MESA, Ariz. — While the Cubs’ Opening Day starter remains a mystery, the field appeared to lose a candidate Wednesday, when new manager David Ross seemed to take Jon Lester out of consideration for the honor.
Lester, who has started three consecutive openers for the Cubs and four of the last five, is expected to move down the line, just like he did in 2016, when Jake Arrieta took the honor for one season.
Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks appear to be the finalists for the job on March 26 against the Brewers in Milwaukee.
“Jon’s at a point in a career where, for me, Yu and Kyle have thrown better,” Ross said. “Not to say that I ever don’t have any confidence in Jon. Obviously, I’ve got a ton of confidence in Jon. It’s just, you put your best foot forward to start the season, and I think Yu Darvish or Kyle Hendricks are a tick above Jon right now.”
Lester, 36, was 13-10 last season with a 4.46 ERA in 31 starts. Just one year earlier, he made his fifth career All-Star Game and was ninth in National League Cy Young Award voting with an 18-6 record and a 3.32 ERA.
Darvish, 33, was 6-8 with a 3.98 ERA in 31 starts last season with an NL-leading 33 home runs allowed. He was much better after the All-Star break with a 2.76 ERA in 13 starts.
Hendricks, 30, was 11-10 last season with a 3.46 ERA in 30 starts. Going back to 2016, when Hendricks led the majors in ERA at 2.13, the right-hander is 48-34 with a 3.01 ERA in 117 starts with one relief appearance.
“Kyle’s been so great for so long,” Ross said. “Yu, I think, finished his year the strongest. And Jon’s probably got the track record and the experience. But I see it as it comes down to Yu and Kyle. Those are the two guys, the front-runners for me.
“Kind of what they did and, really, what they’ve done, or Kyle’s done over his track record here and Yu’s stuff so far this spring, and the way he finished the year.”
Darvish pitched Wednesday night against the Padres and lines up perfectly to pitch in the March 26 opener on a five-day schedule. Typically, each starter has an extra buffer day of rest between his last spring outing and his first start of the regular season, but Darvish’s recent illness altered that schedule.
Lester starts Thursday against the Dodgers. That would line him up for the March 27 day off in Milwaukee, which would be his extra buffer day before making his first appearance.
Hendricks is expected to pitch Friday against the White Sox, so his schedule would need to be altered to get the Opening Day assignment.
In his four Opening Day starts with the Cubs, Lester was 1-1 with a 4.34 ERA. Last season, he allowed two runs and four hits in six innings with two walks and three strikeouts in a 12-4 victory over the Rangers.
Ross’ first Opening Day decision could come on Thursday.
“It’s just all scheduling, and we’ve got rain [Thursday], as well,” he said. “We’ll keep these guys healthy and on their days, balancing that. It’s getting close. I’ll try to have something in the next few days. It’s just that weather could throw a kink in things, and I know what a big deal that is to everybody and the fans. Let’s get that thing set in stone, and we’ll go for it.”