Jon Lester can look around him and see familiar faces from his time in Chicago with Davey Martinez, Jim Hickey, Alex Avila, and Kyle Schwarber all with Washington now, and it helps the 37-year-old, 15-year veteran adjust as he works in West Palm Beach, FL after signing a 1-year/$5M deal with Nationals this winter following six seasons with the Cubs.
“It’s been good,” Lester said of his first few days of Spring Training with his new team. “It’s just — any time you come into a new situation and you have familiar faces it make things a lot easier when you do kind of have that anxiety of being the new kid or whatever. You at least have somebody you can run to and have a conversation with or just feel comfortable around. But these guys have been great so far. It’s been fun to be around them, watching them work and hopefully as we kind of get going and get into some smaller groups I can get to kind of watch [Max Scherzer] and [Stephen Strasburg] and these guys and see how they go about it.”
Martinez was the bench coach in the Windy City from 2015-17, Lester’s first three years with the Cubs, and after signing an extension with the Nationals this past winter, the manager in D.C. brought on Jim Hickey, who was the pitching coach for the Cubbies in ‘17, before both Schwarber (a Cubs’ 1st Round pick in 2014) and Avila (who played for the Cubs in 2017 too, and caught Lester then) signed on with the Nats as well.
So there’s a definite Chicago feel to Washington’s camp.
“The nice part about that is having Davey,” Lester said. “It’s pretty similar to Cubs’ camp over here that I was used to for a few years with him. So it’s nice. It’s relaxed. This is obviously a very veteran group. Guys have been around for a while and kind of have their routines and what they’re trying to do. So, he just more or less kind of points us in the right direction and tells us what fields to be on and we kind of just get our work done and go from there. It’s been nice. I’m excited for [Tuesday’s first full team workout], to get everybody on the field and kind of get that routine going. But yeah, it’s really nothing new, which is nice. I knew coming in with Davey that it was going to be pretty relaxed and fun with the music and everything else going on.”
“I’ve built these relationships with them,” Martinez said of the former Cubs he’s surrounded himself with going into his fourth year on the bench in the nation’s capital.
“So yeah, we know each other, so it’s kind of nice.”
Lester and Hickey had just one year together in Chicago, but the pitching coach apparently kept his notes from the time, and pulled out something early this spring that caught Lester by surprise.
“I think just on my first bullpen the other day we talked about something that we had talked about previously two or three years ago whenever it was, just a little cue that I had actually kind of forgot about,” Lester said.
It’s the little things, and that attention to detail, he said, that makes Hickey so good at his job.
“I think with Hick ... he likes to keep things very simple which is nice,” Lester explained.
“And I think that obviously helps a veteran rotation, a veteran bullpen. Even with the young guys, the simple little things can go a long ways.”
“I think sometimes too much information can overload us, not only in a mechanical way,” he explained, “... but also in a report way, so for him to keep things very simple and easy I think makes our jobs a lot easier to go out and just worry about executing as opposed to all this information or all these things that you’re working on.”
Avila caught Lester just twice in game action during the time the two spent together with the Cubs in ‘17, but the veteran backstop too made a strong impression with his work.
“I like how prepared he is,” Lester said. “I don’t know how much you guys have seen him or not, but when you watch him you know that his heart rate isn’t going too fast.
“He’s always calm, he’s always — I’m trying to think of the right way to say this — but it’s kind of like — he gives you that easy feeling, you know what I’m saying, I guess kind of eases your nerves a little bit when you’re out there kind of going a little fast. I like that. Like I said, how prepared he is, he’s kind of like that quiet leader back there. He does a good job with all the report stuff, and he’s just a good dude to be around. I think that adds to it as well.”
Lester’s not being looked to as a top-of-the-rotation arm at this point his career, but he is a durable starter who’s expected to fill out the back end of the mix with the Nationals and he said early this spring he’s just tried to get settled while letting the established arms in West Palm Beach do their thing.
“I just try to stay out of the way. I just get my work done and try to be a fly on the wall. This is their team, this is their rotation, I’m not in any way, shape, or form trying to come in here and change that,” Lester said.
“I’ve never been a vocal person, so as far as the leadership side of things, if that’s what people call me, then great, I’ll just keep doing me and worrying about other stuff later.
“I’m — like I said, I’m a fly on the wall in this deal.
“I’m just trying to help and keep that rotation line moving, and hopefully pitch well and just try to get the ball back to these guys, and let them do their thing.”