Cubs

Cubs need Jon Lester to really get rolling

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Cubs need Jon Lester to really get rolling

PITTSBURGH — The Cubs are getting by without their $155 million ace, but they will need the real Jon Lester to seriously start rolling.

The Cubs see an opening in the National League Central, where the Milwaukee Brewers are in free fall and the Cincinnati Reds are doing damage control, knowing their windows could soon be slamming shut.

The Cubs packed their bags for Cincinnati after Thursday’s 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates, leaving PNC Park with the feeling they should have won this series instead of settling for a split.

Lester (0-2, 6.89 ERA) takes the ball on Friday night at Great American Ball Park. The Cubs are still waiting to see what made the lefty a two-time World Series champion with the Boston Red Sox and one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation.

That guy would help solve a bullpen equation that’s getting more difficult by the day, and take some of the pressure off a young lineup that’s not going to hit every night.

Still, this team is 8-7 and not buried in April and already talking about who’s going to get traded to a contender this summer. That’s a big improvement from the lost seasons Cubs fans have endured while waiting for The Plan to come together. 

[MORE: Kris Bryant embraces the Cubs hype, lives up to big expectations]

“I like the way it looks,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I like the way it looks a lot. Again, that’s because of the whole thing, the entire group. It’s not just one particular item that I like. 

“Everybody’s talking about the young guys. We’ve hit the ball pretty well. But how about the defense and the baserunning? I’ll say it a zillion times, because that has been really impressive (and) a big part of our victories. For the most part, the starting pitching has been really good. And Jon’s going to keep getting better. 

“Believe me, I’ve thought about that. So what’s it going to look like? I just think we can continue to anticipate better.”

The Cubs have only six quality starts through 15 games and it’s starting to catch up to a bullpen missing right-handers Justin Grimm (forearm) and Neil Ramirez (shoulder), two key pieces now on the disabled list.

Lester is over the “dead arm” that prevented him from having a full spring training, saying it usually takes him until the middle of May or early June before he really gets into a rhythm and consistently finds his velocity. 

“Obviously, everybody wants to get off to a good start,” Lester said. “I’ve just always been kind of a slow starter for whatever reason. Obviously, I would have liked these three different starts to go a little bit different than what they have. But you can’t go back. 

“I got to just keep looking forward to the next one and continue to build. That’s all you can really do.”

[SHOP: Get a Jon Lester jersey here]

The bullpen got exposed again on Thursday afternoon when Kyle Hendricks couldn’t finish the sixth inning. Edwin Jackson — the default reliever with a $52 million contract — earned a bigger moment but couldn’t protect a two-run lead. Phil Coke inherited a runner from Brian Schlitter in the seventh inning and allowed the go-ahead run to score.

“We’re trying to define it right now,” Maddon said. “It really comes down to a pitch now and then. We’re just not making the pitch when we have to right now, but we will. With the different people not being available, it makes it difficult.” 

The Cubs have been pretty good at improvising, dropping Kris Bryant into the cleanup spot and having him play center field while Dexter Fowler deals with a groin injury. 

Addison Russell — the youngest player in the National League at 21 years and 90 days — chipped in with an RBI double for what’s supposed to become an American League-style lineup. 

But the starting pitching that had been so reliable during the Sign-and-Flip Era hasn’t been as good as advertised yet. 

“We’re obviously not performing as we should,” said Hendricks, who has a 5.74 ERA through three starts. “Getting deeper into games as a staff — and me in particular — (is key). We’re keeping the team in the game, but we got to start putting up some (better) numbers overall. 

“We’re still getting that feel. I know it’s coming around.”

Lester is the horse, the bulldog, or whatever animal metaphor you want to use, expected to carry this team into October. 

“He’s the guy,” Hendricks said. “He’s the ace. We lost two in a row now, so he’s the stopper. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

It’s been another quiet offseason for the Cubs.

January is almost over and the Cubs have yet to commit a single guaranteed dollar to the big-league roster. After exceeding MLB’s luxury tax threshold in 2019, Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to get under the figure in 2020 and reset penalties entering 2021.

Barring any major surprises — i.e. a core player getting dealt before Opening Day — the club will return largely the same team from last season. That group has plenty of talent, but there are some question marks, like second base and center field.

A fan made waves at Cubs Convention last Saturday, reciting the definition of insanity to team president Epstein and Jed Hoyer during a baseball operations panel. With a similar roster in hand, why should fans expect anything different from the Cubs in 2020?

For Epstein, part of the answer lies in the continued development of homegrown players like Ian Happ.

Happ was supposed to be a key cog for the Cubs in 2019, but he was sent to Triple-A Iowa at the end of spring training after striking out 14 times in 52 at-bats. This followed a 2018 season in which he sported a 36.1 percent strikeout rate.

“He was striking out 30 percent of the time and we decided to send him down, because what we were seeing with Ian Happ, in our mind, wasn’t the finished product,” Epstein said Saturday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “We believe it’s the same way with a lot of our hitters, that’s there’s tremendous talent in there, but it wasn’t manifesting in major league games — which is all that matters — the way we needed it to.”

Happ was reportedly upset with the move, but his strikeout rate dropped to 26.3 percent with Iowa. After the Cubs recalled him on July 26, he posted a 25 percent rate in 58 games (156 plate appearances), slashing .264/.333/.564. He recognizes the demotion was beneficial.

“I got a lot of at-bats. I used it as a learning process,” Happ told NBC Sports Chicago Friday of his Triple-A stint. “To be able to come back and have success, it was a good way to finish the season.

Happ ended the season on a high note, slashing .311/.348/.672 in September with six home runs. He was tremendous over the season’s final eight games: .480/.519/1.200, five homers and 12 RBIs.

“Just being more aware of the ways guys were gonna pitch me,” Happ said regarding his hot September. “There’s some tweaks. For me, it was more about handling different pitches and when to use two different swings — when to be a little bit more defensive, when to put the ball in play. It led to results.”

Cubs players have been criticized in recent seasons for a seeming unwillingness to shorten up at times to put the ball in play. Their 73.8 percent contact rate in 2019 was last in the National League, though Ben Zobrist’s personal absence contributed to the low figure.

Happ posted a 71.7 percent contact rate, up from his 63.5 percent rate in 2018.

“He went through a really difficult stretch in Iowa, making significant adjustments to his approach and his swing and as a person, growing from some failure,” Epstein said. “When he came back up towards the end of last year, his strikeout rate was under much better control, he had much more contact ability.

“He wasn’t driving the ball quite the same, and then by the end of the year, he had maintained that better contact rate, was starting to drive the ball again, and it looked pretty dynamic and pretty promising for the future.”

It’s not a coincidence Happ made strides with Iowa. He got to work on his swing in an environment where he played every day. This wouldn’t have been the case in the big leagues, especially if his struggles lingered.

Happ started each of the Cubs’ last six games; he said it's huge for his confidence knowing he'd be playing every day. 

“It’s huge, it’s huge. I think that’s what everyone’s striving for in this league, is be able to [play every day],” he said. “For me, after that stretch and being able to finish strong and look back on a solid year, that’s big moving forward.”

The Cubs roster may look the same, but there’s plenty of room for internal improvement. Pitchers will continue adjusting to Happ, but he’s a better player for what he went through last season. He can take what he learned and carry it into 2020.

“So now, same player on the roster — and I understand the definition of insanity — but to expect Ian Happ to grow from what he’s gone through and benefit from the coaching that he’s gotten,” Epstein said, “and the lessons that he’s learned and the adversity that he’s gone through, and go out and be a productive player for us next year in a certain role, I don’t think is insane.”

“It’s just about sticking with the process, understanding that that’s what worked and that’s what you want to do,” Happ said. “It’s not always easy at the beginning of the year at Wrigley. It’s cold, it’s windy. The results don’t always show up. But if you’re true to the process and you keep going, by the end of the year you’ll be at a good spot.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

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AP

Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

After the Cubs Convention, fans left still uncertain about the team headed into the 2020 season. Host David Kaplan and NBC Sports Chicago Cubs writer Tim Stebbins discuss what they took from Cubs Con, the culture change that is coming to the organization and a realistic possibility that the Cubs are looking into disgruntled star Nolan Arenado.

Listen to the episode here or in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

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