Jon Lester’s World-Series-or-bust mentality softened at the end of this unreal season.
Lester had been signed for the parade down Michigan Avenue, and fair or not, that’s how his time in Chicago will be ultimately judged. But after the New York Mets swept the Cubs out of the National League Championship Series, Lester stood at his locker and looked at the bigger picture.
“You can only take positives (from this),” Lester said inside Wrigley Field’s home clubhouse. “And I would hope that everybody in here harps on the positives (and) thinks about all the good things we did this year, all the strides that we made to get to this point. It’s hard to get to this point.”
Momentum can shift so fast in this game – the unbeatable Mets entered this weekend at Citi Field down 0-2 to the Kansas City Royals in the World Series – but Lester is anchored here through at least the 2020 season with full no-trade rights.
To get back to this point, the Cubs will need more than Lester and Jake Arrieta at the top of their rotation, and pitching will be the No. 1 priority for Theo Epstein’s front office this winter.
Lester understood that $155 million would follow him for the rest of his career, and he wouldn’t get defensive when the Chicago media pointed out his salary, “the yips” and how much he means to the rise of this franchise.
You didn’t have to look too far beneath the surface or dig too deep into the numbers to see that Lester lived up to his end of the bargain in Year 1, even with a losing record (11-12) on a 97-win team.
Lester finished with a 3.34 ERA and set the franchise’s new single-season record for strikeouts by a lefty (207). He made 30-plus starts for the eighth straight year and put up more than 200 innings for the seventh time in his career. His WHIP (1.122) and Fielding Independent Pitching (2.92) only trailed his outstanding 2014 walk year with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland A’s.
Lester also admitted it was an up-and-down season that didn’t leave him completely satisfied. The newness for such a routine-obsessed pitcher and that “dead arm” in spring training probably contributed to a 6.23 ERA in April.
Lester got distracted when he looked over to first base and had trouble replicating the throws he could make in practice, leaving him vulnerable at times in the running game, even when he varied his times to home plate and threw thinly veiled pitchouts.
Opponents stole more bases off Lester (44) than any other pitcher in the majors. Even if that’s like a strong NFL defense that gives up chunks of yardage while minimizing points, it will become a point of emphasis again in Mesa, Arizona.
“I probably didn’t pitch to the full (level) I expected to pitch this year,” Lester said. “But I’ll go into the offseason and work on the things I need to work on, and come back to spring training ready to go. And, hopefully, get off to a better start than I did this year. Hopefully, we won’t have any setbacks.”
The Cubs also lost both of Lester’s playoff starts, and while he didn’t pitch poorly, he also didn’t quite live up to his reputation as a big-game performer.
Still, no regrets: The Cubs and Lester would do this megadeal all over again. (But it might take closer to – or north of – $200 million to land David Price.)
“I never look back,” Lester said. “Regardless of what the outcome was this year – if we won the World Series or if we finished out of the playoff race – we spent a lot of time making sure that this was the right decision.
“Obviously, I came here to try to win a World Series. We came up a little short this year. But regardless of the outcome of this year, (it’s) been nothing but a pleasure to play here (and) be a part of this community.”
[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right now]
Chicago can be a strange place for a big-name free agent – and eventually Lester will hit a wall and begin the decline phase of this contract – but the Cubs should feel good about the direction this is heading in Year 2.
“There is obviously a different comfort level now than there was then,” Lester said. “This clubhouse is really tight. I feel like everybody feels like family. Everybody pulls for each other. It’s still the cliché of great chemistry and all that stuff, (but) I do believe this clubhouse is a special clubhouse.
“It’s been a fun year to see (how the fans have) embraced us as a team in the city. It’s just been a great year for us all, (and) especially (for me) being able to kind of relax a little bit more and settle in and call Chicago home.”