Cubs

Jon Lester beats Giants and Johnny Cueto, showing why he's Cubs ace

Jon Lester beats Giants and Johnny Cueto, showing why he's Cubs ace

As much as the Cubs dreaded the idea of facing Johnny Cueto and Madison Bumgarner in an elimination game last October – and feeling all that anxiety rippling throughout the crowd at Wrigley Field – the San Francisco Giants still would have had to beat Jon Lester that night.

The Giants know how good Lester is, sending future Hall of Fame manager Bruce Bochy and All-Star catcher Buster Posey as part of the recruiting visit to his Georgia home shortly after winning the 2014 World Series. There were even rumblings of a $168 million proposal from the Giants at the winter meetings where Lester took a six-year, $155 million megadeal and the chance to make history in Chicago.  

So Lester won’t take it personal when manager Joe Maddon talks about last year’s entire postseason hinging on avoiding Cueto and winning that divisional round in four games.

“I’m not too shabby, right?” Lester said with a smile after dominating the Giants during Tuesday night’s 4-1 complete-game victory. “I’ve had a decent career.”

That Lester vs. Cueto rematch in Game 5 never happened, because the Cubs pulled off a Giant comeback in San Francisco. After winning a 1-0 instant classic against Cueto in Game 1, Lester went on to become the National League Championship Series co-MVP and win his third World Series ring. 

“Nobody wants to face a guy like that,” Lester said. “He was throwing the ball really, really well at that time. And, obviously, all the stuff he does on the mound really, really screws up guys’ timing. He made a couple mistakes tonight and we were able to put them in the seats. That doesn’t happen very often.

“I know what I can do on my side of the ball. But that would have been a tough game.” 

After waiting out a 65-minute rain delay, Lester struck out the side in the first inning and again outdueled Cueto. Keeping a Giant lineup looking fastball off-balance with changeups, Lester allowed four hits and finished with 10 strikeouts and zero walks in a game that took only 2 hours and 5 minutes.  

Where Cueto has a 4.64 ERA and blisters on his right middle and index fingers – Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and Anthony Rizzo drove balls onto Sheffield Avenue and into the right-field basket and bleachers – Lester (3-2, 3.19 ERA) appears to be picking up where he left off last October/November. 

You can’t really say that about the 23-21 Cubs as a whole, but Lester’s 15th career complete game is a step in the right direction. 
     
“It’s been close for a while,” Lester said. “I feel like we just haven’t put it all together at once. I’ve said it a million times – and I hate to beat a dead horse – but I feel like when we pitch well, we don’t hit. And when we hit, we don’t pitch well. It’s been kind of back and forth for us, so it’s nice to limit runs and give our guys a chance.”

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.