MESA, Ariz. – Jon Lester took the pitcher’s mound for live batting practice Thursday, and it sounded like this:
Whoosh, as the ball crossed home plate.
Grunt, from Lester.
The whoosh-grunt routine went on for the entirety of Lester’s session.
“Did you notice that?” Cubs manager Joe Maddon asked afterward. “I’m so impressed, not only with him, but with the focus of everybody.”
After Lester was done, he joined teammates around the batting cage, joked with first baseman Anthony Rizzo and practiced his golf swing with a bat, no doubt tuning up for the afternoon’s team tournament.
Lester is entering the second half of his six-year, $155 million contract with the Cubs. And in many ways he looks more comfortable and fit than he did in spring 2015.
“Go back to the first day he was here a couple years ago,” Maddon said. “Didn’t today look better than that? I mean, honestly, it’s just that he was hurt a little bit in the beginning when he first started, or arrived. Conversationally, he wasn’t as settled here. He was just coming from another spot. Expectations. Big contract. He’s definitely good in his own skin right now. I’m seeing probably the best version of Jon that I’ve witnessed as a person, how he goes about his business. … And he’s definitely really comfortable in his Cubs skin right now.”
Lester is 34, and even when the Cubs signed him it was a risk. After experiencing some “dead-arm” issues in spring 2015, Lester went 11-12 with a 3.34 ERA to help the Cubs to the first of three straight appearances in the National League Championship Series.
In their world-championship year of 2016, he finished second in balloting for the NL Cy Young Award by going 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA. He was 13-8 last year with a 4.33 ERA, with a couple of bad outings making the numbers look a little worse. Last year was the first time he didn’t pitch at least 200 innings since 2011 with Boston.
The conventional thinking – at least among some fans and media – about long-term contracts is that the team will be happy if the player helps them win a World Series early in the life of the deal. After that, they’ll just live with the back end of the contract when the player is aging.
But Lester has a lean, hungry look at camp this year, and Cubs president Theo Epstein doesn’t sound like he’s ready to write off the remaining years.
“There’s a lot of really good pitching ahead for Jon Lester,” Epstein said after Thursday’s workout. “I think he’s kind of on a mission after last year. There were a couple of really tough outings last year that made his year look worse than it probably was. He’s incredibly competitive and incredibly professional. He wants to do better than last year.
“He worked really hard this offseason. He’s got a great look in his eye. He’s sharp for this early in spring training. We certainly think there are more terrific years left in Jon Lester. Just the presence he brings is extremely valuable. By no means are we looking for him to just fade away over the second half of his contract.”
During the first few months Lester was a Cub and trying to find his way with a new team, many stories pointed out his contract numbers.
Although these deals are risky, Epstein and Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer had Lester when all were in Boston, so they felt it a risk worth taking.
Not only has Lester performed, but he also has provided the staff with some grit and leadership.
“We were just trying to get better,” Epstein said. “We had young players who were just coming up to the big leagues. We didn’t have much pitching coming. We thought we had a chance to be really good over the next several years, but we had to add a lot of talent. That was the main thing: Just bring in a top-of-the-rotation pitcher into the organization.
“On top of that, we felt like we knew him so well he’d be a good bet in a demographic that’s typically really risky – pitchers on the other side of 30. We also knew how professional he was and what a great example he sets for getting his work done and approaching the game with the right mix of competitiveness and team-first attitude. We thought he’d rub off well.”