Tommy Hottovy

What are the Cubs expecting from Jon Lester in 2020?

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USA TODAY

What are the Cubs expecting from Jon Lester in 2020?

Five winters ago, Jon Lester signed a $155 million deal with the Cubs to come in and lead their pitching staff and help form a winning culture in the clubhouse.

He's done exactly that and been worth every penny of the contract to date.

But as Lester enters what might be the final chapter of his Cubs tenure and just a couple days after his 36th birthday, what is the team expecting from him in 2020? 

It's easy to look at Lester's stats from 2019 — league-leading 205 hits allowed, 4.46 ERA, 1.50 WHIP — and believe age is catching up to him and regression has set in. 

The Cubs aren't buying that.

"We're not in the least bit writing him off," Theo Epstein said last month. "We're not, like, hoping he can hold his own. He's capable of being a really, really impactful pitcher for us."

Sitting in his hotel suite in San Diego for the 2019 Winter Meetings, Epstein reflected on his position five years earlier in the same city when his front office locked up Lester and officially began a new era in Cubs baseball.

"Being back here in San Diego has led a number of us to think back to that signing," Lester said. "We've had quite a few discussions of what a great job he's done living up to that contract and then some: How important he's been to all the good things that have happened the last five years — the big games that he's pitched for us and the consistency that he's given us. 

"And the fact that he's still a vital member of the team going into the last year full guaranteed year of the deal says a lot about him and that work ethic. If you ask him, I think he's holding himself to the same standards that he always does — he hates losing, he wants to win, he's gonna work extremely hard. He pitched some really good baseball games last year. I think he can still be really successful with the stuff he has now."

Lester has lost a couple mph on his fastball and he has nearly 2,700 big-league innings under his belt (including playoffs). He is set to make $20 million in 2020 and the Cubs have a $25 million team option for 2021 that becomes fully guaranteed if he eclipses 200 innings this season (the deal also has a $10 million buyout). 

Lester was an All-Star as recently as 2018 and watched his strikeouts climb back to solid numbers (8.7 K/9) after a dip in whiffs in '18. But too often opposing batters were squaring him up when making contact, as evidenced by a career-high 38.7 percent hard-hit rate.

With Yu Darvish's fantastic second half and Kyle Hendricks' continued steady production, the days of Lester serving as the Cubs' "ace" are probably behind us. But — as Epstein said — the team is still counting on him to play a big role in 2020. Bet against the wily veteran at your own risk.

Lester has been forward about how he's a different pitcher now than he was when he first came to Chicago. As he's aged, he's had to make adjustments to find ways to get hitters out without just relying on his stuff.

At the end of last season, Lester said he felt he and the Cubs found some things, but wished they would've made the adjustment sooner.

The Cubs value Lester's remarkable consistency and feel like his stat lines don't always tell the whole story. Even if he's not pitching into the seventh inning each outing, there's still something to be said for a guy who takes the ball every fifth day, gives his team a chance to win and sets the tone professionally in the clubhouse.

"What Jon's been able to do is implement a few new things and evolve, still keeping the Jon Lester status quo — the same things that have made him successful and what his strengths and weaknesses are, but using some pitches in some different ways that he maybe didn't in the past," pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said on the CubsTalk Podcast this week. "One big one for him and a pitch that really, really played well for him last year was that backdoor cutter that he really started implementing to right-handed hitters. 

"When you watch guys — especially right-handed hitters — attack Jon Lester, the gameplan for the most part is: Look, he's gonna pound you in, he's gonna force you in there, he's gonna run the cutter in deep, so you get guys swinging at pitches in off the plate at a high clip off Jon. And every once in a while, you'll see a guy just drop his hands in and fist a double down the line when Jon makes a great pitch. But what that does is open up the outer part of the plate. It's one thing that Jon did a lot better last year — employing that backdoor cutter, commanding the fastball down and away, the changeup down and away, kinda exploit some of that. 

"And to just continue to change as you grow. The Jon Lester we've always seen with that cutter than can eat you up and now he's learning, OK, this is how to use it in different situations and how he moved the ball around with that pitch and continuing to use it in the same location."

Lester has an entire offseason and spring training to work with Hottovy and the Cubs to make these adjustments and figure out how to keep Father Time at bay for at least one more season.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Special guest Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Special guest Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy

Host David Kaplan and Cubs insider for NBC Sports Chicago Tony Andracki are joined by Cubs pitching Tommy Hottovy as they discuss the Cubs current starting rotation, how to build a winning bullpen, and how he struck out NBC Sports Cubs analyst David DeJesus.

(1:31) - The Cubs have unfinished business this year

(2:35) - Jon Lester at this stage in his career

(12:12) - Getting David DeJesus out 3 days in a row

(15:02) - Working under David Ross

(18:15) - Building a winning bullpen

(26:42) - Sign stealing is a cat and mouse game

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

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Now that David Ross is in the manager's chair, Cubs turn their attention to coaching staff

Now that David Ross is in the manager's chair, Cubs turn their attention to coaching staff

David Ross' boxes are all (presumably) moved into the manager's office at Wrigley Field and the introductory press conference is in the rearview mirror.

Now the Cubs turn their attention to the rest of the coaching staff.

With the search for Joe Maddon's replacement dominating the focus for Theo Epstein's front office this month, the rest of the coaching staff has been waiting. 

The Cubs have not publicly stated their intentions with the remaining coaches, but there will be some changes coming to the staff. Ross has been around the team as a front office executive for the last three years, so he already has familiarity with a lot of the Cubs coaches, plus he worked closely with catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy (who was then the run prevention coordinator) back when he was playing. 

Ross said Monday he had not yet reached out to the coaches, but was planning to do so very soon. Even though he already has a rapport with the current staff, changes will still be coming. 

"Ultimately, it's his decision and that's the way it was for Joe, too, and everybody before him — the manager's gotta have his coaches," Epstein said. "Rossy knows a lot of these guys having been around and I know he plans on keeping a number of coaches. But there are also some guys outside the organization that he feels will make him better and make us better, so it will be a combination."

The World Series will end Tuesday or Wednesday and then Major League Baseball's offseason will ramp up. Four organizations still have to hire managers and those that have found their new skipper have to finalize their coaching staffs.

The clock is ticking for the Cubs if they're going to make any outside hires — and to let the current coaches know where they stand.

"We need to get on that immediately," Epstein admitted. "There's gonna be a lot of competition for coaches out there, so it's important to strike quickly. We've had a lot of conversations even during the interview process getting a feel for [Ross] on what types of coaches he was looking for and then specific names — guys he thought would make us better."

The big key will be the bench coach, as that could be someone who helps make up for Ross' inexperience as a manager. Mark Loretta served in that capacity for Maddon in 2019, but it was Loretta's first year as a coach of any kind and he interviewed for the Cubs' managerial job as well as the Padres opening.

Ross feels confident about how he will handle the communication aspect of the job, but admitted he will likely experience a learning curve with the in-game situations and decision-making. 

"It's going to be important that my bench coach is one step ahead of me until I get that feel back," Ross said. "I've sat in the dugout, I've managed from the seat as a player, but doing it and calling shots and being a step ahead, being aware of the bullpen, how guys are used — all those things are going to be a learned task. I've done it in my mind, now I've got to put it into practice."

Epstein confirmed the Cubs would ideally like a bench coach with a lot of experience — either as a manager or as the right-hand man. 

Beyond that, it's hard to see Ross or the team getting rid of Borzello given his invaluable contributions behind the scenes and Hottovy is a young pitching coach that showed a lot of promise and did a lot well in his first year on the job. Bullpen coach Lester Strode has been with the Cubs for three decades and has served in his current role since 2007. 

The Cubs have been changing out hitting coaches almost as often as leadoff hitters, so it would make sense to see them stick with Anthony Iapoce in that capacity for 2020, especially since he is well-liked by the position players. 

Brian Butterfield is affable and popular, but he dealt with health issues in 2019 and his two main areas of focus (baserunning and infield defense) were major issues for the Cubs last season. Like Loretta, first-base coach Will Venable also interviewed for the Cubs managerial opening before Ross got the job.