From the Pages of Vine Line: The Cubs believe they have the pitching to contend

Lester_JonConvention

(Photo by Stephen Green)

The following can be found in the March issue of Vine Line.

Whether because of too much rosé wine or too many pairs of rose-colored glasses, the annual Cubs Convention inevitably yields lofty predictions that rarely come to fruition. In 29 seasons since the advent of the winter fanfest, dreams of postseason play have materialized only five times, with the Cubs participating in the National League Championship Series just twice.

So why, in 2015, would first baseman Anthony Rizzo predict an NL Central title for the Cubs—a franchise that has won only five division championships in 45 years of divisional play and is coming off five consecutive losing seasons? This pitch to the populace was based on pitching, the ultimate measure of a playoff-bound club.

“I got to meet [Cubs Chairman Tom] Ricketts personally when I was hired,” said manager Joe Maddon. “He was totally committed to bidding for Jon Lester. It’s something we worked very hard at, so the credit goes to [President of Baseball Operations] Theo [Epstein] and [Executive Vice President and General Manager] Jed [Hoyer] and the entire front office staff. Getting Jon in the fold was pretty special.”

Last July 4, when the Cubs jettisoned Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland—where they were soon joined by Lester in Athletics GM Billy Beane’s ill-fated playoff push—it was difficult to imagine pitching would be a strong suit just five months later.

But the organization’s outlook changed dramatically when Epstein and company hired Maddon, put up $155 million over six years to land Lester and re-signed Hammel as a free agent. Acquiring All-Star catcher Miguel Montero and center fielder Dexter Fowler, a switch-hitting leadoff man, further fueled the optimism.

Not only did Lester echo the bold statements of Rizzo, the lefty took things to the next level, saying anything less than a World Series championship wouldn’t meet his goals—not this year or any year.

“It’s nice to have that anchor in the rotation,” Maddon said. “Here’s a guy who has pitched at a very high level and in very meaningful games. The rest of the staff, including the young guys, will look in his direction.

“I think Jon will be able to handle all this. That said, my request to Jon was ‘Do what’s comfortable for you.’ You don’t want to put too much in his lap. His primary role is to prepare and be ready to pitch every five days. After that, I told him if he has reserved energy—mental or physical—and wants to pass it along, go ahead. But he must take care of himself first.”

Lester and Hammel, along with emerging star Jake Arrieta, provide the foundation of a dominant rotation. Arrieta was as good as any NL pitcher at home last season, posting a 6-1 record and a 1.46 ERA at Wrigley Field. The 29-year-old right-hander took a no-hitter into the seventh inning or later three times, including in two consecutive starts. Still, he will defer to Lester for the Opening Day assignment in 2015.

“He’s well deserving,” Arrieta said. “He’s a leader and a guy all of us can look to for advice.”

Unlike the 31-year-old Lester, who has averaged 209 innings over eight years as a full-fledged starter, Arrieta has never pitched more than the 156.2 innings he logged last season.

“I don’t look at the innings as anything personally for me,” said Arrieta, who was 10-5 with a 2.53 ERA in 2014. “I want to be strong, healthy and durable. Those things will be there if I do things the right way in preparation.”

Though Hammel initially struggled after being dealt to Oakland, the righty was 8-5 with a 2.98 ERA in 17 Cubs starts last season. His excellent strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 4.5-to-1 was a major reason the team brought him back. Exactly where he fits in the rotation may depend on the performance of Kyle Hendricks and Travis Wood.

A right-handed finesse pitcher with pinpoint command, Hendricks, 25, was 7-2 with a 2.46 ERA in 13 starts as a rookie. Wood, 27, may have to battle veterans Felix Doubront and Tsuyoshi Wada for the second left-handed starter’s role. After posting a career-low 3.11 ERA and making the NL All-Star team in 2013, Wood saw his ERA jump almost two runs per game last season.

Personal issues, as well as failing to agree on a long-term deal offered in Spring Training, may have played a role.

“Maybe at the beginning of the year, the contract thing got to me,” he said. “At some point, I said, ‘Let it go,’ and just burrowed down and worked myself out of it.”

Other than Lester and Wood, only Edwin Jackson, who is 14-33 in two years with the Cubs, has a 200-inning season under his belt. The 31-year-old is still owed $11 million in both 2015 and 2016, but he may land in the bullpen if he isn’t traded first.

“We have a strange sport where you need all people to pull in the same direction on the same rope,” Lester said. “That’s all we expect to do—mesh as a unit, bond and become brothers. Hopefully that takes us to the prize at the end of the year.”

With Lester and Maddon on board, the Cubs have raised the bar. Now let’s hope fans will finally be able to raise a toast in October.

—By Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig

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