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Lester struggles as Dodgers blank Cubs in finale

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Lester struggles as Dodgers blank Cubs in finale

With the Cubs already facing plenty of questions with their starting rotation, the last thing they needed was a rough outing from Jon Lester.

Yet that's exactly what happened Thursday.

Lester lasted just four innings, allowing four runs on four hits and four walks as the Cubs dropped the series finale 4-0 to the Los Angeles Dodgers in front of the largest crowd of the season at Wrigley Field (41,498).

Lester got out to a rough start after the second batter of the game - Jimmy Rollins - reached on a bunt base hit.  Lester then walked the next two hitters before Howie Kendrick lined a double inside the right-field line. 

"Jon didn't have his best day," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "It really came down to fastball command. He just didn't have that going on. And of course, if you don't have that, nothing else plays well off it.

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"That's what I saw. The fastball just wasn't going where he wanted it to go."

Lester agreed.

"Physically, I felt fine," he said. "Obviously, didn't have great location today. It's hard to pitch when you're Ball 1, Ball 2 all day."

Lester gave up two more runs in a second inning that was marred by home plate umpire Andy Fletcher marching out to the mound and apparently barking at Lester after the southpaw walked a Dodgers hitter. 

Catcher David Ross intercepted Fletcher and Maddon eventually came out too and order was restored before too long.

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"I didn't know what was going on," Lester said. "I had my back to the whole thing. When I yelled, I guess he thought it was directed at him. I had my head down, wasn't looking at him, wasn't looking at anybody.

"... Obviously I had been struggling with command. I know the strike zone's not gonna be great when you're struggling with command. You kinda almost surprise the umpire when you throw a strike."

Lester settled in after the second, retiring the last six hitters he faced. Still, manager Joe Maddon opted to lift the Cubs ace for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the fourth.

"Everything this year has been an adjustment period," Lester said. "It's a different game over here. There's been times in my career where I've given up four in the first and gotten into the eighth.

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"That just doesn't happen here [in the National League]. It's a different game when you don't have the DH."

Lester has now allowed 17 earned runs in five June starts, good for a 5.74 ERA. It looked like he had turned a corner in May (1.76 ERA) after a tough April (6.23 ERA) and the $155-million man had surrendered just two runs in 13.1 innings his last two starts before Thursday, including just one run in 6.1 innings over the weekend in Minnesota.

"I thought he threw really well his last outing," catcher David Ross said. "He pitched great. He hasn't been as consistent as he wanted to be. I think he just had a bad day."

Lester admitted frustration in his inconsistency and said he may be trying to nibble too much in an attempt to make the perfect pitch instead of just attacking the zone and going after hitters.

Following Thursday's start, Lester's season ERA sits at 4.03 to go with a 1.37 WHIP.

"It just comes down to the things I keep preaching and harping on: Fastball location and executing pitching," Lester said. "That's what it comes down to and I'm not doing it consistently enough right now to help this team."

The Cubs have a lot of problems with the back end of their rotation and will need more from Lester if they want to keep the good times rolling late into the season.

Tsuyoshi Wada is working through cramps in his throwing shoulder and the team still doesn't know if he can make his scheduled start Saturday. Meanwhile, Kyle Hendricks has allowed 10 runs in 10 innings his last two starts and carries a 5.88 ERA in June.

The Cubs failed to capitalize on a hot start in the statement series against the Dodgers after they beat Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke on back-to-back nights. Now they head into St. Louis for a three-game series with the Cardinals on a down note.

"Going into [the series], 2-2 sounds nice," Maddon said. "But once you get to that point early, you definitely at least want to win the series.

"So there's both contentment and disappointment involved in that series."

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.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.