By Bruce Levine–
SURPRISE, Ariz. (CBS) — Coming off a second-place finish in the National League Cy Young race in 2016, Cubs left-hander Jon Lester is looking for a repeat performance this season.
“Hell ya,” Lester said about a possible repeat of last season’s performance in which he went 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA. “I would take about 15 of those. If I take the ball every five days and get 200 innings, I feel like I am in a good position to have a decent year. We have such a good team and defense. That makes my job a lot easier.”
Lester continued his preparation toward those goals Sunday, throwing two innings against the Rangers in his first Cactus League outing this spring. The results weren’t what Lester usually produces, as he allowed two runs on three hits, but he’s only focused on the big picture.
“I just try to get through it,” Lester said. “The first one is always the hardest. You get in front of fans and get up and down a few times. Just getting through it is good.”
Lester has thrown at least 191 innings in each of the past nine seasons, including topping the 200-inning plateau eight times. He’s also amassed 49 2/3 postseason innings over the past two year, so the Cubs are now bringing him along slowly given his veteran status and big workloads.
The Cubs recognize the burden their starting pitchers have carried the past two seasons with deep playoff runs and are considering using a sixth starter for some stretches in 2017. Like most starters in the regular rotation, Lester isn’t all that enthused by the idea.
“If they want to use six starters they can use six starters,” Lester said. “There is nothing we can do about that. Traditionally, a lot of us would like to stay with a five-man rotation.”
Controlling stressful innings in the second half of a season is always a challenge for good teams that are postseason regulars.
“You must monitor it,” manager Joe Maddon said. “The (pitchers) feel fresh and frisky right now. They want more, they want more. It all really adds up. So we must be vigilant right now, so we don’t do that. You have to hold them back somehow. Two years in a row (in the playoffs) makes it more significant. You must let the player know what you are thinking now. We have tried to have those conversations in advance.”
Lester will start Chicago’s season opener at St. Louis on April 2, when former Cubs teammate and new Cardinals outfielder Dexter Fowler will lead off.
“That is always different when you faced guys you played with,” Lester said. “I am sure we will have a nice chuckle. There is definitely no ill will.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.