Jon Lester ready for Year 2 after taking leap of faith with Cubs


Jon Lester ready for Year 2 after taking leap of faith with Cubs

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.

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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.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

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.

Willson Contreras' bat-flip game is already in midseason form

Willson Contreras' bat-flip game is already in midseason form

The MLB regular season is still 13 days away, but Willson Contreras is ready for the swings to count.

The Cubs catcher hit an absolute bomb of a homer Friday afternoon off White Sox pitcher Reynaldo Lopez, but it wasn't just a homer.

Contreras put an exclamation mark on the dinger (his third of the spring and the second this week) with an A+ bat flip:

I'm not sure what's more majestic: The 450-foot shot or the 45-foot bat-flip.

Either way, Contreras is ready for those 2018 NL MVP votes.

Cubs opposition research: It's an even year, so count on a Giants comeback


Cubs opposition research: It's an even year, so count on a Giants comeback

The expectations couldn't be any higher for the 2018 Chicago Cubs. 

It's 2016 all over again. The goal isn't just a trip to the playoffs or another NL pennant. It's World Series or bust for this group of North Siders.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

San Francisco Giants

2017 record: 64-98, last place in NL West

Offseason additions: Andrew McCutchen, Evan Longoria, Austin Jackson, Gregor Blanco, Tony Watson, Julian Fernandez

Offseason departures: Michael Morse, Matt Cain, Matt Moore, Denard Span, Kyle Crick, Christian Arroyo

X-factor: Brandon Belt

The trades for Longoria and McCutchen are going to get all the attention, but the Giants are sort of acquiring Belt, too. 

Their sweet-swining lefty first baseman only appeared in 104 games in 2017, missing the last few weeks of the season with a bad concussion. When he was on the field, he led the team in both homers (18) and walks (66) despite just 451 plate appearances. 

Belt has turned into one of the most patient hitters in the game and if he is able to stay healthy for a full season, would slot in perfectly in the 2-hole ahead of McCutchen, Longoria and Buster Posey. 

Projected lineup

1. Joe Panik - 2B
2. Brandon Belt - 1B
3. Andrew McCutchen - RF
4. Buster Posey - C
5. Evan Longoria - 3B
6. Hunter Pence - LF
7. Brandon Crawford - SS
8. Austin Jackson - CF

Projected rotation

1. Madison Bumgarner
2. Johnny Cueto
3. Jeff Samardzija
4. Ty Blach
5. Chris Stratton


The Giants tied for the worst record in Major League Baseball in 2017, surprising many around the league. Absolutely nothing went right for the team, from a lack of power on the field (Belt missed a third of the season and still led the team in homers), injuries (Bumgarner only made 17 starts) and general ineffectiveness (Mark Melancon).

But the Giants are a team that excels in even years, though the Cubs may have broken that juju by knocking San Fran out of the NLDS in 2016.

Still, between the return to health of key players and some big moves that improved the lineup, this team is primed for a return to form.

Watson is a nice piece at the back end of the bullpen and bet on a rebound from Melancon, who was one of the best late-inning relievers in the game from 2013-16 (1.80 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 147 saves).

Expect more out of the rotation with Bumgarner and Cueto a dynamic 1-2 punch. Cubs fans are familiar with what Samardzija can do if he gets on a role, too.

It seems crazy to pick the Giants to finish higher than the Diamondbacks, but they still have the same core of players from the championship years and have a much-improved roster.

Prediction: Second place in NL West, wild-card team

Complete opposition research

San Diego Padres
Colorado Rockies
Arizona Diamondbacks
San Franciso Giants