Jon Lester will start on Opening Day for the Cubs. And that isn't necessarily because he's the best pitcher on the starting staff — though he very well could be — but because he's earned the right to get that symbolic nod.
Lester himself said earlier in spring training that the "ace" label is not an important one. And trying to assign it to just one person in this loaded Cubs rotation would be an unenviable task. Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood might be baseball's best starting five.
But as the guy whose signing signaled the Cubs' transition from rebuilders to contenders back before the 2015 season, Lester deserves to be the first man out of the gate in what should be a five-man rotation that causes nightmares for opposing hitters.
The question, though, is how much the veteran Lester has left in the tank. Last season was the worst one he's had, statistically, in a long time. His 4.33 ERA was nearly 2.00 points higher than it was just one year prior and the highest single-season earned-run average for Lester since 2012. He failed to reach his goal of 200 innings pitched for the first time since 2011. And his 180 strikeouts were his fewest since 2013.
In particular, starts like the 10-run drubbing in the first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates and the nine-run bashing in two innings against the Cincinnati Reds had fans wondering if Lester was getting over the hill. After helping to deliver a trio of deep playoff runs and a World Series in the first three years of his six-year deal, would the next three years see a change in effectiveness?
The Cubs aren't ready for Lester's career to reach the twilight stages just yet.
"He’s just absolutely focused, motivated, ready," manager Joe Maddon said during the early weeks of spring training. "He’s focused, that’s probably the best word I can possibly use. He’s not satisfied with last year, and I think he’s ready to do something about it.
"Go back to the first day he was here a couple years ago. Didn’t today look better than that? Honestly, he was hurt a little bit in the beginning, when he first started, arrived. Conversationally, he wasn’t as settled here. He was just coming from another spot, high expectations, big contract. He’s definitely good in his own skin right now. I’m seeing probably the best version of Jon that I’ve witnessed.
"As a person, how he goes about his business, you’re not privy to all the conversations, but his leadership, it’s coming out. It’s a couple years removed from that signing, and we’ve all gotten more comfortable with one another. And he’s definitely really comfortable in his Cubs skin right now. We read people, we read conversations, looks. He’s just settled in, it looks to me. But the work today was spectacular. I said, ‘Man, you could’ve been pitching the first game of the season today the way you look.’"
Certainly one year does not determine how the rest of Lester's career will go. He's just two years removed from being the runner up for the National League Cy Young Award, when he posted the NL's best winning percentage with a 19-5 record, a career-low 2.44 ERA and 197 strikeouts in 202.2 innings over 32 starts. To see him come out and do something closer to 2016 than 2017 would not be at all surprising.
But Lester and Maddon both readily admitted that the 34-year-old lefty has changed, no matter how much his old-school attitude might make you think that's impossible.
"The cool part about being here is now I get to learn from these young guys, too," Lester said. "Just because you’re older and you have more time doesn’t mean you can’t stop learning. It’s fun to talk to Kyle and listen to him on how he pitches. Listening to (Anthony Rizzo) talk, and all these guys, about hitting. It’s fun. It’s a different time now for me, and I get to see what (John Lackey) saw for so long being one of the older guys."
"We had a pitchers-catchers meeting, and the way he spoke up, I’d not heard that," Maddon said. "He was very comfortable sharing his opinions and very demonstrative with what he thought. You all know what it’s like when someone finds their voice and starts speaking from the heart and the gut sincerely, and that’s where he’s at. I loved his method in that meeting, and that really spoke loudly to me."
New-leader Lester might not end up as the Cubs' best starting pitcher, but he could fit the rest of the definition of an "ace," the guy who sets the tone and provides the necessary intangibles — along with being one of the better arms in the game.
Lester injecting some newfound leadership into a resume that already includes three World Series rings and plenty of experience pitching on the game's biggest stages is sure to provide a lot for a rotation and a team with World-Series-or-bust expectations.
"I think everybody looks good on paper," Lester said. "With all these projections and computer programs now that people spit out about what you’re going to do that season, yeah it looks great. But we’ve still got to show up and pitch, we’ve still got to do our job."
Well then, it's time to go to work. Thirty more days till Opening Day and Lester's first start of 2018.