Cubs

Cubs: Why Jon Lester thinks Year 2 will be different for Jason Heyward

Cubs: Why Jon Lester thinks Year 2 will be different for Jason Heyward

MESA, Ariz. – Jon Lester has already noticed a difference in Jason Heyward. It’s not some magical swing adjustment or best-shape-of-his-life hype or simply the bounce from the Cubs finally winning the World Series.

Lester already experienced this, signing the biggest contract in franchise history and reporting to Arizona for Year 2 in a different state of mind. The Cubs hope that helps Heyward recover from the worst offensive season of his career and round out his Gold Glove defense, baseball IQ and clubhouse intangibles. 

“He’s a little bit more comfortable,” Lester said before Friday’s workout at the Sloan Park complex. “That’s just human nature. You come into a situation with everything else that you’re bringing along. You’re coming into a place where you don’t know a lot of guys. You’re trying to prove that you’re worth something.

“You’re trying to prove (it) to the city, to your teammates, to your family, to everybody else, all this stuff. So I think now it’s a matter of: He can just go out and play.”

A dead arm slowed down Lester during his first spring training in a Cubs uniform. The $155 million ace then got diagnosed with the yips in front of a national TV audience on Opening Day 2015. That April, the lefty went 0-2 with a 6.23 ERA in four starts before closing with double-digit wins, a 3.34 ERA and another 200-inning season for a playoff team.

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Lester had perhaps the greatest season of his life in 2016, going 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA, earning his fourth All-Star selection, finishing second in the Cy Young Award voting and becoming the National League Championship Series co-MVP.  

“That’s kind of how I felt coming into my second year,” Lester said. “OK, we got that one over with. We did some things that we weren’t expected to do. Now it’s time to take that next step.

“You just feel more comfortable. You feel like you can come in and kind of let your shoulders down and let your guard down and just worry about playing baseball and getting your work done.”

Like Lester, Heyward wanted to play at Wrigley Field and live in Chicago and didn’t necessarily grab the biggest offer when he signed his $184 million megadeal. Heyward had also grown up around winning teams and understood that number would follow him for the rest of his career. Both players got the benefit of the doubt by being good teammates, holding themselves accountable and not hiding from the media.

The Cubs will run through their first full-squad workout in Mesa on Saturday, but Heyward has been hitting at the facility throughout the offseason, trying to rediscover what once made him a 27-homer threat for the 2012 Atlanta Braves.

“It seems like he’s a little more relaxed,” Lester said. “People told me the same thing two years ago. But when you’re going through it, the 3-for-4 days or the days you pitch seven innings and give up two runs still aren’t good enough. You feel like you have to do more. That second year just feels like you get back to kind of being yourself.”

Cubs' starting pitching a reasonable discussion topic, but Jon Lester's no fan of 'nitpicking' this first-place team

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USA TODAY

Cubs' starting pitching a reasonable discussion topic, but Jon Lester's no fan of 'nitpicking' this first-place team

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Cubs are in first place, they own the best record in the National League at the All-Star break and remain as much a World Series contender as any team out there.

But things are never 100 percent rainbows and lollipops for a team with this high a profile.

No, instead of a simple thumbs up from fans and observers, a pat on the back and a “job well done,” there’s been quite a bit of focus on what’s not going well for the North Siders. Mostly, that’s meant starting pitching, as four of the team’s five Opening Day starters owns an ERA north of 3.90.

If all you’ve heard this season is “What’s wrong with Yu Darvish? What’s wrong with Jose Quintana? What’s wrong with Kyle Hendricks? What’s wrong with Tyler Chatwood?” you might think the Cubs are woefully underachieving. Instead, they’re 55-38, a first-half record not far off from what they owned at the break back in 2016, a season that ended in a curse-smashing World Series championship.

The lone Cubs starting pitcher at the All-Star Game, Jon Lester, isn’t happy with what he calls the “nitpicking” that’s come with the Cubs’ otherwise excellent start to the season.

“We’re kind of pulling at hairs,” he said before the Midsummer Classic on Tuesday night. “We’re splitting hairs right now as far as things that we’re looking for negatively on our team. And that can kind of rub wrong in the clubhouse as far as guys looking around going, ‘Wait a second, we’re doing pretty good and we’re getting nitpicked right now.’

“I don’t like nitpicking. So I feel like we’ve been doing really well and just stay with the positives of everything that we’ve been playing really good baseball.”

Lester’s got a point, though at the same time it’s an understandable discussion topic: If the Cubs aren’t getting consistent results from four of their five starting pitchers, what kind of effect will that have in a playoff series? There’s a long way to go before things get to that point, but Cubs players made their own expectations known back in spring training: It’s World Series or bust for these North Siders.

Lester has been phenomenal, unquestionably worthy of his fifth All-Star selection. He posted a 2.98 ERA in 19 first-half starts. But the rest of the rotation wasn’t nearly as pretty. Hendricks finished his first half with a 3.92 ERA, Quintana with a 3.96 ERA, Chatwood with a 5.04 ERA and Darvish, who made only eight starts before going on a seemingly never-ending DL stint, with a 4.95 ERA. Mike Montgomery, who’s made nine starts, has a 3.91 ERA overall and a 3.20 ERA as a starter.

None of that’s exactly end-of-the-world bad, and there are plenty of pitching staffs across baseball that would probably make a trade for those numbers in a heartbeat. But is it the elite, best-rotation-in-baseball type stuff that so many projected for this team before the season started? Of course not. And Lester knows it. He, like team president Theo Epstein, just looks at that fact a little differently than the fans and observers who are so quick to push the panic button.

“Can we pitch better? Absolutely. As a collective unit, yeah we can. And that’s a positive,” Lester said. “I think guys are ready for runs. You kind of saw Kyle put together a couple starts there where he’s back to being Kyle. Q’s been throwing the ball pretty well for us.

“I think this break will do Chatwood a lot of good. This is a guy, he’s pounding his head against the wall, beginning of the season he wasn’t giving up any runs but everybody’s talking about walks. I look at the runs, I don’t care about the walks.

“We get these guys back to relaxing and being themselves, we’ll be fine. Our bullpen’s been great, our defense has been great. Offense is going to come and go, as we’ve seen in the game. As starters, we’ve got to keep our guys in the game the best we can, at the end of the day our bullpen and our defense is going to pick us up.”

The fretting will likely never end unless the Cubs have five starters throwing at an All-Star level, that's just the way things go. Something’s got to fill all that time on sports radio, after all, and for a team with postseason expectations, it’s perfectly reasonable to talk about how they might fare in the postseason, where those starting-pitching inconsistencies will most definitely come into play.

But Tuesday night, Cubs fans will see three players representing their club. Lester will be a happy observer with one of the best seats in the house, and Javy Baez and Willson Contreras will deservedly start among the best in the game. And they’ll have bragging rights over all their NL teammates because nitpicking or not, they’ve got the best record in the league.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Are the Cubs World Series bound? Dan Plesac says yes!

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Are the Cubs World Series bound? Dan Plesac says yes!

Where does MLB Network's Dan Plesac place the Cubs in his current power rankings and what's the key to their World Series dreams? Plus, which three star athletes mix to make Javier Baez? The conductor of the Big Blue train is back for a mid-summer breakdown of the Northsiders with Luke Stuckmeyer on this edition of the Cubs Talk Podcast presented by Wintrust.  

Listen to the full episode here or via the embedded player below: