Cubs

Jon Lester delivered for Cubs in Year 1 of megadeal

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Jon Lester delivered for Cubs in Year 1 of megadeal

Jon Lester’s World-Series-or-bust mentality softened at the end of this unreal season.

Lester had been signed for the parade down Michigan Avenue, and fair or not, that’s how his time in Chicago will be ultimately judged. But after the New York Mets swept the Cubs out of the National League Championship Series, Lester stood at his locker and looked at the bigger picture.

“You can only take positives (from this),” Lester said inside Wrigley Field’s home clubhouse. “And I would hope that everybody in here harps on the positives (and) thinks about all the good things we did this year, all the strides that we made to get to this point. It’s hard to get to this point.”

Momentum can shift so fast in this game – the unbeatable Mets entered this weekend at Citi Field down 0-2 to the Kansas City Royals in the World Series – but Lester is anchored here through at least the 2020 season with full no-trade rights.

[RELATED - After tough season, Javier Baez expects big things in 2016]

To get back to this point, the Cubs will need more than Lester and Jake Arrieta at the top of their rotation, and pitching will be the No. 1 priority for Theo Epstein’s front office this winter.

Lester understood that $155 million would follow him for the rest of his career, and he wouldn’t get defensive when the Chicago media pointed out his salary, “the yips” and how much he means to the rise of this franchise.

You didn’t have to look too far beneath the surface or dig too deep into the numbers to see that Lester lived up to his end of the bargain in Year 1, even with a losing record (11-12) on a 97-win team.

Lester finished with a 3.34 ERA and set the franchise’s new single-season record for strikeouts by a lefty (207). He made 30-plus starts for the eighth straight year and put up more than 200 innings for the seventh time in his career. His WHIP (1.122) and Fielding Independent Pitching (2.92) only trailed his outstanding 2014 walk year with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland A’s.

Lester also admitted it was an up-and-down season that didn’t leave him completely satisfied. The newness for such a routine-obsessed pitcher and that “dead arm” in spring training probably contributed to a 6.23 ERA in April. 

[RELATED - Unfinished business: Epstein built Cubs into World Series contender in Year 4]

Lester got distracted when he looked over to first base and had trouble replicating the throws he could make in practice, leaving him vulnerable at times in the running game, even when he varied his times to home plate and threw thinly veiled pitchouts. 

Opponents stole more bases off Lester (44) than any other pitcher in the majors. Even if that’s like a strong NFL defense that gives up chunks of yardage while minimizing points, it will become a point of emphasis again in Mesa, Arizona.

“I probably didn’t pitch to the full (level) I expected to pitch this year,” Lester said. “But I’ll go into the offseason and work on the things I need to work on, and come back to spring training ready to go. And, hopefully, get off to a better start than I did this year. Hopefully, we won’t have any setbacks.”  

The Cubs also lost both of Lester’s playoff starts, and while he didn’t pitch poorly, he also didn’t quite live up to his reputation as a big-game performer.

Still, no regrets: The Cubs and Lester would do this megadeal all over again. (But it might take closer to – or north of – $200 million to land David Price.)

“I never look back,” Lester said. “Regardless of what the outcome was this year – if we won the World Series or if we finished out of the playoff race – we spent a lot of time making sure that this was the right decision.

“Obviously, I came here to try to win a World Series. We came up a little short this year. But regardless of the outcome of this year, (it’s) been nothing but a pleasure to play here (and) be a part of this community.”

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Chicago can be a strange place for a big-name free agent – and eventually Lester will hit a wall and begin the decline phase of this contract – but the Cubs should feel good about the direction this is heading in Year 2.

“There is obviously a different comfort level now than there was then,” Lester said. “This clubhouse is really tight. I feel like everybody feels like family. Everybody pulls for each other. It’s still the cliché of great chemistry and all that stuff, (but) I do believe this clubhouse is a special clubhouse.

“It’s been a fun year to see (how the fans have) embraced us as a team in the city. It’s just been a great year for us all, (and) especially (for me) being able to kind of relax a little bit more and settle in and call Chicago home.”

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.