Cubs

Why Cubs bet $155 million on Jon Lester's left elbow

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Why Cubs bet $155 million on Jon Lester's left elbow

MESA, Ariz. — Jon Lester doesn’t worry about what-if scenarios or how his $155 million contract might end with the Cubs.

Medical technology has advanced to the point where reading MRIs is essentially just as much art as science, trying to make an educated guess when the ticking time bomb might explode.

As Lester said: “You can take any pitcher in this game that’s pitched as long as I have and stick him in a tube – you’re going to find something.”

That’s what happened early in Lester’s free-agent process after the 2014 season, as first reported by Yahoo! Sports baseball columnist Jeff Passan in his upcoming book “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports.”

“The ultrasound on Lester’s elbow confirmed the presence of something he long suspected lurked inside: a bone chip,” Passan wrote. “The UCL itself looked fine, thankfully, and the range of motion…was better than expected, but a little grenade floated near his ligament, and at some point it would warrant surgery.”

[MORE: Joe Maddon lets Cubs lay down the law in clubhouse]

Lester understood the questions after throwing five innings during Sunday afternoon’s 5-2 win over the Kansas City Royals at Sloan Park. He recently read the chapter – “Pay the Man” – that reconstructs how the Boston Red Sox insulted him with a lowball offer and why Theo Epstein’s front office made such a personal recruiting pitch.

“There is stuff that every other pitcher in this game has to manage,” Lester said. “We all know that there are partial tears and ligament weaknesses and bone chips and any other thing you can imagine that’s probably wrong with us.

“But it’s all about what you can do effectively on that mound.”

The Cubs wanted Lester’s big-market, big-game experience – he won two World Series rings with the Red Sox – and bet on his left-handed delivery and 6-foot-4, 240-pound body.

Lester has topped the 200-inning mark in seven of his last eight seasons, making 30-plus starts for eight consecutive years and earning three All-Star selections.

“Regardless of what an MRI shows, you can throw a pitch and blow out,” Lester said. “That’s the risk of the game. I’ve been pitching a long time. I’ve dealt with different (things) through the years.

“I think my track record speaks for itself. And I haven’t missed any time for any elbow problems. Knock on wood.”

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The Cubs went into this with their eyes wide open, knowing the history of nine-figure contracts for pitchers is littered with bad investments and understanding they would have to overpay someone to front the rotation and accelerate this rebuilding process.

Epstein’s Boston-centric baseball-operations department had unique insight and a comfort level after watching Lester grow up in the Red Sox organization and beat a form of lymphoma.

Lester is now 32 years old, with full no-trade rights and a guaranteed contract that runs through the 2020 season.

“I read what Theo said,” Lester said. “He hit the nail on the head when it comes down to knowing me — and knowing my strength program — and how I go about my work. And what I try to do in between starts — and the offseason — to maintain a healthy body and a healthy arm.

“To be honest, I don’t think I would have failed the physical. But I think that (eased) Theo’s mind, knowing where I came from, being with him for so long and what I’ve been through and the work that I put in every five days to be prepared to pitch.

“If you look back on (my) DL time (in) the big leagues, it’s been for two things — cancer and a lat strain — so there hasn’t been any elbow problems. I don’t think it was a huge issue for those guys.”

Lester’s mental block throwing to first base is an issue, and he made another error on Sunday against the Kansas City team that forced the tempo during the 2014 American League wild-card game.

But Lester still looked sharp enough against the defending World Series champs, allowing two runs (one earned) with four strikeouts and one walk in front of a record crowd (15,523) for spring training.

“I think he’s throwing the ball as well as I’ve ever seen him,” said manager Joe Maddon, who guided the Tampa Bay Rays as Lester began to make his mark in the AL East. “His delivery is as good as I’ve seen. It’s clean. The arm stroke is beautiful. The cutter is there.

“Regarding any kind of discomfort in his arm, I’m not aware of that. I’m not aware of that at all. Jonny’s kind of a tough guy. He’s a quiet guy. I think he’s in a good place. So until he talks to me about his arm being uncomfortable, I’m fine with what I’m seeing.”

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.