Cubs

Jon Lester ready to embrace the 'butterflies' again with Cubs in NLCS

Jon Lester ready to embrace the 'butterflies' again with Cubs in NLCS

LOS ANGELES - This is exactly the moment the Cubs signed Jon Lester for.

Though he's had four postseason starts already in a Cubs uniform, Lester's biggest outing will come Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, when his team will look to deliver a knockdown blow to the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series.

Lester will either represent the Cubs' best chance at advancing to the first World Series in a generation.

"It's comforting to know that he's ready to pitch [Thursday]," Joe Maddon said before Wednesday's Game 4 victory. "He's been very consistent all season long. Been there, done that, too. He's done that in Boston. He's doing it again here.

"... He's got this real calm demeanor and approach about him. [Game 1] at home, he wasn't his sharpest, but still gave us a strong opportunity to win that game, and we eventually did. 

"So, I like his mound demeanor right now. ... When he goes out there, you know he's going to be there. He's going to be in the present tense. He's not going to be overwhelmed with the moment, and you like those kind of attributes from the pitcher on that particular day."

In Game 1 of the NLCS, Lester didn't pick up the win, but he still sparked the Cubs to go up 1-0 in the series by allowing just one run in six innings.

Lester only threw 77 pitches in that outing, but Maddon opted to take him out for a chance to score a run in the sixth inning. It didn't work out and Lester admitted he was fuming at being pulled so early, but later calmed down and understood the decision.

"I don't get paid to make decisions," Lester said. "I pitch as long as he tells me to pitch. And as competitors in that particular moment, you're not happy with the decision.

"That doesn't mean that I'm going to go in there and yell at him or I don't trust him or I don't like him or anything like that. That's just being a competitor. If you wanted to get taken out of the game, then you probably aren't on this stage right now."

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

In what may be his last press conference of the year, Lester spent a lot of time looking back on his decision to sign with the Cubs.

Lester made a huge leap of faith to sign with a team that finished the 2014 season with 89 losses, but he trusted in Theo Epstein's front office and their assessment of the young guys like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell coming up through the system.

"I mean, it's tough. You're betting on words, really," Lester said. "We've all seen guys that are uber prospects that have gotten called up and don't turn into anything. So you just have to believe. 

"I like the fact that I knew Theo from Boston and dealt with him a lot on that. I think that relationship just helped lead to me kind of knowing he wasn't BS'ing me. And you can tell when people are talking about people how they actually feel about them. And these guys really, really believed in these young guys, like I said, not only as players but as people."

Two years later, both sides are happy with that $155 million deal.

The Cubs have won 200 games over the last two regular seasons and are now in the NLCS for the second straight October.

Lester has been brilliant in his two playoff starts this year - 0.62 ERA, 0.71 WHIP - and has been exactly what the Cubs wanted both on the mound and in the clubhouse. He presents a very difficult matchup for the lefty-heavy Dodgers lineup.

"Theo and Jed [Hoyer, Cubs GM] being able to pull that one off was huge for our advancement, there's no question," Maddon said.

Now, the Cubs need at least one more big game from their battle-tested ace with 112 postseason innings on his resume.

As the tension builds around a Cubs team that can't find its groove on offense, Lester admitted he has some nerves going into a critical Game 5.

"I'm always nervous," he said. "If it's a June start or if it's a World Series start, whatever, I always get butterflies. I've kind of always had the belief that if those butterflies leave, then it's time for me to go on home."

Lester also echoed his buddy John Lackey about how experience in the postseason can sometimes be overrated.

"Sometimes it's good to be naive and stupid and have no idea what that moment is like," Lester said. "And just go out there and, I've said it before - pitch dumb, play dumb. Have no idea what this moment means. Just go out and play. And I think sometimes that helps.

"Sometimes we can be - talking about numbers - we can be overloaded with information to where we're thinking about the wrong things instead of just enjoying the moment and playing."

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.”

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.