This was supposed to be the breakthrough year when the Cubs made their recruiting pitch to Jon Lester. No one projected the 2015 team would win 97 games and advance to the National League Championship Series.
Chicago will always be a destination for free agents, because even Cubs players on last-place teams get treated like royalty in this city. In the end, money talks, and the Cubs guaranteed six years and $155 million, caving on that no no-trade clause policy.
But Lester had to trust Theo Epstein’s front office in a way that John Lackey, Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward did not. Lester had to believe ownership would boost payroll, support a playoff contender and eventually finish the Wrigley Field renovation by raising a World Series flag.
Lester had to believe in the scouting reports on Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber, which sounds obvious now but would have been a leap in November 2014 for a three-time All-Star who’s already won two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox.
“You put a lot of faith in these guys when you sign here that they’re going to do what they say,” Lester said. “And they’ve done more.”
Lester won’t be the focus next week when pitchers and catchers officially report to the Sloan Park complex. There will be so many other storylines in Mesa, Arizona.
Jake Arrieta is the unquestioned ace of the pitching staff, a Cy Young Award winner who will have to prove he can bounce back after throwing almost 250 innings last year.
Heyward now has the biggest contract in franchise history, an eight-year, $184 million megadeal for a Gold Glove outfielder who doesn’t have to be a superstar, just part of the supporting cast.
Lackey – Lester’s buddy from Boston and a player Cubs Twitter loved to hate when he pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals – will have to deal with the welcome-to-Chicago adjustment period.
“Any time you walk into a room and you know who everybody is, you’re more relaxed,” Lester said. “I’ve been here for a year. I understand how everything works. I think people have gotten to know me a little bit.
“Last year, I felt like I needed to do a little bit more at certain times than I’m used to just because of everything that comes with what was going on last year.
“I feel like this year, I can just go out and do my normal routine and not have to worry about getting off to a good start in spring training. My concern is getting off to a good start in the season.
“I wanted to impress people a little bit too early last year and obviously it set me back. That’s stuff you learn.”
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Lester experienced a “dead arm” and threw less than nine innings in the Cactus League last year. His Opening Night debut will be remembered for the bathroom debacle at Wrigley Field and the ESPN broadcast highlighting the lefty’s issues throwing over to first base. He wound up finishing with a losing record (11-12) and losing both of his playoff starts.
But that obviously doesn’t tell the story of Lester’s first season on the North Side. He made 30-plus starts for the eighth consecutive year. He passed the 200-innings mark for the seventh time.
Lester’s 3.34 ERA marked an improvement from his career numbers in the American League (3.58). He also ranked as a top-15 NL pitcher in terms of strikeouts (207), WHIP (1.122), quality starts (21), batting average against (.240) and opponents’ OPS (.661).
“I don’t do anything flashy,” Lester said. “I’ve never been a flashy guy. I don’t have electric stuff. I don’t do anything that makes anybody go ‘Wow!’
“I just put my hat on, grab my glove and go out and pitch as best I can every day. If you look at it that way, I did my job.
“All the other numbers, I think they were probably right around my career norm. It was a good season as far as making all my starts and being healthy (after) dealing with all the stuff in spring training.”
Lester has long-term security, but he will still feel a sense of urgency at the age of 32. The window won’t stay open forever, there are no guarantees with young players and the history of nine-figure contracts for pitchers is filled with bad investments.
If the 2015 Cubs arrived a year ahead of schedule, there is no doubt that this team is all-in for this season: It’s World Series or bust.