Cubs

After feeling weight of contract, Jon Lester settling in with Cubs

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After feeling weight of contract, Jon Lester settling in with Cubs

PHOENIX – It would only be natural if Jon Lester felt the pressure after signing that $155 million megadeal. As much as the Cubs eyeball the Boston Red Sox and try to turn Wrigley Field into their version of Fenway Park, this team is a different animal. 

And it is another thing to go from the homegrown, All-Star lefty who helped Boston win two World Series titles to franchise savior on the North Side.

This 5-4 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks took 13 innings and wouldn’t be decided until long after Lester’s work shift ended on Friday night at Chase Field.

But one takeaway is Lester looks like a No. 1 starter again, someone who could help lift the Cubs from five games to 10 games to 15 games over .500, the way manager Joe Maddon talks about piling up wins.

[MORE: Cubs expect Miguel Montero to step forward]

That begins with starting pitching, assuming the Cubs (23-18) can stabilize the bullpen, tighten up the defense and hit with runners in scoring position (the 0-for-31 streak that lasted a week is over). But Lester’s underwhelming April (6.23 ERA) is clearly in the rearview mirror now.

“I don’t know if ‘pressing’ is the right word,” Lester said after limiting Arizona to two runs in seven innings. “But obviously you come to a new team, new guys, new city, new everything, you want to get off on the right foot. You want to do well.

“Everybody knows (about) the contract stuff. You definitely don’t want to be one of those guys that at the end of it you look at it as a bust.

“You obviously want everything to go right. You want everything to just fall into place. But sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes you have take a few beatings to get back to doing the things that you’re used to.

“It took me a little bit of time, but I’m starting to feel more comfortable. I think the results have been better. We’ll just keep trying to figure things out as we go.”

[MORE: Cubs: Joe Maddon doesn’t see Neil Ramirez return on the horizon]

Lester has gradually gotten back to full strength, accounting for at least six innings in each of his last six starts, with the Cubs winning five of those games while he’s lowered his ERA to 3.56.

“I think maybe it weighed on him a lot more early on than it does now,” said David Ross, Lester’s personal catcher. “He’s just going out and pitching now and trying to do the best he can. Because as much as the contract stuff (is out there) and people put expectations on him – honestly – he’s always been the way he is.

“He’s going to put as much pressure on himself as anybody, because he wants to do well for the team. That’s his day. And when he walks in here that day, he’s got his game face on.”

Then again, maybe there’s no need for psychoanalysis considering Lester dealt with a “dead arm” and didn’t see enough action in the Cactus League to truly be ready for Opening Night. 

“I’ll still defend the fact that his spring training was short,” Maddon said. “I think that had as much to do with the difficult start as anything. Had he had the benefit of a full, normal spring training – and then (started slow) – that might have been more of an explanation.

“(But) he was behind when he came out at the beginning of the season. Combine that with the fact that he had a little bit more heaped on his plate than normal, you probably saw less than Jon Lester.”

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It’s not like Lester isn’t used to playing under a microscope.

“He’s a perfectionist,” said Ross, who earned a World Series ring with Lester as a piece to the 2013 Red Sox. “He always feels like he can get better, and that’s why he is who he is.

“When you’re in a big market and you have high expectations, there’s always critiquing an aspect of your game, what you’re doing good and what you’re doing bad. He sees all angles of his outing and tries to get better at every aspect of his game.”

The Cubs never seemed worried about the transition for Lester, who’s now 0-for-62 at the plate (including the postseason) after spending almost his entire career in the American League.

“The biggest thing we’re waiting on is the first hit right now,” Maddon said. “That will truly get the monkey off his back.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.