Chicago Cubs

Everyone will have something to prove in Cubs camp

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Everyone will have something to prove in Cubs camp

Finally, the focus will be back on the field.

This offseason revolved around executive compensation and stadium club news conferences and Albert PujolsPrince Fielder rumors that went nowhere.

Whatever the foundation for sustained success is going to look like, were about to get our first glimpse in Arizona. By the time pitchers and catchers officially report next weekend, everyone will have something to prove.

It starts at the top with chairman Tom Ricketts, who restructured the Cubs organization for a game-changing hire and now has to figure out a way to renovate Wrigley Field.

Theo Epstein has become the face of the franchise, even though that seems to be the last thing that he wants. You know the national media will descend upon Fitch Park, curious to see if the president of baseball operations will live up to the hype.

The new executives led by Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod are trying to mesh with the personnel leftover from the Jim Hendry administration (who must produce for the new boss).

First-year manager Dale Sveum is taking over a team with almost no expectations. The roster is filled with players who are coming off down years andor havent lived up to their potential.

One player laughed when asked if Cubs fans will have the patience for a total rebuilding effort. Another simply said: They have no choice.

In baseball, anything can happen, Epstein said. We might not have the most talent in the division, but I know were going to play hard, and we have young players with upside, (several) entering their prime or pre-prime years. When you have that, you can surprise a little bit.

If we stay healthy and one or two or three or four of the players we have actually takes a big developmental step forward I think you might look up and be surprised in the middle of the summer. Especially with the depth of the starting pitching we have now.

We have one advantage over some of the opponents we might face, in that we can withstand an injury or two and still throw a very reputable starting pitcher out there every day, five days around the rotation. And if our opponents in the division cant because of injuries or attrition or poor performance then we might surprise some people.

Still, the Cubs might not know exactly what theyll get from one start to the next. Paul Maholm, Chris Volstad and Travis Wood were all once first-round picks. The Cubs decided to buy low this winter.

Maholm has a 53-73 career record that can be partially explained by pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Volstad is 6-foot-8 and only 25 years old, though he went 5-13 with a 4.89 ERA last season. Wood has never put it all together for a full year in the big leagues.

This is a team with far more question than answers.

Is Ian Stewart, another former first-round pick, the third baseman who hit 25 homers for the Colorado Rockies in 2009or the guy who had zero last year? Can Bryan LaHairs monster Pacific Coast League numbers translate to the next level?

Which Geovany Soto shows up this season? Will Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano make it to August in a Cubs uniform?

Everyone will be watching to see if Starlin Castro sharpens his focus. Carlos Marmol will have to show that he still has the right stuff to be a closer. Randy Wells will have to convince a new coaching staff that he belongs in the rotation. Darwin Barney will fight to hang onto the second-base job.

No one should get too comfortable.

The Cubs have laid out a well-reasoned plan that takes the long view. The Epstein hire changed the perception of the organization and, for the moment at least, insulated everyone from the pressure to win RIGHT NOW.

It is a high-stress job and city, Sveum said. The bottom line is were trying to win every single (time) we go out there. But more importantly, were building this organization to win consistently every single year to where you have the ability to win World Series because youre consistently winning 90-plus games every year.

The Cubs talk a good game. If this really is going to an inflection point, were all about to find out.

Cubs say this isn’t the beginning of the end for their ace: ‘I believe in Jon Lester’

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USA TODAY

Cubs say this isn’t the beginning of the end for their ace: ‘I believe in Jon Lester’

MILWAUKEE – Cubs executives bet on Jon Lester because they had so much inside information from their time together with the Boston Red Sox and believed he would age gracefully with his fluid left-handed delivery, imposing physical presence and competitive personality.

The Cubs also went into it with their eyes wide open, knowing the history of nine-figure contracts for pitchers and how those megadeals usually lead to a crash.

“I think it’s way too early to talk about that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said Thursday at Miller Park, where Lester’s mysterious struggles overshadowed the beginning of a four-game showdown against the Milwaukee Brewers that could decide the National League Central race.

The night before at Tropicana Field, Lester got rocked in an 8-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, leaving him with a 5.91 ERA in four September starts since coming off the disabled list. Lester has a body of work that will make him a borderline Hall of Famer, but he’s given up 27 hits and 12 walks in 21.1 innings since the Cubs activated him after a left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue diagnosis in the middle of August.

“With any pitcher, you want to have that guy pitching at the top of his game going into October,” Hoyer said. “There’s no question. The timing of last night’s game, obviously, isn’t ideal. But we have two starts and we’ll hope he bounces back from that. We can’t control the timing.”

Almost exactly halfway through a six-year, $155 million commitment, the Lester investment has already paid for itself, because the Cubs are the defending World Series champs and couldn’t have done it without him. Period. But Lester is also 33 years old and has already thrown almost 2,200 innings in The Show, plus nearly another season in 14 career playoff series.

“Nope, nope, nope,” manager Joe Maddon said when asked if Lester was getting examined.

“Listen, I know a lot of people are concerned,” Maddon said. “I’m not overly concerned, because the guy’s been good for a long time. As long as he says he’s healthy – which he has – I’m fine. If he’s hurting at all – but he’s not revealing – that’s a different story entirely.

“But for right now, I believe he’s well, so I anticipate good.”

Maddon’s answers left a little wiggle room, but Lester didn’t want to make excuses and said there’s nothing wrong physically. If that’s the case, it would be foolish to write off someone who’s survived a cancer scare, thrived in the American League East, embraced the challenge of playing in two of baseball’s biggest markets and won three World Series rings.

“He has evolved as a pitcher,” Hoyer said. “When we first had him with the Red Sox, he was throwing 97 (mph). With most guys, you have to get past that loss of velocity, and the great ones do that.

“He’s always thrown hard, but he’s been kind of 93-94 tops the last few years. He’s got four pitches. He’s got a good sinker now. He’s got a good cutter. A changeup, curveball – they all come out of the same place. I think right now it’s about making some mistakes at the wrong time, and his stuff hasn’t been probably as dominant as he would want.”

This could just be a blip on the radar. But the Cubs didn’t earn the luxury of treating late September like spring training and warming up for the playoffs. These games matter, and that usually brings out the best in their ace.

“I believe in Jon Lester,” Maddon said, writing it off as a few “hiccup” games. “It’s unusual to see him struggle like that, primarily with his command. The velocity was down – but where the pitches were going – I’m not used to seeing that.

“I got to believe that’s going to get rectified soon. Guys like him, I’m normally not into physical mechanics this time of the year. But I’d bet if, in fact, there’s something wrong, it’s going to be more mechanically speaking.

“I just want to be very patient about this. I think he’s fine. Until I hear that he’s not well – which I’ve not heard at all – I think he’ll be fine.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Previewing Cubs-Brewers NL Central showdown

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SportsTalk Live Podcast: Previewing Cubs-Brewers NL Central showdown

On the latest SportsTalk Live Podcast, Hub Arkush (670 the Score/Pro Football Weekly), Phil Rogers (MLB.com) and Jordan Cornette (ESPN 1000) join Luke Stuckmeyer on the panel.

Jake Arrieta returns for the big NL Central showdown. Len Kasper joins the guys from Milwaukee for a preview. Plus, who should be the Cubs Game 1 starter in the NLDS?

Also, the panel discusses Mike Glennon’s leash on Sunday, the Aaron Hernandez CTE diagnosis and if Yoan Moncada’s hot September means big things in the future.

Listen to the full SportsTalk Live Podcast right here: