The fine line the Cubs are walking this year between present and future – between all-in and all-about-the-kids – can be seen vividly Sunday night in the imposing form of the big-name player making his Cubs debut on the mound in the middle of the Wrigley Field diamond.
And in the imposing form of the big-name player who’s not making his debut, whose image looms overhead on a billboard outside the ballpark.
Jon Lester is here. Kris Bryant isn’t. Yet.
Whether that makes a difference in the outcome of anything significant for the Cubs this year, the grand Plan for the Cubs’ success includes both.
It starts with Lester Sunday night, the $155 million left-hander throwing the first pitch in a linchpin season as top-prospect Bryant waits out his 12 or more days in the minors before presumably joining the club at third base or in the outfield.
“Just because he’s going to be gone for a short period of time doesn’t mean we’re not still all in to win,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “We are.
“We would all love to have him here right now from Day 1,” he added, “but that’s not the way it’s going to be. He’s such an advanced, bright guy that he gets it. That’s what it’s about.”
Bryant was “disappointed” to get sent back to the minors despite a monster spring (assuring if he’s down a couple weeks that the Cubs get an additional year of club control before free agency).
“You can tuck your tail between your legs and allow it to affect you on and off the field, or you can understand that this is a process that other guys have been through, including myself, and make the best of it,” said Arrieta, who was kept in the minors by the Orioles until June his debut season to stave off “Super 2” arbitration status – and then after more time in the minors in subsequent seasons, it happened to him again with the Cubs when he was acquired in a 2013 trade.
“When the time comes, we’ll be here for him,” Arrieta said.
And if Lester has anything to say about it, they’ll have something to build on together by then. This year. And for the long run.
The two-time World Series winner hasn’t faced big-league hitters since March 16 as he worked back from a dead-arm stretch in spring. But nobody in camp seemed to think there was any reason to wonder if maybe the most intense, perfection-minded player on the roster would be ready.
“I’ll take him off the couch in December,” said Cubs veteran David Ross, Lester’s personal catcher in Boston the last two years.
Said David Forst, the Oakland Athletics assistant general manager, who saw Lester up close for two months after the A’s traded for him during a playoff season last year:
“In my 15 years, I haven’t seen a guy work like that and have the sort of intensity that he did in such a short period of time. I mean, this is a guy who, when his teammates were pouring champagne [after clinching a playoff berth], he was watching video of Kansas City. Just the intensity of Jon Lester was really impressive.”
Hyperbole? Maybe a little. But this isn’t: The last time Lester faced the Cardinals, he beat them twice in a week, both times head-to-head against their ace, Adam Wainwright, to win the 2013 World Series.
“We’ll figure it out,” he said.
“This ain’t my first rodeo.”