Jon Lester vs. Max Scherzer: Money showdown in Cubs-Nationals


Jon Lester vs. Max Scherzer: Money showdown in Cubs-Nationals

Jon Lester vs. Max Scherzer.

A fascinating case study in the free-agent market will play out on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, where the Cubs and Washington Nationals will show off the two aces who cost $365 million combined.

“It was a fun offseason, I’m sure, for him,” Lester said. “It’s something that I definitely don’t want to ever go through again.”

The Decision dominated the December winter meetings, with Lester finally picking the Cubs, spurning the Boston Red Sox and not pushing the Los Angeles Dodgers to see what their limits would really be. The San Francisco Giants also made a very strong offer that would have at least been in the ballpark of what the Cubs ultimately guaranteed: Six years and $155 million.

[NBC SHOP: Buy a Jon Lester jersey!]

Creating a cone of silence, super-agent Scott Boras slow-played everything with Scherzer, waiting until late January before closing a seven-year, $210 million megadeal that contains a significant amount of deferred money.

“You’re always aware of your contemporaries in the free-agent market,” Scherzer said. “Obviously, I was interested in what (Lester) was able to secure. And, obviously, he got a very hefty contract himself. So I’m very happy for him and his family. Because as players, we all cheer for each other, and we all want the best for everybody.”

[MORE: Bryant walk-off steals the show in Cubs win]

After getting traded from Boston to the Oakland A’s at the July 31 deadline last season, Lester did not come with the qualifying offer and draft-pick compensation the Detroit Tigers attached to Scherzer.

Lester trusted the Cubs executives who used to work at Fenway Park – Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Jason McLeod – and how they planned to build a World Series winner on the North Side.

Relationships matter: Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo had been the Arizona Diamondbacks scouting director when they grabbed Scherzer with the 11th overall pick in the 2006 draft out of the University of Missouri.

Lester said he didn’t view Scherzer as a rival or a benchmark when he strategized with the Levinson brothers’ ACES agency.

“That was one thing that I really respected about our game plan,” Lester said. “It’s not about comparing you to other people. We put everything out there that had to do with me. I wouldn’t want Max to bash me. I would probably assume the same on the other side. Each (case) is individual. There’s too many variables.”

[MORE: Cubs think Javier Baez is in a good place in Iowa]

Lester is 31 years old and left-handed, with more than 1,600 innings on his resume, plus 84 more in the postseason, and those two World Series rings from Boston. He’s starting to settle in with the Cubs (4-2, 3.56 ERA) after a rough April that had him feeling the weight of this contract.

Scherzer is right-handed and will turn 31 this summer. He recently passed the 1,300-inning career mark and has blended in well with the win-now Nationals, going 5-3 with a 1.67 ERA. He might earn some more hardware to match that 2013 American League Cy Young Award.

“You have two different ways of going about it,” Lester said. “You have Boras doing his thing and we did our thing. I don’t know what they did. I don’t know how they broke down their comparisons or anything like that. But I know on our end – before we even met about it – that was something in my mind: I don’t want to be compared to other people.

“You can take contracts and compare them, (taking) guys that have signed before you and (putting) numbers next to that. But as far as going into free agency with somebody – even (James) Shields – I don’t feel like you try to compete with anybody. I feel like you just got to stay in your foxhole and try to battle it out and do what’s best for your family.

“At the end of the day, obviously, Max got a hell of a lot more. And that’s awesome for him and the Nationals to be here. It’s just different circumstances, different deals, kind of all the way around.”

The bottom line: “We’re both in pretty good spots,” Lester said.   

A messy night at Wrigley Field ends without a pitch being thrown

A messy night at Wrigley Field ends without a pitch being thrown

The NLCS rematch will have to wait another day.

Mother Nature and the power at Wrigley Field care not for your excitement about a "big series" between the Cubs and Dodgers.

Thunderstorms rolled over the North Side of Chicago, where the Dodgers ended the Cubs' postseason run 8 months ago. 

On top of that, the power at Wrigley Field was not cooperating with the lights down the right field line going out for hours during the rain delay. 

The lights came back on at one point before again going out again roughly a half hour before Monday night's game was officially called. After a delay stretching almost three hours, word finally filtered out just before 10 p.m. the game would be postponed a day.

The Cubs and Dodgers will make the game up as part of a day-night doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field with the first game starting at 12:05 p.m. and the second at the regularly scheduled time of 7:05 p.m. Tyler Chatwood will start the first game for the Cubs with Mike Montgomery slated to go Game 2.

As of 10 p.m. Monday night, the Cubs were unsure what caused the power issue at Wrigley Field but were working on fixing the problem ahead of Tuesday's scheduled doubleheader.

The evening started with the tarp being rolled onto the field by the Cubs grounds crew roughly an hour before scheduled first pitch with a forecast calling for a 100 percent chance of rain.

Only a light rain fell until a downpour began around 8:15 p.m.:

That lasted only about a half hour before the grounds crew came back out around 8:45 p.m. to partially remove the tarp and attempt to get the field ready to play.

The only issue at that point was the light and a sinister forecast.

"It takes 45 minutes to get the field ready to play," said Julian Green, Cubs director of communications. "So once you take that tarp off, you saw them putting the chalk lines down, getting ready.

"We wanted to be ready — even in the face of rain — if the lights came back on, we wanted to make sure we could play baseball, even if it was a limited window of opportunity."

As of 11 p.m., that second bout of rain had yet to materialize, but the lights issue also wasn't corrected and play on the field would've been impossible.

Fans lingered throughout the stadium for nearly three hours before an official conclusion came down. The Cubs kept the same announcement on the right field video board about the weather delay while the left field video board displayed the Brewers-Pirates and other MLB games.

This is the only trip to Chicago the Dodgers make throughout the 2018 season so the two teams and Major League Baseball did all they could to try to get a game in and avoid any issue where these two teams would have to play on a mutual off-day later in the year. 

The Cubs were in the midst of a stretch of 17 games in 17 days without a day off. They're still on that same schedule, though now with an unexpected day off Monday and a doubleheader Tuesday.

The Cubs are no stranger to postponements this season as wacky weather has continued to hamper this MLB season.

"Not only for the Chicago Cubs, but Chicago in general, this has been a really interesting spring and summer season," Green said. "We're taking our licks just like everybody else is.

"Our plan is to play baseball tomorrow and make sure we can accomodate fans as best as possible. So fans who have tickets to tonight's game will be able to use them for tomorrow."

How the Cubs are trying to help Kris Bryant out of his slump

How the Cubs are trying to help Kris Bryant out of his slump

Whatever Kris Bryant does from here, it's just frosting on the cake that is his legacy.

That's one way to look at the lasting impact of a guy like Bryant, who morphed from "The Chosen One" as the No. 2 overall pick. He's lived up to the hype from Day 1, has a Rookie of the Year and NL MVP Award in his trophy case and — most importantly of all — led the Cubs to their first World Series championship in 108 years.

A slump in May and June of 2018 won't tarnish that legacy.

But you can also forgive Cubs fans if they're growing a little antsy with their stud player. 

Just rest easy that he's growing a little antsy, too.

After chronicling his "temper tantrums" and actually admitting he gets so angry he is prone to breaking bats in frustration (still find that really hard to believe) last week, Bryant still isn't quite over his slump.

Maybe he's just simply trying to do too much right now.

"Kris is fine," Jon Lester said. "I mean, I think anytime you have a guy like that, he's got such high expectations not only of himself but the other people outside of the baseball world.

"I think he feels that — he feels pressure from his teammates, he feels pressure from himself and he wants to perform and he wants to do well every night. When he doesn't, it seems like he just keeps adding on. The rock on his back gets a little bigger every time."

As recently as May 22, Bryant was hitting .303 with a 1.007 OPS.

But since then — a span of 21 games — he's hitting just .241 with a .316 on-base percentage and .310 slugging percentage, good for a .627 OPS. More alarming than anything, he's struck out 28 times in 87 at-bats, taking a step back in the area he has made the most improvement in since breaking into the league in 2015.

The power has been an issue for even longer. Bryant just recently went a month without a homer before sending one into the bleachers Friday night at Busch Stadium.

Still, since May 15, he has only 8 extra-base hits (7 doubles and that 1 homer) in 27 games.

The struggle is real right now, but that hasn't stopped the Cubs from going 17-11 during Bryant's dip in power.

GM Jed Hoyer reiterated again that Bryant is the last guy the Cubs worry about in the big picture.

"The way he runs the bases, the way he plays defense, I feel like he's contributing to wins even when he might be struggling at the plate a little bit," Hoyer said Monday evening. "With guys like him, I always look at it and think to myself — that means a hot streak is right around the corner.

"I said that about Anthony [Rizzo] in April when he was struggling and he's been great since May 1. I think Kris will have the same kind of turnaraound. With him, it's just a matter of when he breaks out.

"Over the course of the season, every great player goes through one or two big slumps. We're in a strange sport where even the greatest players are not slump-proof. He'll get out of it and we'll all reap the benefits when he does."

Even with the struggles, Bryant ranks 23rd among position players in WAR (Fangraphs) with 2.3, pacing the Cubs in that category. That still puts him on pace for a roughly 6-WAR pace, which would be his lowest throughout his MLB career but is still very clearly elite.

In an effort to get him back to the "KB" we've seen so much over the last four years, Joe Maddon has twice resorted to bumping him to the top of the lineup, including Monday night's game against the Dodgers.

Maddon is hoping a move to the leadoff spot will reinstill in Bryant's head that he doesn't need to be a power hitter to help the team win.

For right now, it works. After all, Bryant is still tied for 9th in baseball in OBP (.389). 

"You really do start trying too hard," Maddon said. "You try to force things as opposed to letting them come to you. Especially a power guy that's not hit home runs in a bit. My take on power guys is that it normally is cyclical. They'll get it for a while, then they'll get away with it, then it comes back."

Like Hoyer, Maddon talked up Bryant's abilities as a "winning player" in every other area of the game even when he's not going yard. That includes his daily hustle and effort.

"When a guy like him goes through this moment, I want him to focus on that — not homers," Maddon said. "He probably hears that way too much about the power situation and I'm really not interested in that. 

"Put him back in the leadoff spot for the reasons I just said — he can help win a game in so many different ways and I want him to just focus on that. ... He needs our support; he's gonna get it. I just put him in that top spot to readjust how he's thinking and that's all."