Cubs

Cubs need Jon Lester, the perfectionist, operating at full strength

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Cubs need Jon Lester, the perfectionist, operating at full strength

Jon Lester laughed postgame when asked where he is now relative to his own expectations.

“I stink,” Lester said late Monday night inside Wrigley Field’s interview room/dungeon.

This obviously couldn’t top Carlos Zambrano’s “we stinks” indictment of the 2011 Cubs. The alarm bells rang when manager Joe Maddon sat in the same chair after that 4-3 victory over the New York Mets and answered a similar question about Lester.

“He was injured in spring training,” Maddon said.

[MORE CUBS: Why haven’t Cubs made a deal with Mets yet?]

Wait, what? The Cubs had described Lester’s timeout in spring training as a “dead arm.” Maddon clarified that throwaway line on Tuesday: “By injured, I meant his spring training was interrupted by stiffness, soreness, dead arm, whatever you want to call it.”

Both Maddon and Lester confirmed the $155 million lefty didn’t need to get any precautionary tests in Arizona. But any ache or pain will be magnified for someone in the first season of what’s supposed to be a franchise-changing six-year megadeal.

“I don’t get sore,” Lester explained. “It’s just like you throw a ball and there’s just nothing there. You feel almost weak, like you have no leverage, nothing behind it.”

Lester is meticulous about his routine, and that interruption helps explain why he endured such a disappointing April (0-2, 6.23 ERA). He’s getting into a groove now in May (3-0, 1.80 ERA), and that should take pressure off a young lineup and give a battered bullpen a much-needed break.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs vs. Mets: Big bats, power pitchers and how to build a contender]

“My expectations are more than anybody could put on me,” Lester said. “The biggest thing is: We won. So you look at that, everything’s fine. We obviously didn’t play very well on this road trip, and coming home, the bleachers open for the first time, and everybody’s excited, and you want to get off on the right foot.

“But as far as expectations, that’s a whole ‘nother day with a whole ‘nother sit-down and a whole ‘nother hour of time that not a lot of us have.

“I’m a perfectionist. I want to be perfect all the time. And obviously that’s not going to happen.”

Forget perfection. The Cubs will settle for the Lester who’s made 30-plus starts for seven consecutive years, putting up at least 200 innings in six of those seven seasons.

[SHOP CUBS: Get a Jon Lester jersey right here]

“I felt fine after the break (in spring training),” Lester said. “Looking back on it now — to where I’m at now — it kind of puts you behind the eight ball, especially when you miss a start that late in spring.

“Now, I’m back to how I feel (normally). I feel strong. I feel like I’m caught up on everything.”

Lester — a big-game pitcher who helped the Boston Red Sox win two World Series titles — will ultimately be judged when/if the Cubs get deep into October. If this is going to be anything more than a .500 team, the sense of momentum will begin with the No. 1 starter.

“Jon’s just fine,” Maddon said. “You always like to have people peak at the appropriate moment. So every time out, I’ve seen him a little bit better. Just give him a little bit more time as he builds into this thing. I like what I’m seeing.”

Potential Cubs target Shogo Akiyama is reportedly in the U.S. during the winter meetings

Potential Cubs target Shogo Akiyama is reportedly in the U.S. during the winter meetings

The Cubs could use a leadoff hitter and a center fielder. One player who can fill both of those holes is available is looking to sign soon.

Japanese center fielder Shogo Akiyama is in the U.S. with his agent, according to Sports Nippon, while the winter meetings take place in San Diego.

Akiyama is a center field option when center field options are limited this offseason. Brett Gardner is a free agent, but the 36-year-old wouldn’t be easy to pry away from his only professional organization.

Akiyama is 31 and saw a dropoff in his numbers in Japan last season, but still had a .392 on-base percentage with 20 home runs in 143 games.

Albert Almora’s struggles last season left the Cubs with uncertainty in center going forward. That saw Jason Heyward spending some time in center with Kyle Schwarber and Nicholas Castellanos on the corners. That’s not a pretty defensive outfield. Meanwhile, Akiyama has two Golden Glove awards in Japan.

He would also bring on-base skills and speed to a Cubs lineup that has resorted to having power hitter Anthony Rizzo play leadoff at times.

Akiyama would also likely not be an expensive option, which is key for a Cubs team reportedly looking to get under the luxury tax this offseason.

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Report: Cubs have discussed Kris Bryant with the Phillies

Report: Cubs have discussed Kris Bryant with the Phillies

While most teams with World Series aspirations are looking to bolster their roster in free agency, the Cubs are in a precarious situation.

Theo Epstein and team need to shed payroll before being able to make any moves, and have reportedly been telling representatives of free agents as much.

And the easiest path to shedding payroll is trading away high-priced players. Two names that have come up frequently are former NL MVP Kris Bryant and catcher Willson Contreras.

While that's all been speculation, 670 The Score's Bruce Levine reported the Cubs talked to the Phillies about a Bryant deal.

The big hold up surrounding could be Bryant his unresolved service time grievance. What the arbiter will determine is how many years of team control are left, one or two years. That would impact Bryant's value on the market and a trade partner would be foolish to not wait to see how that plays out.

But as free agents come off the board, it could make teams more desperate and create a bidding war. That market could have already been shaped by Stephen Strasburg's extension in Washington.

It's worth nothing, Bryant's friend Bryce Harper signed with the Phillies last offseason for a mega contract and he could be intrigued by the option of playing with his pal. Not to mention, former Cubs teammate Jake Arrieta is on the Phils' pitching staff.

But with Harper's massive contract on the books for another 12 seasons, would a Bryant move land him a big, long-term contract to stay in the City of Brotherly Love? Perhaps not.

The Phillies entered free agency with about $150 million in committed payroll for the 2020 season, there is a lot of room under the expected $208 million luxury tax threshold to add a player like Bryant.

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