Jon Lester fully expects Cubs to keep winning big for years to come

Jon Lester fully expects Cubs to keep winning big for years to come

"Well, I don't want to sound like an a--hole," Jon Lester said near the end of spring training, rolling with a question about sky-high expectations and where the bar will be set now that the Cubs are the defending World Series champs. 

"But that bar's always been there for me. I came from Boston, where it was if you didn't make the playoffs, all hell breaks loose. So I love that. That's why I wanted to come here."

Lester riffed the same way last October after his final start in a regular season where the Cubs won 103 games and he finished second in the National League Cy Young Award voting: "I don't want to sound like an a--hole or anything, but we haven't really done anything yet."

For years, people around the Cubs always talked about changing the culture. Lester actually did it, bringing that win-or-else intensity he felt with the Red Sox, being a dependable 200-inning workhorse at the front of the rotation and delivering a championship in Year 2 of that $155 million megadeal.  

Now what? That's the wrong question for a guy signed through at least the 2020 season, or prime years for Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras, Albert Almora Jr. and what might ultimately become a dynasty on the North Side.

After an offseason that saw an unforgettable parade down Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue, perhaps one of the largest gatherings in human history at Grant Park, a trip to the White House, and Cubs all over Disney World, "Saturday Night Live" and the talk shows, it's fitting that Lester's no-nonsense, get-over-it personality will come through on Opening Night against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium.  

"I wanted to be a part of this," said Lester, who will start opposite Carlos Martinez and a rebooted St. Louis team that last year missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010 and could feel the balance of power shifting in this rivalry. "I wanted these young guys to experience this, because once you win, you don't want to go back the other way.

"Baseball's so funny and fickle about things where you have unexpected years and people get hurt. That's just part of the game. But that bar still needs to be there. And I think the accountability and the responsibility of having that bar is important. It makes you show up every day being ready to play."

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Lester deflects credit for helping create that sense of professionalism, saying those blue-chip prospects had already been wired that way and expecting Theo Epstein's scouting-and-player-development machine to keep rolling out hitters like Ian Happ and Eloy Jimenez.

"As you get older, it's fun to see these young guys come up and do well and not be surprised by the moment," Lester said. "I just remember my first big-league camp. You get up there and you face your first big-leaguer and it's like: ‘Oh my goodness, I'm facing this guy?' 

"You see these guys and they don't care. It's like: ‘Who are you? I'm just trying to get hits.' It's really good to see that, because their transition now is easier when they get to the big leagues. It's still not that awe moment where I'm facing this guy. 

"I remember facing the Yankees for the first time. You're just standing on the mound and it's Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon, Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, the list goes on.

"You're just like: ‘Oh my God, I used to watch this guy. This guy's awesome,' instead of worrying about trying to get him out, so it's really impressive to see how these guys handle it."

The Cubs signed Lester, now 33, with the idea that the lefty could age gracefully like Andy Pettitte, who pitched into his early 40s (and also admitted to using human growth hormone). Pettitte had been a big-game pitcher for the last team to defend a World Series title, the three-peat Yankees (1998, 1999, 2000).   

The Cubs trusted Lester to start Game 1 in all three playoff rounds last October and will have him start the first game of the rest of their lives. 

"It should be fun," Lester said. "Great ballpark, one of my favorite ballparks, going up against one of our rivals. What better way to start off than with the Cardinals?"

Cubs: Is Joe Maddon turning Kyle Schwarber into a platoon player?

Cubs: Is Joe Maddon turning Kyle Schwarber into a platoon player?

LOS ANGELES – Joe Maddon doesn’t want to put the platoon label on a young hitter who became a World Series legend before his 24th birthday. But the Cubs manager also isn’t planning to start Kyle Schwarber against left-handers anytime soon. 

“If people want to say that, I can’t avoid it,” Maddon said Friday at Dodger Stadium, where Schwarber sat against lefty Alex Wood, who took a 20.1-inning scoreless streak into this National League Championship Series rematch. “I’m going to do that until I feel good about him, because I don’t want to lay too many at-bats on him in a negative situation.

“If he’s not swinging the bat well against righties, it’s a bad assumption that I’m going to think he’s going to swing it well against lefties. Then I’m just putting him in a deeper hole by throwing him out there, just based on really bad logic.

“I’m just trying to pick his spots right now to get him going. Once he goes, he can play against anybody.”

[MORE CUBS: The 'friendly rivalry' between Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman]

Schwarber – who’s hitting .181 with a .656 OPS and 55 strikeouts in less than 200 plate appearances this season – will start Saturday against Dodger right-hander Brandon McCarthy. But even with Clayton Kershaw looming on Sunday, Maddon didn’t want to give Schwarber the entire weekend off, the way Jason Heyward mentally reset last August at Coors Field.

“I don’t think it’s there yet,” Maddon said. “I’ve had good conversations with him. I think it’s a different set of circumstances.”

For the Cubs, this doesn’t really change their overall evaluation of Schwarber as a core player and potentially one of the most dangerous left-handed sluggers in the game. But Maddon has been backing away from the idea of Schwarber as a leadoff hitter, trying to reboot the player who had been such an intimidating postseason presence.

“My concern when the guy is struggling a little bit is you don’t want him to get him too many at-bats,” Maddon said. “It’s really hard to get yourself out of that mental, physical and numerical hole. By not getting him as many at-bats, it will be easy to get back to a number he’s more comfortable with.

“I don’t care about that – I really don’t. I’m looking at his past, process, what he’s doing for the team in regards to on-base, everything else. But for the guy himself, he looks up at the scoreboard and he sees numbers everywhere and they evaluate themselves based on numbers.

“I don’t want him to do that. I just want him to get back into the process of having good at-bats.”

The ‘friendly rivalry’ between Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman with Cubs, Dodgers becoming NL superpowers

The ‘friendly rivalry’ between Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman with Cubs, Dodgers becoming NL superpowers

LOS ANGELES – A man stepped to the microphone during a Q&A session at Cubs Convention and called Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman “the two boy geniuses.” The fan told Epstein how his friends used to call the Dodgers baseball boss “your Mini-Me,” asking about their personal rivalry and if beating L.A. in the playoffs had any extra meaning.

“We have a friendly rivalry,” Epstein told a packed hotel ballroom in downtown Chicago in January. “First off, didn’t he interview for an internship with us and we turned him down way back in the day?

“And then like nine months later, he was GM of the Rays. When he was with Tampa and I was with Boston, we never spoke, because we were in the same division. It was kind of a heated rivalry. We literally never called each other on trades or anything like that.”

But where it’s so difficult for the small-market Rays to keep up with the ultra-rich Red Sox – and replace Friedman’s vision and Joe Maddon’s star power and survive a string of wasted first-round draft picks and find a long-term stadium solution – the Cubs and Dodgers are positioned to be superpowers for years to come.

That’s what makes this Memorial Day weekend showdown at Dodger Stadium so compelling beyond the National League Championship Series rematch. It’s not just upcoming free agent Jake Arrieta returning to the site of his onesie no-hitter on Friday night, a reigning MVP (Kris Bryant) and Rookie of the Year (Corey Seager), two of the best closers on the planet (Wade Davis and Kenley Jansen) and a classic Jon Lester vs. Clayton Kershaw matchup on Sunday afternoon.

The Cubs eliminated the Dodgers less than a month after Epstein finalized a five-year contract worth in the neighborhood of $50 million, likely surpassing Friedman as the game’s highest-paid personnel executive.

“Jed developed a pretty good relationship with him, because I didn’t like talking to him,” Epstein said, referencing GM Jed Hoyer, another Boston transplant on the Cubs Convention panel that day. “But then when I came out here with the Cubs, a different league and everything, I developed a much better relationship with Andrew and we became friends, so now it’s much more of a friendly rivalry.

“I will say that losing to the Dodgers would have been a bitter pill to swallow on a number of fronts, including that one. But they’re developing a powerhouse out there.

“We see them as a team we have to go through each year to get where we want to be.”

[MORE CUBS: Summing up the Cubs' impressive, potentially season-altering homestand]

Backed by Guggenheim Partners’ financial muscle and flush with new TV money, the Dodgers have won four straight division titles and 90-plus games each season while ramping up a farm system that’s now ranked fourth, fifth or sixth by Baseball America, ESPN and MLB.com.

“Everyone’s got their own style and their own approach,” Epstein said. “Ours was more kind of bottom-up (where) they needed to keep it rolling at a high level in the big leagues while retooling their system and nurturing the talent that was already there.

“We had to go out and transact and bring some stuff in. We were at different points of the success cycle. They’ve done a really nice job of winning while kind of establishing something new at the same time.”

The blue-blooded franchise that produced 17 Rookie of the Year winners last month rolled out Cody Bellinger, a 21-year-old, left-handed first baseman with nine homers in his first 28 games in The Show. Julio Urias – who might be the next Fernando Valenzuela – is supposed to be conserving some innings at Triple-A Oklahoma City for another October where the Cubs could be standing in the way of the Dodgers’ first World Series title since 1988.

“They’ve been producing great young talent for a long period of time,” Epstein said. “If you go back and look at some of the young studs they have in the big leagues that (former scouting director) Logan White and (the previous regime) brought in, some of the guys are still coming.

“They’re stocked and the Dodger tradition runs really deep. With Andrew and his front office, we know they’re going to be dynamic. They’re going to have more resources than anyone. And they’re a big threat to the whole league for a long period of time.”