Cubs

Cubs need Jon Lester to pitch like an ace

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Cubs need Jon Lester to pitch like an ace

DETROIT – Whether or not this is some grand plan, or just the random nature of opportunities in this business, the Cubs have been developing hitters and buying pitchers, using their eyes and their laptops to build a team their own way.

It’s not quite as simple as that, especially with so many financial complexities surrounding this franchise, but the $155 million ace is the bottom-line place to start after Tuesday night’s 6-0 loss to the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park.

Head down, Jon Lester walked off the mound with the bases loaded and one out in the fifth inning, the Cubs already trailing 4-0 and $52 million reliever Edwin Jackson coming out of the bullpen.

“There are a lot of things that need to be fixed – and they will,” Lester said afterward. “It sounds simple, but it’s just a matter of getting back out there and doing it again. I had a great bullpen this last time. I felt good about coming into this. And I go out there and throw that slop.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs keeping Kyle Schwarber out of the DH picture]

The Cubs have spent first-round picks on position players in each of the last five drafts, beginning with Javier Baez in the final year of the Jim Hendry administration and leading up to Ian Happ, the University of Cincinnati outfielder/second baseman Theo Epstein’s front office grabbed on Monday night with the No. 9 overall pick.

The Cubs backed themselves into this corner, understanding they would eventually have to overpay for a No. 1 starter, knowing that history shows nine-figure contracts for pitchers are usually bad investments.

After an awful April (0-2, 6.23 ERA) and an excellent May (4-1, 1.76 ERA), Lester hasn’t looked sharp in June (0-2, 10.61 ERA).

“I’ve actually felt better the last two starts than I did in May, so take that for whatever it’s worth,” said Lester, who gave up five runs on nine hits against the Tigers (31-28).

[MORE CUBS: Cubs betting Rafael Soriano will strengthen their bullpen]

“They both sucked. Just not good. Not good. Not getting deep into games. Regardless of runs, hits, errors, walks, strikeouts, whatever, (I) gotta do a better job pitching innings. (That’s) what it comes down to.”

The Cubs say they aren’t worried about the 31-year-old lefty, who won two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox and seems almost numb to big-market overreactions after spending so much time at Fenway Park.

“I wouldn’t say he pitched well, but he had good stuff,” personal catcher David Ross said.

Manager Joe Maddon pointed to the 93 mph fastballs, the depth on Lester’s breaking ball and a lineup that revolves around Miguel Cabrera.

“They moved the ball around,” Maddon said. “It’s not like they just beat him up badly. It was well placed and he never could really seem to find a real rhythm or groove.

“It’s just one of those nights. Move it along and I’m good for his next time out there. I’m really not concerned or upset."

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs couldn’t generate anything against Anibal Sanchez, who came into the game with a 3-7 record and a 5.69 ERA but walked off the mound to a standing ovation in the eighth inning, saluting the crowd of 33,301 (even with the bases loaded).

The Cubs courted Sanchez in December 2012, with Epstein and chairman Tom Ricketts meeting the pitcher, his wife and his agent at a Miami restaurant. That same day, general manager Jed Hoyer and Dale Sveum, the manager at the time, met with Jackson, his fiancé and his agent in Newport Beach, California.

The Cubs got used for leverage in the Sanchez negotiations, the Tigers ultimately stepping up with five years and $80 million guaranteed. The Cubs maxed out at five years and $77.5 million and moved on to Plan B: Jackson (who gave the bullpen a break by finishing this game).

This isn’t how you envision the big-ticket signings at that first press conference. But even without Lester hitting his stride, the Cubs are still 30-26 and in wild-card position. Everyone knows what it would mean if their No. 1 guy starts living up to his own expectations.

“If we’re worried about the wild card right now, we’re worried about the wrong things,” Lester said. “We got to play a good baseball team tomorrow. That’s No. 1. But if you want to talk about the future, yeah, obviously, that would mean a lot to this team, this organization, this city.

“We’ve been playing good baseball. I feel like at times we’ve been playing better baseball than what the results have been. But this team does a good job of grinding. It seemed like we grinded a lot on Anibal. He just seemed to be one step ahead of us, and that happens sometimes. I didn’t do my part tonight.”

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

MESA, Ariz. — Ben Zobrist has long been known for his versatility on the field. But it might take a new kind of versatility to get through what’s facing him for the 2018 season, being versatile when it comes to simply being on the field.

Zobrist was among several notable Cubs hitters who had a rough go of things at the plate in the follow-up campaign to 2016’s World Series run. He dealt with injuries, including a particularly bothersome one to his wrist, and finished with a career-worst .232/.318/.375 slash line.

And so, with younger guys like Javy Baez, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. forcing their way into Joe Maddon’s lineup, it’s a perfectly valid question to ask: Has the 36-year-old Zobrist — just 15 months removed from being named the World Series MVP — been relegated to part-time status for this championship-contending club?

Obviously that remains to be seen. Joe Maddon has a way of mixing and matching players so often that it makes it seem like this team has at least 12 different “starting” position players. But Zobrist, ever the picture of versatility, seems ready for whatever is coming his way.

“I’m prepared for that, if that’s what it comes to. I told him, whatever they need me to do,” Zobrist said Sunday, asked if he’d be OK with being in a platoon situation. “You’ll see me at some different positions. As far as at-bats, though, I’ve got to be healthy. That was the biggest thing last year that kept me from getting at-bats and being productive. So if I can be healthy, I think I can play the way that I’m capable of, and the discussion then at that point will be, ‘How much can you play before we push you too far?’

“We’ve got a lot of great players, and there are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench on our team at times. But no one ever rusts because you know how Joe uses everybody. You’re still going to play. Even if you don’t start, you’re probably going to play later in the game. It’s just part of the National League and the way Joe Maddon manages.”

It’s no secret, of course, that when Zobrist is on, he’s the kind of player you want in the lineup as much as possible. It was just two seasons ago that he posted a .386 on-base percentage, banged out 31 doubles, smacked 18 home runs and was a starter for the team that won the World Series.

But he also admitted that last year’s injury fights were extremely tough: “Last year was one of the most difficult seasons I’ve ever had as a player.” Zobrist said that while he’s feeling good and ready to go in 2018, with his recent physical ailments and his advancing age, he’s in a different stage in his career.

“At this point in my career, I’m not going to play 158 games or whatever. I’m going to have to manage and figure out how to play great for 130,” he said. “And I think that would be a good thing to shoot for, if I was healthy, is playing 130 games of nine innings would be great. And then you’re talking about postseason, too, when you add the games on top of that, and well, you need to play for the team in the postseason, you’ve got to be ready for that, too.

“From my standpoint, from their standpoint, it’s about managing, managing my performance and my physical body and making sure I can do all that at the highest level, keep it at the highest level I can.”

Maddon’s managerial style means that Zobrist, even if he’s not technically a part of the everyday starting eight, will still get the opportunity to hit on a regular basis, get a chance to play on a regular basis. Baez figures to be locked in as the team’s No. 1 second baseman, but he’ll need days off. Maddon mentioned Sunday that Zobrist, along with Happ, have been practicing at first base in an effort to be able to spell Anthony Rizzo. It’s the crowded outfield where Zobrist could potentially see the most time. He’ll be a piece of that tricky daily puzzle along with Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and the aforementioned Almora and Happ.

Unsurprisingly, in the end that versatility, combined with how Zobrist has recovered physically and whether he can get back to how he’s produced in the past, will determine how much he will play, according to the guy writing out the lineups.

“I think he’s going to dictate that to us based on how he feels,” Maddon said. “Listen, you’re always better off when Ben Zobrist is in your lineup. He’s a little bit older than he had been, obviously, like we all are. I’ve got to be mindful of that, but he’s in great shape. Let’s just see what it looks like. Go out there and play, and we’ll try to figure it out as the season begins to unwind because who knows, he might have an epiphany and turn back the clock a little bit, he looks that good. I want to keep an open mind.

“I want to make sure that he understands we’re going to need him to play a variety of different positions. He’s ready to do it, he’s eager, he’s really ready. He was not pleased with his year last year, took time to reflect upon it and now he’s really been refreshed. So I think you’re going to see the best form of Ben Zobrist right now.”

Two years ago, Zobrist played a big enough role to go to the All-Star Game and get named the MVP of the World Series. In the present, that role might be much, much smaller. But Zobrist said he’s OK with anything, admitting it’s about the number of rings on the fingers and not the number of days in the starting lineup.

“I’m 36 as a player, so I’m just trying to win championships at this point. It’s not really about what I’m trying to accomplish as an individual,” Zobrist said. “Everybody wants to have great seasons, but I’ve told (Maddon), ‘Wherever you need me, I’m ready.’ Just going to prepare to fill the spots that need to be filled and be a great complement to what’s going on.”

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”