With playoffs looming, is Jon Lester back where he needs to be?

With playoffs looming, is Jon Lester back where he needs to be?

If Jon Lester is going to continue the recent tradition of taking the ball for every Game 1 of a Cubs postseason series, he's in a good spot.

The veteran southpaw tossed five shutout innings Saturday in a 9-0 win over the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field in his final tune-up before the playoffs. 

That now makes just one earned run on nine hits and a pair of walks in 11 innings over the last week for Lester, a far cry from the 14 earned runs he gave up in 21.1 innings in his first four starts since returning from the disabled list on Sept. 2.

Lester struck out seven Reds and walked none, using 75 pitches to get through the five innings, a total Cubs manager Joe Maddon believes is a "theoretically perfect" number.

So is Lester back to where he needs to be?

"I feel good," he said. "The last two have been a lot better as far as being able to repeat and command the baseball and throw those different pitches. Kinda got back to throwing a lot more fastballs. But obviously, the teams and the guys that you face dictate that as well with what you're trying to do.

"It feels good to be crisp. ... Good to have good command. Mixed in all our pitches and threw some pitches in different counts that we normally don't throw. So it was good. Had some weak contact. They hit a couple balls hard, but guys made some good plays on'em, so that was good."

The Cubs are still mulling over who their Game 1 starter is Friday in Washington D.C., but it appears as if Lester and Kyle Hendricks are the two options with Maddon already confirming Jake Arrieta would be pushed back and Jose Quintana joining Arrieta in Wednesday's simulated game.

"I don't make those decisions," Lester said. "I told somebody the other day, if they so choose to make me Game 1, obviously that's a huge honor, a huge responsibility to put on your shoulders and go out there and try to get your team off to the best start.

"But if I'm in any of the other games, go out there and compete, just like I would any other start."

Maddon said there are still a "couple moving parts" to nail down before the Cubs make their final decision.

"I hope it's not complex. I don't like complex; I just like simplex," Maddon said, smirking.

Lester finishes the season with a 4.33 ERA and 1.32 WHIP, his worst yearly totals since 2012 (4.82 ERA, 1.38 WHIP). 2017 also marked only the second time over the last decade Lester has not reached the 200-inning plateau in a season.

But even for a guy who has a career 2.63 ERA in 133.2 postseason innings spanning 22 games, Lester admits he has some anxiety before every start.

Whether he goes Game 1 or Game 2 next weekend in D.C., he'll have Sunday through Thursday to go through his normal between-starts routine.

"I don't really get anxious until the day of," Lester said. "I think I'm so engrossed in my routine and what I'm doing and what I'm trying to prepare for.

"And then when you get to that day, it's kinda 'OK, I don't know what to do.' And then I have to pitch. That's when the anxiety and the nervousness kicks in."

CubsTalk Podcast: The cost to get Chris Archer and how Brandon Morrow can fill an Andrew Miller-esque role


CubsTalk Podcast: The cost to get Chris Archer and how Brandon Morrow can fill an Andrew Miller-esque role

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Tony Andracki and Kelly Crull break down where Brandon Morrow and Drew Smyly fit in the Cubs' pitching plans while Kyle Schwarber craziness reaches new heights.

Peter Gammons and Bob Nightengale weigh Schwarber’s trade value and how likely it may be that the Cubs could secure a Chris Archer, Gerrit Cole or Michael Fulmer this winter. Nightengale also explains how Brandon Morrow could fill an Andrew Miller-esque role for the Cubs.

Plus, Cubs manager Joe Maddon stops by the CubsTalk Podcast to chat with Kelly about his offseason gameplan and why he’s still such a staunch believer in rest even when away from baseball.

Listen to the entire podcast here:

Where Brandon Morrow and Drew Smyly fit in Cubs pitching plans for 2018 and beyond

Where Brandon Morrow and Drew Smyly fit in Cubs pitching plans for 2018 and beyond

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Brandon Morrow is officially official as a member of the Cubs pitching staff (finally), and the team also added another intriguing arm Tuesday night at the Winter Meetings.

The Cubs announced a two-year deal for Morrow with a club/vesting option for 2020. They also signed left-handed pitcher Drew Smyly on a two-year deal worth a reported $10 million, though the 28-year-old pitcher had Tommy John in June and likely won't contribute much in 2018.

The Cubs are looking toward the future with Smyly as a possible 2019 rotation piece. If he's able to return at all in 2018, it will probably only be as a bullpen option.

"This is a move that’s focused on 2019," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said Tuesday night. "Really good high-quality starting pitcher, and we’re excited to get him on this deal, rehab him and hopefully get him back to exactly where he was.”

Smyly did not pitch at all in 2017 and was non-tendered by the Seattle Mariners on Dec. 1. He made 30 starts for the Tampa Bay Rays (and new Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey) in 2016, going 7-12 with a 4.88 ERA. Joe Maddon also managed Smyly for a couple months at the end of the 2014 season.

“Both [Hickey and Maddon] liked him a lot," Hoyer said. "We talked to Jim about him, thinks really highly of him, says he’s exceptionally deceptive with how he pitches.

"Both his fastball and his curveball are really deceptive, good cutter and loves how he competes. So Jim was a big part of us wanting to do this.”

Smyly was one of the pieces that went from the Detroit Tigers to the Rays for David Price at the trade deadline in 2014. In his first 19 starts with the Rays between 2014 and 2015, Smyly went 8-3 with a 2.52 ERA and 121 strikeouts in 114.1 innings.

With Smyly not expected to impact 2018's rotation, the Cubs might still be in the market for another starting pitcher this winter, or they might choose to honor Mike Montgomery's wishes and insert him into the rotation full-time (and subsequently look for a potential swingman for the bullpen and rotation depth).

It'd be hard to just hand Smyly a spot in the 2019 Cubs rotation, but the Cubs committing somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million on a two-year deal indicates they're serious about his long-term potential. Plus, he won't turn 30 until June 2019.

The Cubs also have their other four starters — Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood — all signed through the 2020 season, so either they won't be in hard on long-term free-agent signings like Alex Cobb or would just stockpile pitching and sort out any possible six-man rotation issues a year from now.

As of right now, Morrow would serve as the Cubs' closer, but they're still in the market for impact relief pitching and are open to anything. Morrow is also a guy that could slot in as a setup man or high-leverage guy coming in at the most opportune time in the game, even if that means the fifth or sixth inning.

“Did an awesome job in the eighth inning last year for the Dodgers," Hoyer said. "We’re excited to have him. He’s going to pitch super high-leverage innings. If the season started tomorrow and we played a game, he’d be our closer.”