Cubs show they’re bigger than just Jon Lester


Cubs show they’re bigger than just Jon Lester

The Cubs are bigger than just Jon Lester.

This isn’t exactly how Theo Epstein’s front office drew up The Plan, or how any big-name free agent wants to make a first impression in a new city starving for a winner.

But the Cubs are now alone in first place in the National League Central after Monday night’s 7-6 comeback victory over the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field. It took 10 innings before Lester’s teammates bailed him out, leaving the Cubs (4-2) more than one game over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2009 season.

“At the end of the day, we won,” Lester said. “That’s the main thing.”

Lester should get the benefit of the doubt, because he had the guts, the nerve and the will to beat cancer and cement his reputation as a big-game pitcher, winning two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox. Until the All-Star lefty shows why he got $155 million guaranteed, the Cubs are going to ride a different wave of momentum.

[MORE CUBS: The wait for Kris Bryant could be almost over]

Jorge Soler got his first curtain call, and that might have been the only time the Cuban outfielder got nervous on a two-homer, four-RBI night that had Lester comparing his raw power to David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez.

Joe Maddon pushed the right bullpen buttons as Brian Schlitter, Jason Motte, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon combined for four scoreless innings. Chris Coghlan finished a triple shy of the cycle and even played out of position at third base. Arismendy Alcantara finished the comeback with his first hit of the season, a bases-loaded, walk-off shot that started a mosh pit at the edge of the infield.

Without all that, the feeling would have been very different inside the interview room/dungeon after the Reds (4-3) hit Lester hard, putting up six runs on 10 hits in six innings.

Maybe Lester is still working through that “dead arm” that limited him in spring training.

“Obviously, I haven’t hit my stride yet, but I don’t want to use anything as a crutch,” Lester said. “Things have to be better. When you have (four) guys going out there and doing their jobs, when you’re the loose end of the chain, that’s never good.

“Back to work tomorrow. A lot of things to work on, a lot of things to improve on. And I’ll get back to being the front end of that chain instead of the back end and letting these guys down. It will be better.”

Two starts into a six-year contract is way too early to overreact, but all this can’t be completely ignored, either. Combine Lester’s performance against the Reds and an Opening Night loss to the St. Louis Cardinals and here’s what you get: Nine runs on 18 hits in 10.1 innings (plus 10 strikeouts).

“Physically, everything’s fine,” Lester said. “Absolutely.”

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Buy a Jorge Soler jersey here]

Maybe the Boston/Bristol/Chicago press corps has it all wrong and “the yips” are overblown. That storyline wouldn’t go away, either, even with the Reds sitting Billy Hamilton as their speedster dealt with an injured finger.

Lester got mock cheers from the crowd of 26,390 in the second inning after throwing over to first base for the first time since April 2013.

Moments later, Lester airmailed a ball that went nowhere near Anthony Rizzo, bouncing up and away from the right-field line and ricocheting off the rolled-up tarp and into the visiting bullpen. That’s where Soler picked it up and made what Maddon called a “ridiculous” throw to third base to nail Zack Cozart.

“It’s been awhile,” Lester said and sort of chuckled. “The second one, I got a little excited. I looked over there and the guy was going the other direction.

“When you’re not used to doing stuff like that, I just got a little overexcited and tried to throw the ball a little bit too soon. But once again, Georgie picked me up (and) makes a great play.

“There’s a lot of things to work on. That’s one of them. The adjustments that we’ve made through spring training until now have felt really, really good.

“It’s just a matter of doing it repeatedly and keeping those guys at bay, and we were able to do that. We had the one stolen base in the first and then after that kind of shut it down a little bit.”

Just like “the yips,” the Cubs being in first place in the middle of April will get blown out of proportion. But your mind can also wander and wonder what this team could look like if Lester really gets rolling as the No. 1 guy he’s supposed to be.

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”'s Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

USA TODAY'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, 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

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'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 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.