Jon Lester will start on Opening Day for the Cubs. And that isn't necessarily because he's the best pitcher on the starting staff — though he very well could be — but because he's earned the right to get that symbolic nod. Lester himself said earlier in spring training that the "ace" label is not an important one. And trying to assign it to just one person in this loaded Cubs rotation would be an unenviable task. Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood might be baseball's best starting five. But as the guy whose signing signaled the Cubs' transition from rebuilders to contenders back before the 2015 season, Lester deserves to be the first man out of the gate in what should be a five-man rotation that causes nightmares for opposing hitters. The question, though, is how much the veteran Lester has left in the tank. Last season was the worst one he's had, statistically, in a long time. His 4.33 ERA was nearly 2.00 points higher than it was just one year prior and the highest single-season earned-run average for Lester since 2012. He failed to reach his goal of 200 innings pitched for the first time since 2011. And his 180 strikeouts were his fewest since 2013. In particular, starts like the 10-run drubbing in the first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates and the nine-run bashing in two innings against the Cincinnati Reds had fans wondering if Lester was getting over the hill. After helping to deliver a trio of deep playoff runs and a World Series in the first three years of his six-year deal, would the next three years see a change in effectiveness? The Cubs aren't ready for Lester's career to reach the twilight stages just yet. "He’s just absolutely focused, motivated, ready," manager Joe Maddon said during the early weeks of spring training. "He’s focused, that’s probably the best word I can possibly use. He’s not satisfied with last year, and I think he’s ready to do something about it. "Go back to the first day he was here a couple years ago. Didn’t today look better than that? Honestly, he was hurt a little bit in the beginning, when he first started, arrived. Conversationally, he wasn’t as settled here. He was just coming from another spot, high 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.
How much does Jon Lester have left in the tank? 'I'm seeing probably the best version of Jon that I've witnessed'
NBC Sports Chicago | Mar 1