Cubs show they’re bigger than just Jon Lester


Cubs show they’re bigger than just Jon Lester

The Cubs are bigger than just Jon Lester.

This isn’t exactly how Theo Epstein’s front office drew up The Plan, or how any big-name free agent wants to make a first impression in a new city starving for a winner.

But the Cubs are now alone in first place in the National League Central after Monday night’s 7-6 comeback victory over the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field. It took 10 innings before Lester’s teammates bailed him out, leaving the Cubs (4-2) more than one game over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2009 season.

“At the end of the day, we won,” Lester said. “That’s the main thing.”

Lester should get the benefit of the doubt, because he had the guts, the nerve and the will to beat cancer and cement his reputation as a big-game pitcher, winning two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox. Until the All-Star lefty shows why he got $155 million guaranteed, the Cubs are going to ride a different wave of momentum.

[MORE CUBS: The wait for Kris Bryant could be almost over]

Jorge Soler got his first curtain call, and that might have been the only time the Cuban outfielder got nervous on a two-homer, four-RBI night that had Lester comparing his raw power to David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez.

Joe Maddon pushed the right bullpen buttons as Brian Schlitter, Jason Motte, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon combined for four scoreless innings. Chris Coghlan finished a triple shy of the cycle and even played out of position at third base. Arismendy Alcantara finished the comeback with his first hit of the season, a bases-loaded, walk-off shot that started a mosh pit at the edge of the infield.

Without all that, the feeling would have been very different inside the interview room/dungeon after the Reds (4-3) hit Lester hard, putting up six runs on 10 hits in six innings.

Maybe Lester is still working through that “dead arm” that limited him in spring training.

“Obviously, I haven’t hit my stride yet, but I don’t want to use anything as a crutch,” Lester said. “Things have to be better. When you have (four) guys going out there and doing their jobs, when you’re the loose end of the chain, that’s never good.

“Back to work tomorrow. A lot of things to work on, a lot of things to improve on. And I’ll get back to being the front end of that chain instead of the back end and letting these guys down. It will be better.”

Two starts into a six-year contract is way too early to overreact, but all this can’t be completely ignored, either. Combine Lester’s performance against the Reds and an Opening Night loss to the St. Louis Cardinals and here’s what you get: Nine runs on 18 hits in 10.1 innings (plus 10 strikeouts).

“Physically, everything’s fine,” Lester said. “Absolutely.”

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Buy a Jorge Soler jersey here]

Maybe the Boston/Bristol/Chicago press corps has it all wrong and “the yips” are overblown. That storyline wouldn’t go away, either, even with the Reds sitting Billy Hamilton as their speedster dealt with an injured finger.

Lester got mock cheers from the crowd of 26,390 in the second inning after throwing over to first base for the first time since April 2013.

Moments later, Lester airmailed a ball that went nowhere near Anthony Rizzo, bouncing up and away from the right-field line and ricocheting off the rolled-up tarp and into the visiting bullpen. That’s where Soler picked it up and made what Maddon called a “ridiculous” throw to third base to nail Zack Cozart.

“It’s been awhile,” Lester said and sort of chuckled. “The second one, I got a little excited. I looked over there and the guy was going the other direction.

“When you’re not used to doing stuff like that, I just got a little overexcited and tried to throw the ball a little bit too soon. But once again, Georgie picked me up (and) makes a great play.

“There’s a lot of things to work on. That’s one of them. The adjustments that we’ve made through spring training until now have felt really, really good.

“It’s just a matter of doing it repeatedly and keeping those guys at bay, and we were able to do that. We had the one stolen base in the first and then after that kind of shut it down a little bit.”

Just like “the yips,” the Cubs being in first place in the middle of April will get blown out of proportion. But your mind can also wander and wonder what this team could look like if Lester really gets rolling as the No. 1 guy he’s supposed to be.

Cubs aren’t trading Yu Darvish this winter, despite reported inquiries

Cubs aren’t trading Yu Darvish this winter, despite reported inquiries

Whether the Cubs trade a member of their position player core this winter — i.e. Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras — is to be determined. Both have been fixtures in rumors this offseason, and the Cubs may make a deal to replenish their barren farm system and retool their roster with the organization’s long-term stability in mind.

Yu Darvish, on the other hand, is a different story.

No, the Cubs won’t be trading Darvish this winter, despite the inquiries they received at the Winter Meetings this week, according to Joel Sherman of the New York Post.

A year ago, this would be an entirely different conversation. Darvish was coming off a disappointing debut season on the North Side in which he made eight starts and posted a 4.95 ERA in 40 innings. He didn’t throw a single big-league pitch after May 20 due to a lingering arm issue that led to surgery last November.

2019 was only Year 2 of the lucrative six-year contract Darvish signed in February 2018. But between the injury and his struggles before it that season, the narrative entering 2019 was shifting towards Darvish being a potential bust.

The narrative around Darvish is obviously much different now, thanks to the stellar second half performance he put together last season. In 13 starts, the 33-year-old delivered a 2.76 ERA, striking out 118 batters compared to a mere seven walks in 81 2/3 innings.

Not only was Darvish walking the walk, but he was talking the talk. He was determined to turn things around after posting a 5.01 ERA in the first half, asking then manager Joe Maddon to start the Cubs’ first game after the All-Star break. The result? Six innings of two-hit, no-run ball with eight strikeouts and one walk. Darvish's comeback was officially on.

Bust? Darvish is far from it now. He opted in to the remaining four years of his contract earlier this offseason, calling the Cubs "perfect" for him.

If the Cubs were entering a rebuild, fielding Darvish trade offers would make plenty of sense. He's owed $81 million through 2023, a bargain compared to the deals Gerrit Cole (nine years, $324 million — Yankees) and Stephen Strasburg (seven years, $245 million — Nationals) earned this offseason. Darvish's contract is desirable, and trading him would help alleviate the Cubs' notoriously tight payroll situation, freeing up money for them to put towards other needs.

But the Cubs aren’t rebuilding, and trading Darvish would create a tremendous hole in a rotation with plenty of uncertainty after next season. José Quintana is set to hit free agency after 2020 and Jon Lester could join him, if his 2021 option doesn’t vest (he must pitch 200 innings next season for that to occur). Heck, even Tyler Chatwood's deal is up after 2020.

In one season, Darvish has elevated himself to the No. 1 pitcher in the Cubs rotation. The Cubs won't be better next season if they trade Bryant or Contreras, but they'd still be competitive and acquire assets for the future.

One player doesn't make a team in baseball, but the Cubs need Darvish in their rotation, not someone else's. Unless they're absolutely blown away by a trade offer, Darvish isn't going anywhere.

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Sports Talk Live Podcast: MLB 2019 Winter Meetings come to an end

NBC Sports Chicago

Sports Talk Live Podcast: MLB 2019 Winter Meetings come to an end

SportsTalk Live is on location in San Diego for the final day of the MLB Winter Meetings.

0:00- Chuck Garfien, Tony Andracki and Vinnie Duber join Kap to recap the Winter Meetings. Tony was right-- the Cubs didn't make a move. Plus, should the White Sox have done more in San Diego?

12:00- Legendary baseball writer Peter Gammons joins Kap and Chuck. The talk about the price for pitching and what the Cubs might do with Kris Bryant. Plus, Gammons talks about a text he received saying the White Sox were talking with the Red Sox about Andrew Benintendi and David Price. Would that make sense for the Southsiders?

20:00- White Sox World Series winning closer Bobby Jenks joins Kap to discuss his emotional article in The Players Tribune. They discuss his injuries with the Red Sox, the back surgery that almost cost him his life and then his downward spiral into addiction.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

Sports Talk Live Podcast