Lester still ace of Chicago Cubs rotation

Starting from No. 1, if you write down the names of the Chicago Cubs' starting rotation, it looks about as good as any in the National League:

• Left-handed ace Jon Lester

• Lefty Cole Hamels

• Righty Yu Darvish

• Right-hander Kyle Hendricks

• Lefty Jose Quintana.

Or maybe not.

"Apparently, we're just old and ready to be on the back side of our careers," said Lester, with no small hint of sarcasm in his voice. "I'll let a computer program tell me whether or not I'm going to be good this year. We'll have to play out 162 and see."

If you ever were going to start up an "old school," you'd want the 35-year-old Lester to be the principal.

Like most players, Lester doesn't pay too much attention to the advanced stats, especially those that show his strikeouts per 9 innings falling and the hard contact against him rising. He just gets the job done.

Last year he went 18-6 with a 3.32 ERA and a WHIP of 1.31. He is entering the fifth season of a six-year, $155 million contract, which is proving to be one of the best free-agent deals for the Cubs in their history. In his first four seasons in Chicago, Lester is 61-31 with a 3.33 ERA.

Can he be even better this year?

"Why not?" he said earlier in spring training. "I'm not dead. I still compete. Like I've told you guys before, I think the numbers stuff is great, but that doesn't tell you about the season. An out's an out. I don't care if it's hit to the warning track or somebody makes a diving catch or whatever. An out's an out. It's always been an out.

"I'm sure you could probably go back to Hall of Fame pitchers and break down barrel rates and hard contacts and FIPs and all this other stuff, but at the end of the year 18-6 with a 3.30 is still pretty good."

Lester no longer throws 95 mph on a regular basis. It's more upper 80s and lower 90s. Hence, the strikeouts per 9 innings went from 9.0 in 2017 to 7.4 last season.

For Lester, it's all about pitching.

"Execution," he said. "That's what it comes down to every day, every five days. I try to execute better and compete better than the other team. You've seen plenty of guys that throw harder and supposedly have better stuff that don't last very long. And then you have guys that just know how to execute, and they play a long time.

"Obviously as I've gotten older, I've had to rely more on the execution. You can't get away with the middle-middle (of the plate) 90 as when I threw 95, but I feel like I'm just a more complete pitcher now than I was even five years ago, six years ago. So, yeah, you adapt, you learn."

Lester again has won the nod to be the Cubs' starter on Opening Day, March 28 at Texas. He is the undisputed ace of the staff, and he helped bring about the clubhouse culture change that enabled a young team make the playoffs in 2015 and win the World Series in 2016.

As for the rest of the rotation, Lester says he loves it, no matter what the critics may think.

"I love our rotation; I love our guys; I love our competitiveness," he said. "I love how each person is different. Cole and Q, you say we're left-handed, but we all pitch very differently.

"I love that. I think the key to us, like we've all said, is being healthy. You lose Darvish for three-quarters of the year (in 2018), that's a huge knock in our rotation. He looks great.

"I love where we're at. I love us as a staff. It's just a matter of us going out and pitching now and getting ready for the season. I'm not too worried about our guys."

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