Cubs

Looking ahead with Jon Lester as Cubs try to reload for another World Series run

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USA TODAY

Looking ahead with Jon Lester as Cubs try to reload for another World Series run

Jon Lester could never pick up a baseball again and the Cubs would still be satisfied with their $155 million investment. The parade down Michigan Avenue will always be worth it.

But 362 days later, Lester isn’t ready to spend all his time hunting in Georgia and playing celebrity golf events. The Cubs still absolutely need Lester’s presence and credibility. Not to prove that this franchise is serious about winning — the way his decision to sign with a last-place team after the 2014 season accelerated the rebuild — but to again anchor a rotation that might be at its most vulnerable point since those summers of flip deals.

Super-agent Scott Boras wants to keep all big-market teams in play for leverage — and Jake Arrieta is too savvy to completely rule out a return — but signs point to the Cy Young Award winner getting his nine-figure megadeal somewhere else. The expectation is John Lackey will retire and become the anti-David Ross, only popping up in Twitter photos when his family goes trick-or-treating with the Arrietas and Tommy La Stella. The farm system isn’t producing internal solutions anytime soon.

That leaves Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and two giant question marks for this winter, the Cubs likely pursuing one free-agent starter (Alex Cobb?) and trading from their surplus of hitters (Ian Happ?) to get a young pitcher and continue the momentum from three straight trips to the National League Championship Series.

“Everybody involved has done nothing but deliver on their promises to me when I signed here,” Lester said, crediting by name chairman Tom Ricketts, team president Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and manager Joe Maddon after the Los Angeles Dodgers dismantled the Cubs in the NLCS.

“I know you guys are probably sick of me by now, but I’ve got a guaranteed three more to go, so suck on that one,” Lester said, cracking up the reporters surrounding his locker inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse. “Hopefully, in those next three years, we’re able to maybe win another one or two. That’s up to these younger guys to carry my load on that one.”

Lester has credited Hendricks for the unmatched preparation that made him the Game 1 starter against the Washington Nationals in the first round of the playoffs, and raved about Quintana’s work ethic and personality since getting traded from the White Sox during the All-Star break.

But even with the blockbuster Quintana deal, the Cubs are still bracing for the possibility of replacing 40 percent of their rotation, at a time when Lester is about to turn 34 and coming off a season where he put up his lowest number of innings (180.2) since 2007 (when he was still recovering from a cancer diagnosis and lymphoma treatments). Lester’s 4.33 ERA was almost exactly the league average and his trip to the disabled list in the middle of August/early September was his first since 2011.

“Halfway through, I think we’re really happy with the first half of that deal,” Epstein said. “It’s been a really nice success for him and for us. That’s really the half of the deal that’s the key when you make those kinds of deals. If you don’t get return on the first half, you’re probably in trouble.

“You better get production in the first half of those deals — or it’s going to end up being a big mistake.”

The Cubs hope Lester can model Andy Pettitte, the left-handed pitcher he’s been compared to since coming up with the Boston Red Sox. Pettitte got some, uh, help, admitting to using human growth hormone while recovering from an elbow injury in 2002, his reputation stained in the Mitchell Report. But the overall picture of Pettitte is someone who won four World Series rings with the New York Yankees, accounted for 276-plus innings in the playoffs and started 30 times during his age-41 season.

No matter what happens from here, Lester has been worth every penny. No one else in the big leagues has made at least 30 starts in each of the last 10 seasons. He essentially averaged a strikeout per inning this season and is only a year removed from finishing second in the NL Cy Young vote.

“In Jon’s case, look, he still has all the characteristics that we think make him an effective pitcher and a reliable bet going forward,” Epstein said, “because his mechanics are still sound. His arm — he had a little bit of shoulder fatigue — but bounced back from that. Knock on wood, he’s avoided any kind of significant injury.

“He’s shown the ability to pitch — and pitch effectively —  without his best stuff on certain days when he doesn’t have it. He had a few uncharacteristic really rough outings this year and was prone to the long ball more than normal.

“But besides that, he had some really nice stretches where he was sort of everything we hoped he could be. We’re counting on him to be a really big part of our pitching staff moving forward.”

The bottom line is that Lester has guts and the Cubs have faith that he will somehow figure out a way to compete. He shut down Washington for six innings in Game 2, leaving with a 2-1 lead before a bullpen meltdown at Nationals Park. He retired the first 10 Washington hitters he faced as a Game 4 reliever at Wrigley Field, a sign of how much the Cubs wanted to win that day. Three days later, he exited a 1-1 NLCS game at Dodger Stadium in the fifth inning, which will be remembered for Justin Turner’s three-run walk-off homer against Lackey.

This will be an opportunity for Lester to show even more of his personality, take on a more vocal leadership role, work with a new pitching coach (Jim Hickey) and maybe even cement his spot in the Hall of Fame with another World Series run.

“I don’t really care what people say about me on the field,” Lester said. “I may be an a------. I may show my emotions too much. I might show up the umpire too many times. I may yell at hitters. I don’t really care. But in this clubhouse — with my guys and my team — that’s what drives me.

“When I walk away from this game — just like if John Lackey walks away — (I want) everybody in this clubhouse (to) say the exact same thing: ‘That sumb---- had our back.’

“At the end of the day, man, the stats and all that other BS, that’s great. But that’s what I want. That’s what I want my guys to say about me.”

If you can't wait for baseball to be back, take a look at the Cubs' spring training schedule

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USA TODAY

If you can't wait for baseball to be back, take a look at the Cubs' spring training schedule

Set your alarm, there are only three more months till baseball is back.

The Cubs announced their spring training schedule Monday, getting folks all amped up for the 34 exhibition games in February and March.

Spring game action gets started Feb. 23 out in Arizona, with the Cubs taking on the Milwaukee Brewers to kick off Cactus League play. The Cubs' first home spring game at Sloan Park in Mesa comes the next day, Feb. 24.

In addition to a 32-game Cactus League slate, the Cubs will take on the Cleveland Indians in a pair of exhibition games in Las Vegas. That 2016 World Series rematch comes March 17 and 18.

And of course, there will be three meetings with the White Sox, as both Chicago teams play their spring schedule out in Arizona. Those "Cactus Crosstown" games will be played Feb. 27 and March 10 in Mesa and March 16 in Glendale.

Here's the full schedule:

What if Jake Arrieta stays in the NL Central and repeatedly haunts the Cubs?

What if Jake Arrieta stays in the NL Central and repeatedly haunts the Cubs?

Jake Arrieta in a Brewers uniform?

That's not a sight Cubs fans would like to see, but the North Siders' I-94 rivals are apparently keen on trying to add Arrieta, the free-agent pitcher who's been one of the National League's top arms for the past several seasons.

The Cubs have their own decision to make on whether or not they're going to pursue re-signing Arrieta, a guy who over the past three seasons has posted a 2.71 ERA and struck out 589 batters, winning 54 games in 94 starts for a team that won the 2016 World Series and has advanced to three consecutive NL Championship Series.

The downside to losing Arrieta is obvious, as the Cubs would lose a huge part of their formidable starting rotation, but there would be an added downside if Arrieta were to remain in the NL Central and repeatedly haunt his former team.

Given Arrieta's track record, adding him would make sense for any team in the majors, but the Brewers in particular could use a front-of-the-line starting pitcher to boost their chances of besting the Cubs for the Central crown. The Brew Crew staged a surprising threat to do just that in 2017, perhaps proving that their rebuilding effort has yielded fruit ahead of schedule.

But there are questions in that rotation, with Jimmy Nelson expected to miss time next season after having shoulder surgery. Chase Anderson was great last season, and Zach Davies was solid, too. Brewers starters posted an ERA of 4.10 on the season, good for fifth in the NL. The four teams ahead of them, including the Cubs, all made the playoffs. Adding an arm as good as Arrieta's could make the difference in jumping past the Cubs in the Central and getting the Crew to the postseason for the first time since 2011.

And it'd be a plus for the Brewers to make it so Arrieta couldn't shut down their hitters anymore. In 15 career starts against the Crew, Arrieta is 8-4 with a 2.74 ERA. However, they'd surely love to have him call Miller Park home. He's never lost there in five starts, boasting a 2.03 ERA with 30 strikeouts.

There's an argument to be made that Arrieta would be able to seek revenge on the Cubs no matter what team he ends up pitching for, be it an NL team facing off against the Cubs in the playoffs or an American League squad meeting the Cubs in the World Series. After all, as Scott Boras put it, signing Arrieta is a ticket to "Playoffville."

But should Arrieta make the short drive to Wisconsin and set up shop in America's Dairyland, turning the Brewers into a legitimate playoff contender and challenger to the Cubs' grip on the NL Central crown? Well, consider the Cubs-Brewers rivalry cranked up to 11.