Cubs

After feeling weight of contract, Jon Lester settling in with Cubs

5-22-jon-lester.png

After feeling weight of contract, Jon Lester settling in with Cubs

PHOENIX – It would only be natural if Jon Lester felt the pressure after signing that $155 million megadeal. As much as the Cubs eyeball the Boston Red Sox and try to turn Wrigley Field into their version of Fenway Park, this team is a different animal. 

And it is another thing to go from the homegrown, All-Star lefty who helped Boston win two World Series titles to franchise savior on the North Side.

This 5-4 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks took 13 innings and wouldn’t be decided until long after Lester’s work shift ended on Friday night at Chase Field.

But one takeaway is Lester looks like a No. 1 starter again, someone who could help lift the Cubs from five games to 10 games to 15 games over .500, the way manager Joe Maddon talks about piling up wins.

[MORE: Cubs expect Miguel Montero to step forward]

That begins with starting pitching, assuming the Cubs (23-18) can stabilize the bullpen, tighten up the defense and hit with runners in scoring position (the 0-for-31 streak that lasted a week is over). But Lester’s underwhelming April (6.23 ERA) is clearly in the rearview mirror now.

“I don’t know if ‘pressing’ is the right word,” Lester said after limiting Arizona to two runs in seven innings. “But obviously you come to a new team, new guys, new city, new everything, you want to get off on the right foot. You want to do well.

“Everybody knows (about) the contract stuff. You definitely don’t want to be one of those guys that at the end of it you look at it as a bust.

“You obviously want everything to go right. You want everything to just fall into place. But sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes you have take a few beatings to get back to doing the things that you’re used to.

“It took me a little bit of time, but I’m starting to feel more comfortable. I think the results have been better. We’ll just keep trying to figure things out as we go.”

[MORE: Cubs: Joe Maddon doesn’t see Neil Ramirez return on the horizon]

Lester has gradually gotten back to full strength, accounting for at least six innings in each of his last six starts, with the Cubs winning five of those games while he’s lowered his ERA to 3.56.

“I think maybe it weighed on him a lot more early on than it does now,” said David Ross, Lester’s personal catcher. “He’s just going out and pitching now and trying to do the best he can. Because as much as the contract stuff (is out there) and people put expectations on him – honestly – he’s always been the way he is.

“He’s going to put as much pressure on himself as anybody, because he wants to do well for the team. That’s his day. And when he walks in here that day, he’s got his game face on.”

Then again, maybe there’s no need for psychoanalysis considering Lester dealt with a “dead arm” and didn’t see enough action in the Cactus League to truly be ready for Opening Night. 

“I’ll still defend the fact that his spring training was short,” Maddon said. “I think that had as much to do with the difficult start as anything. Had he had the benefit of a full, normal spring training – and then (started slow) – that might have been more of an explanation.

“(But) he was behind when he came out at the beginning of the season. Combine that with the fact that he had a little bit more heaped on his plate than normal, you probably saw less than Jon Lester.”

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Get your Cubs gear right here]

It’s not like Lester isn’t used to playing under a microscope.

“He’s a perfectionist,” said Ross, who earned a World Series ring with Lester as a piece to the 2013 Red Sox. “He always feels like he can get better, and that’s why he is who he is.

“When you’re in a big market and you have high expectations, there’s always critiquing an aspect of your game, what you’re doing good and what you’re doing bad. He sees all angles of his outing and tries to get better at every aspect of his game.”

The Cubs never seemed worried about the transition for Lester, who’s now 0-for-62 at the plate (including the postseason) after spending almost his entire career in the American League.

“The biggest thing we’re waiting on is the first hit right now,” Maddon said. “That will truly get the monkey off his back.”

Cubs' Albert Almora Jr. is off to a hot start in spring training

Cubs' Albert Almora Jr. is off to a hot start in spring training

The Cubs have only played three spring training games, and it’s dangerous to use spring results to predict regular season successes and failures. Still, it’s okay to acknowledge Albert Almora Jr.’s hot start in camp.

In two games, Almora is 4-for-4 with a walk, double, home run, four RBIs and four runs scored. That line is essentially equivalent to a single game in the regular season and could be turned upside down by the end of the week. But it’s a start for the 25-year-old who has struggled immensely at the plate for the last season and a half.

In his last 177 games (dating back to the second half of 2018), Almora holds a .235/.270/.347 slash line. The advanced stats paint an uglier picture: 58 wRC+, .261 wOBA and 52.2 percent groundball rate.

Last season was the most challenging of Almora’s young career. He hit .236/.271/.381 in 130 games with a 64 wRC+, .271 wOBA, -0.7 fWAR (all career worsts). On top of that, he was involved in a heartbreaking moment early in the season; an Almora foul ball struck a young girl at Minute Maid Park during a Cubs-Astros game in May.

Almora refused to blame his 2019 offensive woes on that incident, though it obviously played a part. He did admit that he was in a bad place mentally and used this winter to decompress. Almora also used it to make some adjustments to his swing and the changes are clear as day:

Pre-2020:

2020:

As MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian notes, Almora is now more upright in the box and his stance is more closed. His leg kick is less defined and he’s rotating his front leg far less than previous seasons. In short, he’s more direct to his swing and has more time to react in the box because he cut out a lot of his pre-swing movements.

RELATED: David Ross is wasting no time with Cubs' rotation competition

Almora said Monday he’s far from where he wants to be, pointing out the MLB season is a 200-day marathon. It’s too early to tell whether his simplified approach leads to sustainable success.

Small sample size be damned, Almora’s made noticeable adjustments. That’s the first step in his mission to get back on track offensively.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.

Two of the Cubs' best prospects made Keith Law's annual Top 100 list

brailynmarquezmilb.jpg
USA Today

Two of the Cubs' best prospects made Keith Law's annual Top 100 list

For those who follow such things, Keith Law's yearly Top 100 prospect rankings is always a highly anticipated read. What would baseball twitter even do with their time if they couldn't spend it vocally disagreeing with subjective lists? Having a handful of Top 100 guys is always a shot in the arm for franchises that maybe aren't doing a whole lot of winning at the major league level; when you know you're not winning a World Series, the debuts of these prospects are high points of the summer. 

There wasn't a whole lot of Cubs' representation this season, which isn't a surprise by any means. Only guys two made Law's list: Brennen Davis at 55, and Brailyn Marquez at 80.  

Law claims Davis has the highest upside of any Cubs' prospect, but isn't necessarily close to a debut: 

Davis is lanky and has barely begun to fill out, so there’s likely to be more power to come, while he’s already shown he can manage at-bats and use the middle of the field to get himself on base. Despite his 6′4″ frame he already has a very balanced swing, and the Cubs will just have to tighten up some mechanical things since he’s got such long levers. A former shortstop, he’s adapted quickly to center field; he projects to stay there and add value with his range. 

He also loves Marquez's stuff – comparing it to Aroldis Chapman's – and says it's the reason why he's team's best pitching prospect since Dylan Cease. You can see the entire rankings, which go pretty in-depth, right here.