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


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.”

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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.”

19 for '19: What should expectations be for Kris Bryant Comeback SZN?

19 for '19: What should expectations be for Kris Bryant Comeback SZN?

We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: What is a reasonable expectation for Kris Bryant Comeback SZN?

Kris Bryant's Comeback Tour is officially upon us.

The former NL Rookie of the Year and MVP missed 60 games last year due to a shoulder injury and even when he was on the field, he was a completely different player. 

He initially hurt his shoulder on a headfirst dive into first base in Cincinnati in mid-May. He left that series hitting .305 with a .427 on-base percentage and .583 slugging percentage (1.010 OPS). 

Even more encouraging, Bryant looked to be addressing his biggest weakness — strikeouts. In 185 plate appearances, he struck out just 15.7 percent of the time which was well below his career line of 23.8 percent. His previous career-best in that category came in 2017 (19.2 percent) and if he continued along that line for the rest of 2018, it would've marked the fourth straight season in which he reduced his strikeout percentage.

Alas, that was not to be and Bryant struck out 28.7 percent of the time after suffering the shoulder injury and hit just .252/.338/.382 (.721 OPS) with 5 homers and 28 RBI in 63 games.

There's no saying Bryant would've kept those numbers going all season without the injury, but he was on pace for 34 homers, 100 RBI, 121 runs, 100 walks and 59 doubles - all of which would either set new career highs or approach his previous best marks.

If he stays healthy in 2019 (admittedly a big "IF"), that seems like a very fair stat line to expect of Bryant over a full 2019 season: 30+ homers, an OPS north of .900 and approaching 100 walks. He also will probably hover around 110+ runs and come near 100 RBI depending on where he hits in the lineup (which will probably be in the 2-hole, but there's a legit case to be made that he should lead off).

Bryant confirmed over and over again this winter that his shoulder is just fine and he's proved it so far this spring, with a couple of homers while playing both third base and the outfield. 

He also has a little chip on his shoulder, soliciting more talk from the haterz to fuel his Revenge SZN, speaking openly about the state of baseball's free agency and even sparking a war of words with all of St. Louis. 

Injuries are impossible to predict, but there's nothing indicating a healthy Bryant is anything less than an MVP candidate.

-Tony Andracki

In the time since Bryant became a mainstay in the Cubs’ everyday lineup, there have only been three more valuable position players in baseball: Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Jose Altuve. Before an injury-shortened 2018, Bryant had started his career with 6.1-, 7.8-, and 6.7-win seasons. He has, quite frankly, been the best third baseman in baseball since being drafted.

That’s why the only real way Bryant can “improve” on 2018 is staying healthy. With two actually-working shoulders, he’s not only a legitimate MVP candidate, but a legitimate MVP frontrunner.

Normally, guys with an ISO north of .200 (what FanGraphs qualifies as ‘Great’) come with a lot of strikeouts. In 2017, Bryant’s last full season, there were 48 guys with ISO’s above .200 and 550 PAs (the number generally accepted as an appropriate sample size). Of those 48 guys, Bryant was Top-20 in ISO (19th), lowest K% (19th), highest BB% (6th), and highest OBP (4th). He’s lived up to his 70/80 power grade while arguably outperforming his 50/55 discipline grade. Basically, there aren’t many better pure hitters in the game.

If we wanted to nitpick, Bryant’s defense could improve. After flashing serious leather during his first two seasons, Bryant was replacement-level in the field during 2017, and bad in 2018. Say what you will about the reliability of defensive numbers, but it’s hard to spin a negative DRS. His statcast numbers paint a similar, albeit slightly more forgiving, picture.

Still, it’s hard to judge Bryant’s defensive prowess on 2018. He’s been a net-positive in the field during every season he’s been healthy, and it stands to reason that a shoulder injury -- even one on his non-throwing shoulder -- would impede his defense in some way, shape, or form. Now, if a healthy Bryant puts up monster numbers at the plate all year and is still bad in the field, then maybe it’s worth a discussion.

For now, Kris Bryant Comeback SZN depends almost entirely on health. Even in a shortened season that was by all accounts disappointing, he was still 25 percent better than the average league hitter. If the shoulder’s fine, he’s in the MVP conversation.

-Cam Ellis


The complete 19 for '19 series:

19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Cardinals Scouting Report with Chris Rongey


Cubs Talk Podcast: Cardinals Scouting Report with Chris Rongey

Luke Stuckmeyer is joined by Chris Rongey, host at 101 ESPN in St. Louis, to take a closer look at the arch-rival Cardinals. The pair discusses the ramifications of the rumored Paul Goldschmidt extension (2:30), the pressure on the Cardinals to get back to the playoffs (6:30), the potential of Jack Flaherty (10:30), and Kris Bryant's inflammatory comments about St. Louis at Cubs Convention (13:45).

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player: