MESA, Ariz. — Think you’ve seen the last of left-hander Jon Lester as an All-Star-caliber pitcher?
No way he’s a front-of-the-rotation guy anymore after watching him struggle last year? Maybe you’re of the mindset that — to borrow a phrase from one press-box wag on certain pitchers — “he has two pitches: smoke and mirrors.”
Get in line.
“I’ve been doubted before,” Lester said. “I don’t really care.”
That doesn’t mean the five-time All-Star didn’t work on specific conditioning over the winter with last year’s hamstring issues and aging body in mind.
“I know the effort and preparation I put in every five days,” he said. “I know at 36 I’m not 26 anymore. I know that I have a lot of miles on my body and arm. But at the same time, I feel like I can still bring a lot to this team.
“And I think I’ve proven a lot of people wrong throughout my career. I’ve been there plenty of times. And I’m excited for this year.”
He may have to prove the doubters wrong one more time if the Cubs are going to get back to the postseason after another winter of relative inactivity by the front office.
A three-time World Series winner in the last guaranteed year of a six-year, $155 million deal with the Cubs, Lester figures to be one of the top three or four storylines when it comes to which direction this team will go in 2020.
“He looked good. He looks fresh. He looks lean,” said new Cubs manager David Ross, who was Lester’s personal catcher in Boston and during Lester’s first two seasons with the Cubs.
After watching early bullpen work at spring training over the last week, Ross said he liked what he saw from Lester after a retooled offseason workout schedule and is confident enough about the longtime ace that he can spend his focus on lesser-known players in camp.
“I know where he’ll be at; I know what his mentality is,” Ross said. “I think he’s a guy that still has the top-of-the-rotation potential for me.”
The leaner, if not meaner, look to Lester might have told him that much.
“Am I leaner?” Lester said. “Um, I guess if that’s what it looks like. . . . I feel normal.”
It’s hard to predict what’s normal for Lester at this point in his career. Two seasons ago, he was an All-Star with an 18-6 record and 3.32 ERA.
Last season, a hamstring injury in April that hampered him into midseason contributed to his highest ERA in seven years (4.46) and the fewest innings of any of his 12 full seasons in the majors (171‰).
“I feel like I’m in a good place right now mechanically and physically,” he said. “We’ll see how it translates going forward.”
And beyond this year?
Lester, who’s eighth on the all-time postseason innings list, said he “obviously’’ wants to finish his career as a Cub and can assure at least one more year of Chicago employment if he reaches 200 innings in 2020 to vest the 2021 option on his contract.
“Hopefully, I have a good year, and it’s null and void and we don’t have to talk about it,” said Lester, who hasn’t reached 200 innings in any of the last three years despite making 95 starts in that span. “If I don’t, I’m sure we’ll sit down. . . .
“I signed here hoping that the option was kind of going to take care of itself, and [I’d] finish out the seventh year. After that, I can’t predict tomorrow, let alone what’s going to happen two years down the road.
“I feel good physically. Obviously, that’s a big factor in what I decide to do. . . . Right now I just want to try to win a World Series.”