Cubs

What’s wrong with Jon Lester? And is there enough time for Cubs to fix it?

What’s wrong with Jon Lester? And is there enough time for Cubs to fix it?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Even in the good times, Jon Lester doesn’t really have great body language, trying to channel his emotions, use that competitive anger and stay focused on the next pitch, so there was no way for him to hide his frustrations this time.

Lester handed the ball to manager Joe Maddon on Wednesday night at Tropicana Field and trudged back toward the visiting dugout with his head down and his team down six runs in the fifth inning of an 8-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays that left the Cubs searching for answers.

What’s wrong with Lester? That question snapped the Cubs out of a seven-game winning streak, the talk about playoff rotations and the computer simulations that project the defending World Series champs as a 90-something percent lock to make the postseason again.

The good news for the Cubs is the Milwaukee Brewers failed to gain ground heading into the four-game showdown that begins Thursday night at Miller Park. The magic number to clinch the National League Central is eight after Milwaukee’s 6-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But it’s difficult to see the Cubs going on a long October run when Lester – a three-time World Series champion and the Game 1 starter in all three playoff rounds last year – looks this lost. Since coming off the disabled list – the Cubs termed it left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue – Lester has made four September starts vs. non-contenders and given up 27 hits and 12 walks in 21.1 innings.

“We’re not going to go make excuses and say that’s why I didn’t throw the ball well,” Lester said. “Physically, it’s September. You’re going to have ups and downs. I feel fine. There’s no lingering effects from anything. No, there’s nothing physically wrong.”

Are you convinced Lester is 100 percent healthy?

“He’s not saying anything,” Maddon said. “I don’t see any grimace and I don’t see any like hitch in the giddy-up. I don’t see anything. Since he’s come back, he’s had some wins, but none of them have been necessarily Jon Lester sharp.”

At a time when the $155 million ace is supposed to be building toward October, Lester didn’t have any rhythm – Steven Souza Jr. launched a 92-mph fastball over the fence in left-center field in the first inning – or the stuff to finish off the Rays (zero strikeouts, 23 batters faced).

Lester did his John Lackey impression in the second inning, screaming, stomping and staring when Brad Miller chopped a ball that bounced past first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s glove and into right field for a 2-0 lead.

The Rays have enough history with Lester after their battles against the Boston Red Sox in the American League East and appeared to try to get in his head. Peter Bourjos dropped a perfect bunt, Kevin Kiermaier knocked another RBI single up the middle and Lester escaped only when second baseman Javier Baez started an inning-ending double play on the other side of the bag.

By the fifth inning, Lester was hesitating and making two wobbly throws while Souza stole second and third base. Lester then drilled Evan Longoria’s left foot with a pitch and walked Logan Morrison to load the bases. Wilson Ramos finally knocked out Lester after 86 pitches with a two-run single into right field.

“Obviously, there is some concern,” Maddon said. “I don’t have any reason to give you – other than he had a tough night – and I don’t know why. It just looked different from the side, because we’re normally used to seeing sharp-cornered pitches and a little bit better velocity with everything. It just wasn’t there.”

Lester now has only two regular-season starts left to find it and fix this.

“I’m not worried about it,” Lester said. “When you pitch a long time, and you play this game a long time, you’re going to have the ups and downs. Anybody can have one good year. It’s a matter of going out there and consistently doing it.

“You got to take the good with the bad. We’ll make an adjustment and figure it out. The good thing is it’s not physical. It’s just a matter of getting back to what has been working for me in the past and making those adjustments.”

Cubs will be open for business as Theo Epstein weighs trading hitters for pitching

Cubs will be open for business as Theo Epstein weighs trading hitters for pitching

Theo Epstein answered questions from the Chicago media for more than an hour on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field, but the most interesting part might have been what the Cubs president didn’t say, something along the lines of: These are our guys.

Or at least Epstein didn’t give the same full-throated endorsement of The Core that he delivered after engineering the Jose Quintana trade with the White Sox this summer, getting an All-Star pitcher without giving up anyone from the big-league roster.

Whether it’s the way the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the Cubs throughout the National League Championship Series that ended Thursday night, the inconsistencies and frustrations during a 43-45 first half of this season or the reality of losing 40 percent of the rotation, you walked out of that stadium club press conference thinking big changes could be coming.

“We’re going to pursue all avenues to get better,” Epstein said.

The Cubs already understood this would be a challenging time to dramatically reshape their pitching staff, with Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta, Big Boy John Lackey and All-Star closer Wade Davis about to become free agents.

The Cubs don’t really have many (any?) high-end, headliner prospects left to trade after borrowing heavily from their farm system to acquire Aroldis Chapman for last year’s World Series run and get Quintana to help solidify the rotation through 2020.

All of Major League Baseball is looking beyond this winter and preparing for the monster free-agent class that will hit the open market after the 2018 season.

Meaning it’s time for the Cubs to make some difficult decisions about all these young hitters they’ve collected.

“It may or may not be,” Epstein said. “Those choices, they’re not unilateral things. You can’t sit there and decide: ‘Hey, this guy, we’re moving him.’ Because you don’t know what the return might be. You don’t know how the different moving parts might fit together.

“I think going into the offseason prepared to make some tough choices and execute on them — and keeping an open mind to anything — is appropriate under the circumstances where we have some obvious deficits and we have some real surplus with talented players who are really desirable.”

Let’s assume All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo, MVP third baseman Kris Bryant and catcher Willson Contreras are essentially untouchable.

The Cubs used the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft on Ian Happ with the explicit idea that the college hitter should be on a fast track and could be flipped for pitching later: Is it time to sell high after the rookie just put up 24 homers and an .842 OPS?

During an exit meeting with Albert Almora Jr., Epstein said he couldn’t promise an everyday job in 2018, though the expectation would be more responsibilities: Think anyone else would be interested in a potential Gold Glove center fielder who’s already playoff-tested?

Do you want Addison Russell or Javier Baez as your everyday shortstop for the next four years? Is there an American League team willing to bet big that Kyle Schwarber will crush 40 homers a year as a designated hitter?

The Cubs have to ask themselves those types of questions, which could mean getting outside of their comfort zone and taking on some riskier pitching investments and sapping the strength that has turned them into the dominant force in the NL Central.

“We’ve really benefitted from having two or three extra — and ‘extra’ in quotes because they’re not really extra — starting-caliber players on the roster,” Epstein said. “That helped us win 97 games in ’15, 103 last year, 92 this year. That’s as big a part of the club as anything.

“Having an Addison Russell go down and being able to move Javy Baez to shortstop — that’s an obvious example of it. But those things show up every week for us. There’s a day where someone can’t make the lineup and someone else slides in and you’re still starting eight quality guys. That’s huge.

“Sooner or later, you reach a point where you have to strongly consider sacrificing some of that depth to address needs elsewhere on the club. There’s no sort of deadline to do that. But I think we’re entering the phase where we have to be really open-minded to that if it makes the overall outlook of the team and organization better.”

Translation: The Cubs are open for business. Make your best offer.

Cubs Talk Podcast: 2017 season obituary and previewing an interesting winter for Cubs

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: 2017 season obituary and previewing an interesting winter for Cubs

In the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull, Patrick Mooney and Tony Andracki close the book on the 2017 season following Theo Epstein’s press conference, looking back at what will go down as the craziest calendar year in Cubs history from last November through the team’s loss in the NLCS this October.

Moving forward, where do guys like Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Justin Wilson and Mike Montgomery fit? Will the Cubs re-sign Wade Davis or go after another proven closer? And how worried should fans be about the offense that completely disappeared in the postseason?

Take a listen below: