After years of cobbling together a team out of prospects, castoffs and salvaged parts, holding them in place with mixture Big League Chew and duct tape, it appears that the Cubs have made a long-awaited strategic shift. In taking on $215 million in salary over the course of the Winter Meetings, they satisfied both proponents of the rebuild and the shiny-object crowd.
While many doubted the veracity of past claims, the recent moves did immediately follow a green-light on the Wrigley Field renovations that ownership has been pushing for quite some time now. The bleachers are being rebuilt, including new signage and a jumbotron, and the adjacent triangle lot is undergoing a makeover that will include retail and hotel space.
As part of the roughly $600 million 1060 Project, Wrigley herself will get a bit of a facelift as well, with updates to clubhouses, bullpens, batting cages, and even bathrooms. Perhaps it was fitting then that the Cubs just dropped $155 million on a new Jon.
If all goes according to plan though, Lester will help to prevent Cubs fans hopes and dreams from being flushed down the toilet, as has so often been the case in the past. Spending big money on a free agent on the wrong side of 30 might look on the surface like a Jim Hendry move, but this signing was neither desperate nor foolish.
With a wellspring of youthful talent bubbling up to the Bigs, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer knew that they’d have to look elsewhere for the type of veteran leadership it takes to win. They found that in Jon Lester, a man with whom they were already familiar, having drafted him into the Red Sox organization.
No one is perfect, and we can all point to mistakes Epstoyer has made, but there’s no denying that the Cubs’ brain trust has a good eye for talent. You can see that in their loyalty to certain players and the fact that they’ve gone to lengths to re-acquire guys for whom they have great affinity.
That’s been the case with each of the pitchers they just signed and was true of Anthony Rizzo before that. But Lester is the first who has commanded an appreciably large salary, the first to signal a return to big-market relevance. He didn’t waste any time making a solid impression on Cubs fans, winning over yours truly right out of the gate.
Because we Cubs fans can be a paranoid bunch, the announcement of Lester’s press conference seemed to allow some of us to finally take a deep breath and accept that, yes, this was all real. Seeing him sitting in a suite at the United Center with his son, sporting Blackhawks jerseys no less, during Sunday night’s game really helped to bring it home as well.
Rizzo made a giant stretch in 2014 to become the de facto face of the franchise, replacing Theo Epstein in that role. But by accepting a new 6-year deal that includes an MLB-record $30 million signing bonus, Lester immediately assumes a seat at the head of the table. If he hasn’t completely assumed the mantle from Rizzo, the two will at least bear it together.
Speaking of the head table, that’s exactly where Jon Lester sat at Spiaggia Restaurant, flanked by Epstein and Hoyer and wearing his once-and-future-best-selling #34 jersey (chosen with Kerry Wood’s blessing) as he was introduced as the newest member of the Chicago Cubs. He looked comfortable, if perhaps a bit serious, as he faced the media members that will soon be chronicling his every exploit.
Before turning the floor over to his new ace, Epstein said Lester makes the team better, not just in the rotation and the clubhouse, but also in the community. He’s a great family man, said Epstein. Underscoring that statement perfectly, Lester took a moment to wave to one of his sons (Hudson and Walker) in the front row before fielding questions.
He didn’t mince words when asked whether the prospect of winning with the Cubs impacted his decision, saying “I want to win, regardless of where I’m at. I believe in the plan that they have in place right now for the future of the Cubs.”
But did that mean the decision to come to Chicago was perhaps a bit easier than we saw from the outside? “Anytime you’re at a place for a long time, it’s obviously a difficult decision, but I believed in the plan and it felt like the right fit for us at the right time,” Lester stated with confidence
Much was made of the existing relationship between the pitcher and the members of the Cubs’ front office, which he addressed, saying, “There’s always that blind faith going into a new season. You have to believe in these guys…I believe in what they told me. I think [knowing Epstein and Hoyer] helped but in the end you have to make a decision whether you know a person or not.”
Everything is sunshine and roses right now, but once the honeymoon period is over, Lester faces the prospect of pitching at hitter-friendly Wrigley Field. It’s also a park in which the conditions are notoriously fickle, and Lester was asked how he plans to adjust.
“It’s hard to speak on it because I’ve only pitched there one time. It was a hot summer day and ball was carrying well…but you can’t let the outside things you can’t control distract you. When we do have the wind blowing in, you just throw it down the middle and see how far they can hit it.”
Just like that infamous wind, there have been some inconsistencies in Lester’s performance over the last few years. The new Cubs lefty addressed some of those ups and downs, saying that he “fell into a lot of bad habits…and the ball flattened out. I felt like I threw better in the second half of 2012. In 2014, I was locked in on a lot of the aspects of my game.”
In coming to the Cubs, Lester knows that some lofty expectations have been placed on him, in terms of both performance and leadership. Asked about his style, he said, “I’m never going to say, ‘look at me. I’m your leader.’ I’m not a very vocal guy. I treat my job as a job while having fun at same time. I’m not here to screw off. I’m here to win and do my job to the best of my ability.”
And as for the performance aspect, particularly the team as a whole, he cut right to the chase: “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think we could win in 2015. I am going in with the intention of winning in 2015.”
But does he really understand what it’s like to play in Chicago and to deal with Cubs fans? Lester believes his past experience has him equipped, as he quipped, “I played in Boston for eight years. I think I’m pretty prepared for a lot of things.”
As the presser wound down, Lester’s early stoicism began to fade and the proud dad even cracked smile and brought young Hudson up to sit on his lap as he addressed the small army of scribes. Speaking as a father myself, this was easily the highlight of the event; Lester didn’t allow the moment to be bigger than his family, and that spoke volumes to me.
Chicago is a city with Midwest sensibilities, but it’s also one that suffers no fools and brooks no truck with false pretenses. Well, with athletes anyway; politicians are another matter entirely. As such, aloof prima donnas are going to find themselves swimming upstream in a hurry.
Good thing for both the Cubs and Lester, he’s nothing of the sort. He is, however, a winner, having hoisted two World Series trophies and even kicked cancer’s ass (another bit of common ground with Rizzo). Lester also knows what it’s like to play within the pressurized fishbowl of a rabid, and perhaps a bit paranoid, fanbase.
He’s already gotten myself and others excited by saying and doing all the right things off the field, and that jersey looks mighty fine over a shirt and tie. But giving good face on Twitter and in a press conference is one thing, while proselytizing to the masses at Wrigley Field is quite another.
I, for one, think Jon Lester is up to the task though, and I can’t wait to see him take the bump and start earning that paycheck.