Heuer’s rehab goes well, Opening Day 2023 could be a realistic target for his return.

In a normal year, Heuer would be in constant contact with the Cubs’ medical staff and pitching coaches. This year, that’s prohibited.

Heuer’s injury made headlines, but coaches may not learn about less serious ailments until big-league players report to camp. Even for those without injuries, coaches will have to dedicate time early in spring training to catch up on players’ offseason progress, something coaches would have kept tabs on in a normal winter.

“I feel bad,” Cubs veteran pitcher Kyle Hendricks said this week, with a wry smile. “When I finally see [pitching coach Tommy Hottovy,] it’s months [gone by]. I’m not used to this.”

Before the start of the lockout, Cubs coaches gave their players strength, hitting and/or pitching programs — whatever was applicable — up to spring training. Or at least, when spring training was supposed to begin. Since then, players have had to go by experience and feel.

Infielder Nico Hoerner is coming off a season marred by injuries. Health was a top priority for him over the winter. With access to the team cut off, he made do.

“Definitely interesting finding some new resources, whether it’s through connections through other players I trust or through my agency, or whatever it may be,” he told the Sun-Times. “I really appreciate the Cubs staff, and all the effort they put in with me last year, but also nice to meet some new people along the way.”

Hoerner only got in one call with Brown before the lockout. The Cubs hired Brown in November, so hitters were just getting to know him before the MLB owners initiated the lockout on Dec. 2. The Cubs hired assistant hitting coach Johnny Washington two weeks later.

Brown and Washington will have to wait until the lockout ends to make real connections with their players. And in the meantime, Wisdom will be trying to make a mechanical tweak to his swing without the input of the coach who presented the adjustment to him.

Last year, Wisdom finished fourth in National League rookie of the year voting and led the Cubs with 28 home runs. But he also went through a late-season slump.

“It’s more like mental stuff that led to physical, mechanical changes that I wasn’t aware of, because you’re so far from yourself because you’re trying to fix something,” he said.

In addition to honing the mental side of his offensive game, making sure he isn’t pressing, this offseason Wisdom is working on softening his back elbow.

He has been hitting home runs in batting practice at the MLBPA’s Arizona training site. But he won’t get feedback from Brown until the lockout ends.

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