Cubs

Jon Lester sees changing of the guard in Cubs rotation, but won’t concede anything else: ‘We should win the World Series’

Jon Lester sees changing of the guard in Cubs rotation, but won’t concede anything else: ‘We should win the World Series’

Jon Lester is already bald and has white whiskers in his beard. He sounds older than 33, maybe because his nine seasons with the Boston Red Sox should be measured in dog years. He toasted his boy John Lackey’s presumed retirement last week as the Cubs celebrated their National League Central title.    

Lester sees the changing of the guard at the front of the rotation and knows he already accomplished exactly what the Cubs wanted when they signed him to a landmark six-year, $155 million contract after a last-place season in 2014.     

Lester sincerely respects Kyle Hendricks and believes he earned the Game 1 assignment against the Washington Nationals. But beyond that, Lester isn’t conceding anything in the best-of-five NL Division Series that begins Friday night at Nationals Park.  

“Last year, we had all these expectations,” Lester said during Wednesday’s workout at Wrigley Field. “We won a bunch of games and we were supposed to win the World Series. That, to me, is harder than defending the World Series. Going forward, we have really nothing to lose. We’re still a really good team and we should win the World Series.

“But Washington was the second-best team in (the NL). The Dodgers, I think, have a lot to lose, just playing so well all year. So now you get into the playoffs with the added pressure on yourself – and you start pressing and not being who you are – and you look up and you’re heading home.

“We’re in a good place. I like this team being underdogs. We got some very prideful guys on this team.”

Like Lester, who started Game 1 in all three playoff rounds last year and earned his third World Series ring in a borderline Hall of Fame career. The Cubs still trust Lester will figure it out in Saturday’s Game 2 against the Nationals. Even manager Joe Maddon admitted Lester closing the regular season at full strength would have changed the calculus for this decision. But Lester watched up close last year as Hendricks grew into an ERA titleholder, a Cy Young Award finalist and the World Series Game 7 starter.

“I’m happy for him,” Lester said. “This is kind of that next step. Hopefully, the next step for him is to go through the whole playoffs like that and then be our Opening Day starter next year. That’s a cool step. I remember back in the day when the torch was kind of passed to me to do that.”

This isn’t an ego thing for Lester, who went 13-8 with a 4.33 ERA this season, the stress from pitching in 14 career playoff series probably catching up to him while Hendricks got into a groove and put up a 2.19 ERA in 13 starts after the All-Star break.

“We’re a unit out there as our starting staff,” Lester said. “I’m not by any means mad. I’m not upset. I wasn’t going to be a Game 1 starter or an Opening Day starter for the rest of my career. At some point, somebody’s got to take it over. I’m really, really happy for him.”

Lester went on the disabled list with left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue in late August and made it through six up-and-down starts in September. The surface-level numbers were fine (5-1, 4.18 ERA), but opponents generated an .828 OPS while Lester struggled with his command and location (36 hits and 14 walks allowed in 32.1 innings). Even in good times, it can look like Lester is second-guessing himself and unsure about what to do next, which makes his bubbling frustrations stand out against the blank stares from Hendricks.

“Kyle’s the perfect guy for it – you never know what’s going through his head,” Lester said. “You hardly know he’s breathing out there. As an emotional guy out there, to me, that’s the most impressive part, how he doesn’t allow (anything to get to him).

“How he goes about his business out there, you’d never know if he’s up 10, down 10, if it’s Game 7 or if it’s an April 15 start.”

Lester always envisioned the Cubs being good for a long time – and not just a one-and-done champion – as he transitioned into more of a supporting role. You can see the future with Jose Quintana lined up for Game 3 at Wrigley Field and his first playoff experience. There is the worst-case possibility that looming free agent/Game 4 starter (if necessary) Jake Arrieta may have already thrown his final pitch in a Cubs uniform as he continues to try to strengthen a strained right hamstring.

[MORE: Kyle Hendricks gets the Game 1 start for Cubs

Not that the Cubs are thinking in those terms or that Lester would ever sell this team short, even as he makes way for Hendricks and maybe sees the beginning of the end of his reign as the staff’s ace.   

“We’re not anxious,” Lester said. “Basically 95 percent of our team has been through everything, so there’s not going to be anything that surprises us as we go along this journey.”

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

adbert.jpg
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.