The Cubs aren’t going to get in Jon Lester’s head – and stick him with a rookie catcher – when their $155 million asset is pitching like this.
Lester’s comfort level during Year 2 of that megadeal – and the established sense of routine that’s helped him win two World Series rings and put him in position for a fourth All-Star selection – will trump the possibilities the Cubs envision for Willson Contreras.
Lester is 9-3 with a 2.06 ERA and 92 strikeouts through 91-plus innings this season while working with personal catcher David Ross, who knows which buttons to push and how to minimize some of the lefty’s throwing issues.
“You watch the game and you watch the communication between those two guys,” manager Joe Maddon said before Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field. “David knows exactly what to say to him and when. You can’t underestimate all the little nuance that goes on between the mound and the plate. David’s playing at a very high level right now, so I would not mess with that.”
Ever? “Grandpa Rossy” is supposed to be on his farewell tour, Contreras is viewed as the catcher of the future and Lester is signed through at least 2020.
“I’m not saying never,” Maddon said. “I’m just saying for right now. Obviously, if something were to happen to David – which I would hate to see happen – you might have to make some alterations. But for right now, I’m fine with that.
“And the thing about Willson – understand he’s looking really good right now. He’s young, he’s learning. You keep him fresh mentally and physically, he’s going to look like that all year. You don’t want to put too much on his plate right now.
“I’ve been through that before (with) the new kid on the block. Everybody wants the new flavor. And all of a sudden, the flavor can lose some of its edge if you expose it too often.
“Just let him play. Let him be Willson. Let him be 24 years old. Let him be a new player in the big leagues and let him grow into this whole thing. He’s going to be here for many years. He’s going to be really good.
“But I like the potential for him to break in this way, with two really outstanding veteran catchers around him. Any young catcher would benefit from that.”
Back in spring training, Miguel Montero understood Contreras would be coming for his job and promised to help with the transition. Montero is owed $14 million next season and will turn 34 during the final year of that contract.
The Cubs are far more focused on Contreras managing personalities, absorbing game plans and making adjustments behind the plate than worrying about how he performs offensively. Not after watching him win a Southern League batting title last year at Double-A Tennessee and then put up a 1.030 OPS during his first 54 games this year with Triple-A Iowa.
But at some point – either through injury, Ross retiring and/or the inevitable churn within perennial contenders – Contreras will have to catch Lester.
“My impression of Willson already is: You give him a plan to work with, he will devour that plan and take it out on the field,” Maddon said. “He is insatiable when it comes to the need (and want for) information. He looks you straight up, straight in the eye.
“(Catching/strategy coach Mike) Borzello is perfect for him also. ‘Borz’ loves spewing it out – and this kid loves listening. It’s a great match. Like I said, Willson right now is in the perfect situation to learn from two outstanding veteran catchers (and our coaching staff). It’s optimal for a young catcher.”
When the Cubs wanted to continue with the Kyle Schwarber catching experiment – before the season-ending outfield collision in early April and reconstructive knee surgery – they knew Jason Hammel had the right personality to go along with it.
The Cardinals jumped Hammel for four runs within the first three innings on Tuesday night, and the Cubs won’t be in a rush to pair up Contreras with Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta. (Montero will get that assignment on Wednesday afternoon, weather permitting.) But Contreras can also compensate for his defensive inexperience with a game-changing arm and middle-of-the-order presence (1-for-3 with a walk and a run scored).
“We’re building better rhythm as we go,” said Hammel (7-3, 2.55 ERA). “He’s still learning the pitching staff. It’s hard to learn a new guy every time out there.
“I felt like sometimes the ball was coming back harder to me than I was throwing it to him. The kid’s got a cannon.”