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Jon Leser said “I’m here to win” when he signed his $155 million deal to become a Cub

Jon Lester on Kris Bryant’s absence from Cubs roster: “It sucks”

SHARE Jon Lester on Kris Bryant’s absence from Cubs roster: “It sucks”
SHARE Jon Lester on Kris Bryant’s absence from Cubs roster: “It sucks”

MESA, Ariz. – After an 81-pitch scrimmage against minor-leaguers Tuesday, the Cubs’ new ace, Jon Lester, pronounced himself ready for Opening Night.

But is the team any more ready to look its best in April than the ballpark that will be missing one of its most high-profile elements when the lights go up on an empty bleacher area Sunday night?

Lester’s big prep day came one day after the only player in camp who got more attention than Lester this spring – slugging prospect Kris Bryant – was sent to the minors in a controversial move that has the players’ union threatening litigation.

“As a player it sucks,” said Lester of the service-time implications of the move. “It took me a while to understand it when I was coming up. But the quicker you can learn that this game is a business the better off you are.

“They can say development, development, development all they want, but this game’s a business.”

Bryant led the majors with nine home runs this spring and was hitting .425 with a 1.652 OPS when he was sent out.

Team president Theo Epstein called it a baseball decision. Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, called it “ersatz baseball” for keeping one of the best performers off the roster. And the players’ union called it “a bad day for baseball” and is poised to file a grievance and raise the issue in upcoming negotiation on a new collective bargaining agreement.

Whatever it was, the most conspicuous result is that if Bryant stays off the roster for at least 12 days, the Cubs assure an additional year of club control (through 2021) before his free agency eligibility.

“I think everybody in this clubhouse understands it,” Lester said.

That doesn’t mean they like it.

“You want anybody that’s swinging the bat like he is [to be on the team],” Lester said. “But at the same time we all understand what’s going on.”

Lester has repeatedly said since signing his franchise-record $155 million contract that “I’m here to win.” The Cubs’ front office exploited a 12-year personal relationship going back to Boston as it courted him over the winter — but sold Lester on a plan that involved turning a corner this year toward a sustained, competitive run.

“Like I said, as a player, it sucks, but it is what it is,” he said. “I can’t control what Theo does, what Kris does, what anybody else does.

“We have to worry about what we do in this clubhouse and who’s here now. I’m sure Kris has handled it very, very well. He’s a good kid. He’ll be with us at some point. And we’ve all been there. He’s just a little more high profile than the rest of us were when we were coming up.

“It sucks but I hope he understands it; I hope our organization understands it; and I hope the players here understand it because it’s something we can’t control. They made the decision and now we have to move forward.”

Assuming Lester’s last two starts in scrimmages were indications that he’s past the dead-arm period he experienced earlier in camp, the Cubs are mostly healthy and intact with just a few days left in camp.

“I wasn’t the sharpest today, but got to where we needed to,” said Lester, who pitched into the sixth inning and touched 93 mph. “I think once we get into a game with some fans and some adrenaline things will sharpen up a little bit.”

The Cubs’ rotation looks healthy. The bullpen looks especially strong at the back end and potentially deep.

But it’s how much one of the worst producing lineups in baseball last year improves that figures to be the difference between marginal improvement and a sizeable jump from last year’s 73 wins.

Without the top prospect in the game who has looked since a monster 2014 season at AA and AAA like he might be ready to compete in the majors. For now.

“At any given time things can rapidly change in this game,” Lester said. “We can’t control that. Now we have to continue to prepare for Sunday and the rest of the season, and he’ll be fine. He’ll be with us at some point hitting homers.”

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