Cubs

Jon Lester continues to show how valuable he is to Cubs

Jon Lester continues to show how valuable he is to Cubs

ST. LOUIS — Only Jon Lester could get away with this.

Lester had just delivered pitch No. 99 on a 93-degree night in St. Louis with sweltering humidity.

As Cardinals outfielder Marcell Ozuna rounded first base and headed back to the bag after a base hit, Joe Maddon and Cubs trainer P.J. Mainville were headed out of the dugout to go talk to Lester.

But the Cubs ace and three-time World Series champ waved them off with his glove. 

With that, Maddon and Mainville spun around and headed right back to their posts in the third-base dugout.

Three pitches later, Lester had gotten through the sixth inning and had his quality start.

A moment like that signified the clout Lester carries within the Cubs clubhouse, but it also shows just how different this season has been for the 34-year-old after a rough 2017 campaign.

Lester still finished 13-8 last year and made 32 starts, but he posted his highest ERA (4.33) and WHIP (1.32) since 2012 and his lowest inning total (180.2) since he became a full-time member of a big-league rotation in 2008.

Now, Lester is making one hell of a case for the National League All-Star team, going 8-2 with a 2.38 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and a stabilizing factor in what has been a tumultuous year for the Cubs rotation.

"Yeah, [I feel] completely different," Lester said. "I don't know why, but just wasn't able to recover as well last year as I have in the past. This year, for whatever reason, able to throw my bullpens and take it into my starts.

"Just feel better physically, able to repeat my mechanics and feel strong out there. Just keep doing what I'm doing and hopefully ride it out."

Maddon believed Friday's outing was the best stuff Lester has displayed all year.

Lester didn't necessarily agree, but did concede that it was probably his best outing for his cutter and he loved the late movement he had on that pitch diving in on right-handed hitters.

Maddon also loved how Lester pitched around a couple of Cubs defensive miscues — Kris Bryant committed an error in the second inning and Addison Russell took too much time on a ground ball in the third inning, allowing Cardinals pitcher Michael Wacha to reach on an infield single.

Both times, Lester worked through it without any issues and even came into the dugout to tell Bryant he was impressed with the Cubs third baseman keeping the hot-shot grounder in front of him, even if it was an error. If that ball gets by Bryant, the Cardinals have runners on second and third with two outs and it completely changes what Lester can do on the mound, worried about a basehit scoring two runs instead of one or a wild pitch gifting the opposition a free tally.

Maybe that interaction in the dugout helped give Bryant a little boost, as he ended his month-long homerless drought in his next at-bat the following half inning.

This is Year 4 of Lester's six-year, $155 million deal and he's been everything the Cubs have hoped for and more, from his performance on the mound to his impact in the clubhouse.

Where would they be without him this year?

While Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood have put pressure on the bullpen with short outings this season, Lester has pitched at least 6 innings in 6 straight games and has not had an outing shorter than 5 innings since Opening Day (3.1 innings).

"He just continues to trend in the right direction," Maddon said."

How Cubs will determine if this is the time to sell — or hold — stock on young players

How Cubs will determine if this is the time to sell — or hold — stock on young players

Do the Cubs envision Ian Happ as a vital piece of their future or the organization's best trade asset?

What about Kyle Schwarber? Albert Almora Jr.? Victor Caratini? 

We might not get surefire answers to these questions this winter, but we'll at least get an indication in a pivotal offseason for this quartet. (The Cubs already know what they have with their other young position players apart from maybe Willson Contreras, but it's nearly impossible to find another catcher in the same stratosphere as Contreras in terms of physical tools and potential).

The Cubs are at a crossroads of sorts with the development of these four players (and others) as they try to retool for another run at a championship in 2019 after a disappointing end to 2018. There's urgency for production in the lineup and not simply potential and the growing pains that coincide with young players.

So how do the Cubs determine if they should sell stock on players like Happ, Schwarber or Almora when it's still unknown who — or what — they are as players?

"Through evaluation and through a lot of discussion with our most trusted evaluators and the people around the players every day," Theo Epstein said last week at the GM Meetings. "And through conversations with the players, too. Honest discussions about their weaknesses.

"I don't want to generalize, but many players follow a path where they come up from the minor leagues and have some immediate success and as the league finds out more about them, the league makes an adjustment. I've never seen a major-league environment that's more ruthless than the one that exists today. We're going right to a player's weakness, quickly finding it, exploiting it and staying there until they adjust back.

"You have to have honest conversations about the area where players need to improve in order to have the types of careers that they want to have in order to help us win the way they want to help us win. And seeing how players react to that and the plans they come up with and the work ethic to make those adjustments and the trace record to make those adjustments — all that stuff really matters."

We know the Cubs don't operate with any "untouchables" (as was reiterated in a very high-profile way over the last week), but that's also all about how important the word value is.

The Cubs have zero interest in selling low on guys like Schwarber, Almora or Happ because those are three players they've held conviction on for years as first-round draft picks to top prospects to impact players in the big leagues. 

But it's also entirely possible another team around the league values Schwarber more than the Cubs do and offer Epstein's front office a deal that's too hard to pass up. Sure, Schwarber's 2018 was something of a disappointment, but he also drastically increased his walk rate, cut down on strikeouts and improved his defense. Oh yeah, and he'll still only be 26 in March.

We could run the same exercise for Almora, Happ and Caratini, but the main takeaway here is that the evaluations of these players are incomplete as they're still very young/inexperienced with potential.

But if the Cubs trade any of those three guys this winter, it's not necessarily an indication of doom for the player. It's more about finding the right time to pull the trigger.

"That's the nature of it," Epstein said. "Trades happen in this game. A lot of times when trades are made, it doesn't mean you've completely given up on a player. A lot of trades are more about what you're receiving back than what you're giving up in the first place."

There's also value for the Cubs in not necessarily selling one of those young players but choosing to get a little more veteran and diverse with a lineup that "broke" in the second half, as Epstein described it.

Due to the inexperience and youth, the Cubs lineup was more prone to slumps. That was highlighted by the trade for (and subsequent playing time of) Daniel Murphy in August. When the veteran hitter was acquired, the Cubs initially intended to utilize him to help augment the lineup on a fairly regular basis, but with the struggles around him, they instead needed to lean on Murphy to play essentially every day.

When it comes down to it, the Cubs just want production — no matter where it comes from.

"We're setting out to add to the personnel, so I guess in that sense, if we come back with the status quo, it means there are a couple things out there that we would've lovd to have done that we couldn't, but that happens," Epstein said. "But I think ultimately, we should be held accountable for our performance, not for the amount of change in the names. And we will be. This group will be.

"In order to keep this thing going with the realities of the business and what happens as players move through the service time structure and escalating salaries and everything else, the time for that talent to translate into performance is now to get the absolute most out of this group. Or else we're going to be looking at some hard realities and the need for a lot of change going forward."

Cubs Talk Podcast: What would it take for the Cubs to trade Kris Bryant?

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: What would it take for the Cubs to trade Kris Bryant?

Luke Stuckmeyer, David Kaplan and Tony Andracki break down the Kris Bryant trade rumors.

01:00 - How much truth is there to the "Will Kris Bryant be traded" story?

04:25 - Is there any package a team could offer that would give the Cubs what they value Bryant at?

05:35 - Who is the most untouchable player on the Cubs roster?

08:55 - Will Bryant be in Chicago long enough to wear a Cubs hat if he makes it to Cooperstown?

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12:00 - Is Nolan Arenado a match in a possible trade for Bryant

16:00 - If MVP is Bryant's ceiling, what is his floor?

17:00 - Any players who had a shoulder issue like Bryant had who never bounced back?

19:00 - Would a Noah Syndergaard for Kris Bryant trade make sense?

20:20 - Could Josh Donaldson be a target for the Cubs?

21:00 - Is all this Bryant talk much ado about nothing

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

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