Jon Lester keeps Cubs focused on winning World Series this year


Jon Lester keeps Cubs focused on winning World Series this year

NEW YORK – Jon Lester won two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox, but he missed out on being part of the 2004 team that will live forever at Fenway Park.

“Those guys are legends in Boston,” Lester said. “I always use the comparison that Dave Roberts stole one base — and this guy hasn’t paid for a meal or drink since.”

Lester couldn’t legally buy a beer in 2004, spending most of that season with a Class-A affiliate, making the steady climb toward Boston that would turn him into a three-time All-Star and one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation. Still, those Red Sox championship teams in 2007 and 2013 will never be remembered like the “Band of Idiots.”

The Cubs appealed to Lester’s ego and sense of history when they signed him to a six-year, $155 million megadeal last winter, selling losing and 1908 to a proven winner.  

“It’s got to end sometime, right?” Lester said Friday at Citi Field, a little more than 24 hours before he would start Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against the New York Mets.

[MORE: Jake Arrieta and Matt Harvey pushing the limits in NLCS]

Four wins away from the franchise’s first World Series trip since 1945, this is the absolute best-case scenario the Cubs painted when Lester made his recruiting visit to Chicago last November.

Cubs president Theo Epstein, the former Red Sox general manager, knew which buttons to push during a presentation that involved multiple departments. The Cubs explained what the organization could do for Lester’s charitable foundation, how Chicago’s a livable city for young families, when Wrigley Field’s renovations will take shape and why all this young talent would create a perennial contender. 

But after five straight fifth-place finishes, Epstein also didn’t want to overpromise in Year 1 of that symbolic contract. If everything broke right, maybe the Cubs could get into the playoffs as a wild-card team and get hot at the right time, like the Kansas City Royals team that made it to Game 7 of last year’s World Series.

“We spent a lot of time talking about 2016 and beyond,” Epstein said, “and what we would look like and how we thought at that time we would be consistent contenders.

“He kept bringing the conversation back to 2015. He said: ‘Hey, I’ve just been through a season in Boston where we tried to break in a lot of young players and it got me in last place and got me traded. I’m not looking to go through that again.’”

As advertised, Lester made 30-plus starts for the eighth year in a row and put up his seventh season with at least 200 innings, but this would be a team full of unknowns, X-factors and unique chemistry that could never be measured by numbers.

Internally, the Cubs predicted between 84 and 86 wins this year, though a critical mass of potential big-league talent created a bigger variance than usual in those preseason projections.

“It didn’t take much for (Theo) to convince me about these young guys,” Lester said. “He sat there and gave me highlight after highlight and number after number on these guys and what they projected them to do.

“The biggest thing that sold me (on) the whole organization was just how arrogant he was about it. And I mean that in a good way. He was very confident in what he (had done) to that point to get this team to the next step. (That) was the most impressive part — just how confident he was (that) these guys were not going to be failures.”

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Kris Bryant — a slam-dunk choice for Rookie of the Year — has now played almost as many games in the majors (151 plus a third playoff round coming) as the minors (181). Kyle Schwarber — already a playoff legend in Wrigleyville — had been in instructional league at this time last year. Addison Russell (21), Javier Baez (22) and Jorge Soler (23) should just be getting started.

“They weren’t going to be a bust when the scouting report gets out (or) get exposed,” Lester said. “You really understand now what he saw. It’s not just baseball players — they’re good kids. They compete. They show up every day to play.

“The hardest thing for me to learn at a young age was (how) to be prepared to do my job (every) day. They do it day in and day-out (and) bust their butt.”

If the young Cubs live up to the hype, Lester will never have to buy dinner or pay for a drink in Chicago for the rest of his life. 

“It’s fun to think about,” Lester said, “but we’ve got some games to go before we get there.”

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


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.”