Cubs

Jon Lester’s big-game reputation gave Cubs credibility in rebuild

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Jon Lester’s big-game reputation gave Cubs credibility in rebuild

The Cubs know nine-figure contracts for 30-something pitchers are ticking time bombs. They understood what the data said when they gave Jon Lester six years and $155 million guaranteed. They felt like they couldn’t afford to not take the risk.

“His particular signing indicated to us – and to the fan base – this is definitely possible,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You need that kind of a presence – especially within your pitching staff – to get this particular moment. Jonny definitely has elevated us this season.”

A crowd of 40,432 didn’t get to see the Cubs clinch their playoff spot on a beautiful Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field. The Cubs had to wait at least several more hours to pop champagne bottles, their magic number stuck at one after a 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates that felt like an October preview.

Lester didn’t beat Gerrit Cole, but he showed why the Cubs will be dangerous if Jake Arrieta wins the National League’s wild-card game.

“We all know what’s in front of us,” said Lester, who allowed two runs across seven innings. “I don’t think there’s much more to learn until you actually get into the battle. We can talk about playoff atmosphere and playoff intensity and all that stuff.

“But until you’re actually there, it’s something that you can’t really describe and explain to guys.”

The Cubs wanted Lester to lead by example and believed he could handle anything after beating cancer and dealing with all the pressure and baggage that comes with wearing a Boston Red Sox uniform. 

This marked a turning point in the rebuild, the Ricketts ownership group taking the plunge and Theo Epstein’s front office making a splash in free agency. Lester also had to take a leap of faith to commit to a last-place team and believe all this young talent could play. 

This was before Arrieta turned into a 20-game winner and a top-two Cy Young Award candidate. Before Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber made their big-league debuts. Before we understood what The Maddon Effect would mean beyond Simon the Magician and Warren the Pink Flamingo.

“He grew up in an environment where every moment was big,” said David Ross, Lester’s personal catcher. “He learned to adapt to that and that’s why he’s a big-game pitcher. That’s why he’s got the reputation he does. That’s why he’s got two World Series rings. That’s why he gets paid all the money he gets paid. Those guys are hard to find in this game.”

[MORE: Joe Maddon: No place for retribution in Cubs-Pirates rivalry]

Maddon had seen enough of Lester while managing the Tampa Bay Rays – and probably had enough red wine that night – to confirm the deal as the news leaked out last December at the winter meetings in San Diego.

While Cubs officials couldn’t comment on the record, reporters spotted Maddon inside the Manchester Grand Hyatt and got a money quote: “We won the baseball lottery.”

“I (had) worked against him for so many years in Boston,” Maddon said. “It was never any fun. In the past, I saw him get better when it mattered. And that’s what he’s doing right now.”

Lester cruised into the seventh inning before giving up a leadoff double to ex-Cub Aramis Ramirez, who lined a ball into left field and got replaced by a pinch-runner. Francisco Cervelli’s sacrifice bunt set up Michael Morse, who drove a ball through the right side of a drawn-in infield to score the go-ahead run.

Lester is a quiet, thoughtful type who came here to make history and win another championship – not simply play meaningful games in September. But he is still going to party, whenever the Cubs clinch.

“We’ll let these guys that have never experienced this really enjoy it,” Lester said. “Hopefully, they don’t hold anything back. I know we got another week or so to go and a lot of things can happen. But not too many guys get the opportunity to play in the postseason.

“I hope guys really soak it in. I’ve played with a few guys through the years – Adam Dunn in particular waited (almost) 15 years to get to a one-game playoff – so hopefully these guys make sure they enjoy it when we do get in.”

[NBC SHOP: Buy a Jon Lester jersey here]

Lester’s 10-12 record for an 89-win team is misleading. The lefty’s put up a 3.43 ERA, 19 quality starts and almost 200 innings, plus the confidence and credibility that can’t be measured in a rebuilding situation. 

“We can play with these guys,” Lester said. “Look at Kansas City last year. No one expected them to go to the World Series, let alone the playoffs. You get hot at the right time.

“Your pitching staff falls into place at the right time, your bullpen falls into place at the right time, you get a couple big knocks. And you look up and you’re standing at the end – and hopefully you’re holding that trophy.”

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.