How much does Cubs' Opening Day starter Jon Lester have left in the tank? 'I'm seeing probably the best version of Jon that I've witnessed'

How much does Cubs' Opening Day starter Jon Lester have left in the tank? 'I'm seeing probably the best version of Jon that I've witnessed'

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.

Ozzie Guillen compared Sammy Sosa to Michael Jordan...and Michael Jackson

Ozzie Guillen compared Sammy Sosa to Michael Jordan...and Michael Jackson

Ozzie Guillen is no stranger to saying outlandish things.

So it's not surprising that Guillen would agree with Sosa when the former Cubs outfielder said he made the city of Chicago what it is today.

Thirteen months ago, Sosa gave a candid interview to Chuck Wasserstrom and compared himself to Jesus before saying: "When nobody knew who Chicago was, I put Chicago on the map."

Guillen echoed that sentiment on the latest White Sox Talk Podcast.

Maybe from where they sit, that's exactly what has occurred. Sosa and Michael Jordan certainly helped make the Cubs, Bulls and Chicago sports in general on the map internationally.

"People know who the Cubs were because Sammy put them back on the map," Guillen said. "... For the city of Chicago, when Sammy was Sammy — that race with [Mark] McGwire, then people noticed what Chicago was."

Ozzie said — from his perspective — when people hear about Chicago, they ask, "Oh, you know Sammy?" or "You know Michael?" referencing Michael Jordan.

Guillen also weighed in on Sosa's ever-changing appearance that has sparked A LOT of attention lately.

"But the color, I'm tired. I think he uses the same product Michael Jackson did," Guillen said. "It's funny because I work with him — we talked to him a lot for ESPN Deportes. When you're lying, that's when people don't get it.

"Listen, if you want to change your color, why not? You got the money, you got the time if that's what you want to be. But if you say, 'Well, I got too much color because of the sun when I was playing.' OK...You live in Miami, you grew up in the Dominican. To me, I just laugh."

Scouting the Cubs' competition: Will the Nationals finally win it all before Bryce Harper leaves?


Scouting the Cubs' competition: Will the Nationals finally win it all before Bryce Harper leaves?

The expectations couldn't be any higher for the 2018 Chicago Cubs. 

It's 2016 all over again. The goal isn't just a trip to the playoffs or another NL pennant. It's World Series or bust for this group of North Siders.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

Washington Nationals

2017 record: 97-65, 1st place in NL East

Offseason additions: Miguel Montero, Matt Adams, Joaquin Benoit, Matt Reynolds, Jeremy Hellickson, Tommy Milone

Offseason departures: Adam Lind, Stephen Drew, Jose Lobaton, Jayson Werth, Matt Albers, Oliver Perez, Joe Blanton

X-factor: The health of their stars

Health is an X-factor for any team, but it carries more weight in D.C. than anywhere else in baseball.

Bryce Harper, Trea Turner and Stephen Strasburg are three of the Nationals' best players and yet three guys that can't seem to stay healthy for a full season. Couple that group with leadoff hitter Adam Eaton and Daniel Murphy coming off knee injuries, the health questions are running rampant in Washington.

Those are the Nationals' projected Top 4 hitters and No. 2 starter. If they all stay healthy, they'll put up some whopping numbers. But if history repeats, it will make the road quite a bit tougher despite a weak NL East.

Projected lineup

1. Adam Eaton - LF
2. Trea Turner - SS
3. Bryce Harper - RF
4. Anthony Rendon - 3B
5. Ryan Zimmerman - 1B
6. Howie Kendrick - 2B
7. Matt Wieters - C
8. Michael Taylor - CF

Projected rotation

1. Max Scherzer
2. Stephen Strasburg
3. Gio Gonzalez
4. Tanner Roark
5. A.J. Cole


When healthy, this may be the most talented roster in the NL. Harper, Rendon, Murphy and Turner could all wind up as serious contenders in the 2018 MVP race while Scherzer and Strasburg figure to garner some Cy Young votes once again.

The Nationals also have the advantage of a pretty rough division, at least on paper. Three teams are rebuilding and the Mets haven't made the playoffs in a couple years now. Getting to play 18+ games against all four of those teams is a godsend.

Which is good news for a Nationals fanbase that is absolutely starving for some actual postseason success. Wade Davis and the Cubs knocked Washington out last fall and 2018 represents what figures to be the final chance to win it all (or even win A playoff series) with Harper before he gets a $400 million deal elsewhere (like Chicago??).

The 2018 Nationals have no holes. If any of their starters falter, they have Hellickson available. If any of their position players struggle, they have depth in the form of Kendrick (once Murphy is healthy), Montero, Adams, Wilmer Difo and Brian Goodwin.

And the bullpen is very, very good thanks to a bunch of moves before the 2017 Trade Deadline and also have Benoit and Koda Glover expected to start the season on the DL.

The Nationals will be playing in October this year. But what they do in the postseason is a question that won't be answered for 6 months. 

Prediction: 1st in NL East, playoffs