The Decision: Cubs name Jon Lester team's Opening Day starter

The Decision: Cubs name Jon Lester team's Opening Day starter

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Jon Lester — a transformative figure as the Cubs shed their Lovable Loser label and finally became World Series champions — will be the Opening Day starter against Dexter Fowler and the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

As expected, Cubs manager Joe Maddon met with Lester on Thursday morning and told the lefty he would get the April 2 assignment on ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball," setting up Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta for Game 2 in St. Louis.

Lester is clearly the most accomplished pitcher in camp, as a three-time World Series champ, four-time All Star and finalist for last year's National League Cy Young Award. The Cubs chose Lester to start Game 1 in all three playoff rounds last October, knowing his reputation as one of the best playoff performers of his generation.

"He definitely earned it and deserves it," Maddon said before a Cactus League game against the Cincinnati Reds at Goodyear Ballpark. "And then I also talked to Jake about being the No. 2 guy. Jake obviously understood why we went with Jon first."

There is some symbolism to being an Opening Day starter, as well as the $155 million investment the Ricketts family and Theo Epstein's front office made after a last-place finish in 2014, giving Lester the biggest contract in franchise history at the time and showing people the Cubs would be serious about winning.

"To be honest with you, I didn't really care about other people when I made that decision," Lester said. "I wanted to make the decision for me and my family and make sure it was the right one.

"Secondly, I made the decision to win, and we did that. I was happy with the decision from the day I signed the contract. I didn't want to look back. I didn't want to second-guess myself. It's easy now to say: 'Well, yeah, I made a great decision, because we won.'

"But even if we hadn't won to this point, I still feel like I made the right decision, with these people and this organization. The way the ownership and Theo on down treat us as players — and the way they treat our families — is second to none.

"I am beyond thrilled and happy that we did make that decision to come here, regardless."

[MORE CUBS: John Lackey has no interest in a David Ross-style retirement tour with Cubs: "I just won't show up the next year"]

After feeling slighted by an initial lowball offer from the Boston Red Sox — the team that drafted, developed and traded him — Lester turned down a bigger guarantee from the San Francisco Giants for the chance to be part of The Team in Chicago.

Lester — who has now made at least 31 starts for nine straight years and put eight 200-inning seasons on his resume — solidified a rotation that watched a supremely confident Arrieta blossom into an ace and the mild-mannered Kyle Hendricks turn into an ERA titleholder.

"Yeah, Kyle was throwing things" after not being named the Opening Day starter, Maddon joked. "I saw Lester walk by him and probably say something to him, and then all of a sudden stuff was like flying all over the weight room. And I knew that Jon broke the news to him."

As much as "Bryzzo Souvenir Co.," the other young stars and a historic defense deserve credit, the Cubs won 200 games across the last two seasons on the strength of their rotation.

"Not many clubs have that luxury," Maddon said. "Jake, for two years in a row, has really done an outstanding job, so has Jon Lester. Of course, the ascension of Kyle, then John Lackey, a lot of good options there, man.

"But obviously it has to go to Jon Lester, based on the body of work. We feel really good about that. You feel great about Jake behind him, and then however we want to set up 3-4-5 to follow. It's good stuff."

Cubs still trying to break through on extension talks with current players

Cubs still trying to break through on extension talks with current players

SAN DIEGO — While the rest of the baseball world is occupying their time with free agent signings and trades, the Cubs have been waiting for their number to be called.

They've been trying to nail down extensions with key players that are only a couple years away from free agency, though nothing appears imminent on that front. 

Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber are all free agents after the 2021 season, leaving the Cubs two years to work out a deal or trade the player before losing them for nothing but a compensation pick. Willson Contreras is a free agent after 2022. Theo Epstein's front office reached a four-year, $55.5 million deal with Kyle Hendricks in spring training, extending his team control through the 2023 season.

The Cubs won't comment specifically on the current extension talks, but they'd ideally hope to wrap anything before spring training this year, so the players can focus solely on baseball by then.

"We always take the position of not commenting on extensions, but are we having those discussions? Yes," Jed Hoyer said Tuesday. "People focus so much on trades and free agent signings at these meetings, but all the agents are under the same roofs, also, and allows us to have those kinds of discussions. I'm not gonna specify who or what, but yeah certainly those conversations are ongoing."

Bryant has long been thought of as the toughest of the group to lock up long-term given that his agent, Scott Boras, typically advises clients to hit the open market and maximize their value. Boras reiterated Tuesday afternoon at the Winter Meetings he and Bryant are still open to extension talks with the Cubs.

Baez and Rizzo loom as the two most likely to extend their Wrigley Field stays, with the two emerging as the faces of the franchise in their own ways.

As the Cubs try to navigate an offseason where they're "serving two masters" (trying to compete in 2020-21 while also enhancing the long-term future of the franchise), a potential extension would check both boxes in a major way. If Hoyer and Theo Epstein knew Baez would be locking down shortstop and the middle of the lineup for the next six seasons, they could breathe a bit easier thinking about the big picture and long-term health of the franchise. 

At the same time, they can't operate as if anything is a certainty. Bryant could decide he likes the Cubs' offer and make Chicago his baseball home forever. Baez could conclude the opposite. 

It's what makes this particular offseason so tricky for the Cubs.

"We have to be able to have parallel tracks in our mind," Hoyer said. "We have to be able to do multiple things at once. It doesn't make it more difficult. We have a lot of really good players. We've had them for a long time. When we talk to these players about contracts, there's no player that we talk to that we haven't had a conversation with at some point before about a contract. 

"We've talked about these players for five years in some way, shape or form. When we sit down with these players, we're not covering a ton of new ground. We've already been over a lot of it. I think we're able to have parallel tracks."

Two MLB moves that changed the landscape of Kris Bryant's trade market

Two MLB moves that changed the landscape of Kris Bryant's trade market

Two reported transactions Tuesday may not have drawn much attention from Cubs fans, but both directly impact the North Siders.

First, The Athletic’s Fabian Ardaya reported the Angels are trading third baseman Zack Cozart to the Giants for cash and a player to be named later. Soon thereafter, free agent shortstop Didi Gregorius agreed to a one-year deal with the Phillies, as Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported.

From a Cubs perspective, the Angels' and Phillies' moves impact a potential Kris Bryant trade market. According to Ardaya, the Giants are picking up the remaining $12.67 million on Cozart’s deal. This clears payroll space for Los Angeles to make a run at a superstar free agent, like third basemen Anthony Rendon and Josh Donaldson.

The Phillies inquired with the Cubs regarding a potential Bryant trade, according to multiple reports. However, Bryant’s unresolved grievance case is a holdup in any trade talks, should the Cubs entertain offers. If he wins, he'll become a free agent next winter. If he loses, he'll remain under team control through 2021.

Gregorius will slot into shortstop for Philadelphia, while incumbent Jean Segura will move to second base, according to NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jim Salisbury. The Phillies are less likely to pursue Bryant — should the Cubs shop him — than they were entering Tuesday. Things can change, but they have less of an infield need as they did on Monday.

On the other hand, the Angels and new manager Joe Maddon suddenly could be a candidate to pursue Bryant. Acquiring him would bring less certainty than Rendon or Donaldson, as Bryant is only under contract for two seasons more, max. Furthermore, acquiring Bryant will cost the Angels prospect capital, while adding Rendon and Donaldson will 'only' entail paying them handsomely as free agents.

In short, Philadelphia is less likely to pursue Bryant than they were entering Tuesday; the possibility of the Angels doing so is stronger than it was entering the day. The Angels haven't been directly connected to Bryant at this point, but that now could change.