Cubs

Jon Lester: The most important signing in Cubs history

Jon Lester: The most important signing in Cubs history

Jon Lester became the most important signing in Cubs history when he agreed to a six-year, $155 million contract to be the ace of the Cubs.

He spurned his old team — the Red Sox — along with a handful of other teams ready to pony up the nine-figure deal necessary to acquire the frontline starter. By choosing the Cubs, Lester accelerated Theo Epstein & Jed Hoyer's famous "Plan," legitimizing Chicago as a free agent destination and as an up-and-coming perennial playoff team.

"This signing really marks a transition of sorts for the Cubs, the start of a period where we are clearly very serious about bringing a World Series to the Cubs and the people of Chicago," Epstein said back on Dec. 15, 2014.

Inking Lester to a megadeal was a calculated risk, but all $100 million contracts are. Here's a closer look at the Cubs 100 million dollar men:

Nov. 30, 2006 - The Cubs introduce Alfonso Soriano

Back in 2007, the Cubs needed to make a splash and did so by signing the top free agent hitter on the market.

The Cubs inked Alfonso Soriano to an eight-year, $136 million dollar contract — then, the largest in franchise history. The Cubs had their leadoff hitter — fresh off becoming the fourth member of the 40-40 club — to go along with a new manager in Lou Piniella. Soriano made two All-Star teams for the Cubs in 2007 and 2008 while playing a key role on both division-title winning teams.

However, his time with the Cubs will often be remembered by his offensive decline, his subpar play in the outfield, and his eventual trade to the Yankees. While his overall body of work was statistically respectable, his output did not match the $136 million the Cubs invested in him.

Dec. 15, 2014 - The Cubs introduce Jon Lester

Like the signing of Soriano, the reeling in of Lester to Wrigley Field was paired with the hiring of another new big name manager, Joe Maddon.

Three years into his megadeal, Lester is 43-25 with a 3.33 ERA in 96 starts. The 2016 All-Star and Cy Young runner-up has done some of his best work in the postseason, where he's 3-1 with a 1.98 ERA in his last nine postseason appearances — three of which came in the 2016 World Series.

Lester's tireless work ethic off the field and his veteran influence in a young Cubs clubhouse has made this signing a smashing success. 
    
Dec. 15, 2015 - The Cubs introduce Jason Heyward

One year to the day after introducing Lester, Jason Heyward met with the Chicago media after signing an eight-year, $184 million contract — the richest in franchise history.

Heyward was coming off one of his best offensive seasons (.289, 13 HR, 60 RBI with the Cardinals) and his third Gold Glove in four seasons but the prized free agent struggled from the start in Chicago. Taking Heyward away from the Cardinals and signing baseball's top free agent prize ended up creating an outfield log jam in Chicago.

Heyward's speech during the rain delay in Game 7 against the Indians will most likely end up being the highlight of his Cubs career. The post-World Series championship offseason storyline of Heyward rectifying his broken swing was entertaining to follow on social media, but his 2017 slash line of .259/.326/.389 is clearly not worth the $184 million he signed for.

The future is now

"I believe in the plan that they have in place for the future of the Cubs."

That's what Lester said back on Dec. 15, 2014.

That statement still holds true today. Lester remains the anchor of the Cubs staff surrounded by Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana with reinforcements on the way. Regardless of any additions or subtractions, the Cubs will again be one of baseball's World Series favorites entering 2018 and the reliable lefty will be at the center of it all.

Halfway home, the $155 million deal has been "smart money" spent on Lester, the most important signing in Cubs franchise history.

Ben Zobrist working to be a more vocal leader for Cubs in 2019

Ben Zobrist working to be a more vocal leader for Cubs in 2019

MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs are kind of the hipsters of the leadership committee world.

Before the Bulls got so much attention for their leadership council under coach Jim Boylen, the Cubs held their own closed-door meeting between the front office and the players.

The leadership narrative has been right up there with the payroll as far as top offseason storylines for the Cubs, with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer often discussing their desire to find more veterans for the clubhouse to help keep guys "accountable," enforce the "urgency" needed throughout a long season and avoid any sort of "complacency" that may set in. (You can now cross those three buzzwords off your Cubs Bingo cards.)

The Cubs felt like they lacked that edge last season and pointed to it as one of the reasons why they were caught from behind by the Brewers in the final week of the season and wound up at home, barbecuing in the first week of October instead of on another march toward a potential championship.

So to learn from that situation and improve upon it, Zobrist was among the group discussion.

"We've had some very candid conversations with the leadership," he said Friday when he showed up at camp after a four-day excused absence for personal reasons. "I was really grateful to see how Theo, Jed sat several of us down and just asked a lot of questions to us — 'what do you think?' When you feel like you have a voice and you feel like you could potentially have say in what could happen as the new year comes in, you jump in.

"I've thought about it a lot over the course of this offseason. I'm excited about the potential of how things will change and the mindset moving forward. I can't wait to see it play itself out."

Zobrist turns 38 in May and in the final season of his contract, but he's been everything the Cubs could've wanted when they inked him to a four-year deal before the 2016 season. He stabilized the lineup that year, won the World Series MVP and has generally been a great example of the type of plate approach and work ethic the organization wants young players to model themselves after.

But "leader" was not a word attached to Zobrist often because he's not the David Ross type who continually lends advice in the clubhouse and chirps in the dugout.

"I'm just not an out-loud leader," Zobrist said. "I'm not that kinda guy. I'm not gonna try and go out and get in guys faces in any regard. I'm just gonna do my job. I think I was always just so focused on doing my job that I didn't worry too much about what's going on around me.

"But now at this point, you kinda see how things went last year. We all feel a collective responsibility. For me, not knowing what my future is next year, I definitely want to take my full responsibility and give whatever I can to the guys and give to this group so we can get back to where we want to be."

Like Jon Lester, Zobrist may not be all that comfortable with a role as a vocal leader, but the Cubs are challenging their experienced veterans to take more of a responsibility in helping keep this young core in line and nudge them in the right direction.

Zobrist feels veteran leadership is undervalued in the game right now and believes that's reflected in free agency, where so many older players have found difficulty finding homes.

He's entering his 14th season in the big leagues and has more than 1,600 games and 6,600 plate appearances under his belt. 

"I do think that it's necessary to speak up when you have something to say, but there's also a necessary tact that it takes, especially with younger players and guys that are great players in their own right," Zobrist said. "But the experience does give you something. You have been through a few things that maybe some of the young guys haven't.

"You see how the game changes, you see it from different eyes and so hopefully as I see things that are changing and I see little things within our clubhouse atmosphere, I do plan on saying something in the right way, just encouraging guys. I really believe that can do a lot for a ballclub."

Young players like Willson Contreras, Kris Bryant and Ian Happ have directly mentioned Zobrist and how they watch the way he goes about his business, prepares and can put together a professional at-bat regardless of the situation, where he's hitting in the order, what position he's playing, etc.

But again, the Cubs feel the team has a strong need for more vocal leadership in the clubhouse, which was a big reason why they picked up Cole Hamels' $20 million option and brought in veteran Daniel Descalso. 

Descalso is about all they could manage this winter with a strict budget that didn't allow much wiggle room, but the Cubs also spent the offseason internalizing the disappointment from last fall. They worked to try to improve what they had and pushing Lester and Zobrist to become more vocal leaders falls under that umbrella.

"I'm excited to kind of own my position, but also do a little bit more ownership of the entire group," Zobrist said. "I think everybody's kinda there. Everybody's like — 'how can we build each other up as a group?' instead of, 'how can I develop as a player?' I've been getting there for the last few years of my career, no doubt, but this year, probably even moreso."

Joe Maddon is just fine with Zobrist continuing to lead by example.

"Zo has always had this quiet leadership about him," Maddon said. "He's not really a vocal guy. I don't even know if he's gonna be able to get to that point. He really sets a great example. After the game, he'll be in the weight room with [strength coach Tim Buss] at least an extra hour before he even goes home.

"A lot of it depends on whether he's gonna play the next day or not. But he always has, by example, been a wonderful leader as far as I'm concerned. Just be more apt or possibly say something to somebody that he may see that he normally wouldn't have done in the past. It would take a lot to have Zo approach you about a specific moment. 

"He'd prefer showing you how it's done by just watching me. So all that stuff, it's wonderful and it'll all play organically. I think it's gonna play its way out. For me, he's done that for a while."

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MLB announces pitch clocks will be used in spring training; no decision made for regular season

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USA TODAY

MLB announces pitch clocks will be used in spring training; no decision made for regular season

Pitch clocks are coming to a ballpark near you in 2019.

Friday, MLB announced that a 20-second pitch timer will be used during 2019 spring training games. The decision comes on the heels of MLB commissioner Ron Manfred saying earlier this month that the league is focused more on pace-of-play initiatives rather than drastic rule changes.

No decision has been made on whether the timer will be implemented for the 2019 regular season. However, ESPN's Jeff Passan said that it such a move is "a very real possibility."

Both pitchers and batters share responsibility for a pitch getting delivered ahead of the timer's expiration. While the timer will not be used ahead of the first pitch of an at-bat, it will start the moment the pitcher receives the ball back from his catcher.

From there, the rule requires:

-Batters to be in the batter's box and alert to the pitcher with at least five seconds left on the timer

-A pitcher to begin his motion/windup before the timer's expiration — the pitch does not have to be released before the timer expires

The 20-second timer will be implemented in three phases during spring training. They are as follows:

1. In order for players and umpires to adjust to the change, the timer will operate without enforcement for the first spring training games.

2. Early next week, umpires will begin issuing reminders to players and hitters who violate the rule, albeit without assessing a penalty. Umpires will inform managers, pitching coaches and/or hitting coaches after the inning ends of any violations.

3. Later in spring training (depending on MLB's negotiations with the MLBPA) umpires will begin assessing ball-strike penalties to teams for any violations.

Like it or not, pace-of-play initiatives are coming to MLB. For fans, players and umpires alike, spring training offers the chance to get used to baseball's new normal. 

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