Cubs

How Cubs see Jon Lester and Willson Contreras working together

How Cubs see Jon Lester and Willson Contreras working together

MESA, Ariz. – Jon Lester’s so far beyond the first step of admitting there’s a problem, posting a self-deprecating message on his Twitter account to celebrate Major League Baseball’s labor peace: “While my efforts to eliminate pitchers from having to throw to 1B didn’t pass, I’m proud of the PA & Owners for coming together on a new CBA!”

Adding a third World Series ring to his collection won’t stop the questions for Lester, who sat through a press conference on Friday morning that lasted almost 19 minutes, talking about the yips and answering why he thinks throwing to young catcher Willson Contreras instead of Grandpa Rossy won’t be an issue.    

“I’m not the one that keeps bringing it up, other than that joke,” Lester said. “I’ve been open with it since Day 1. It’s nothing to hide from. It’s there.”  

David Ross is now walking around the Sloan Park complex as a special assistant in baseball operations, and part of his Mesa portfolio will be helping show Contreras the right buttons to push with Lester, what they learned as teammates on that 2013 Boston Red Sox championship team.  

“Rossy and I just didn’t jump in and all of a sudden click,” Lester said. “It took a few starts for us to kind of hammer some things out – and him get used to what I like to do and vice versa. That’s all it really comes down to – just pitching, time on the mound, time behind the plate.

“Willson’s a smart kid and he cares and he wants to get better. He’s eager to please, so I think he has all the attributes to be a really good catcher in this league for a long time. I don’t think there’s going to be much of a learning curve.”

Beyond Lester’s Cy Young Award-level stuff, the Cubs used several mechanisms to help cover up the issue, from varying his times to the plate to disguising pitchouts to coordinating pick-off plays with Gold Glove first baseman Anthony Rizzo to putting together the best defensive unit in the majors.     

“Willy’s probably got a little bit more arm than David actually has physically,” manager Joe Maddon said. “David was really good about feet and release – (and) I think Willson can also be that good.

“Realizing that Willson’s behind the plate, the thought process (for the other team) will be very similar to David behind the plate, regarding the ability to throw to first or throw to second. So I don’t perceive an edge for the other side based on that flip-flop.

“The biggest thing for me there is just purely the person, David’s knowledge, his experience, whatever, working with Jon. That’s going to be the part, to me, that we have to be aware of.

“When it comes down to controlling the running game and all that stuff, I feel pretty good about it.”

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At this time last year, Contreras had never before played above the Double-A level, part of an accelerated development that turned him into a key rookie contributor for a 103-win team and the obvious catcher of the future. With Lester signed to a $155 million contract through at least the 2020 season, the Cubs clearly want this to work with Contreras.

“Me and Rossy didn’t reinvent the wheel with anything special,” Lester said. “It’s a matter of having a game plan. And when the game plan isn’t going well or you’re not able to execute that – the ability to go to a Plan B is where I feel like Rossy and I kind of clicked.

“I saw Willy do that last year a lot with everybody else, so I don’t think it’s going to be any problems. He’s very talented and very willing to learn.

“He’s ready to go. I don’t think there’s going to be any issues at all.”

[MORE: Cubs reboot the Kyle Schwarber catching experiment]

Except for that inexplicable mental block for one of the greatest big-game pitchers of his generation.

“It is what it is,” Lester said at least three times. “I’ll keep worrying about throwing it 60 feet, six inches.”

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

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