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MESA, Ariz. — For the third time in four seasons, Chicago Cubs lefty Jon Lester will start on Opening Day as manager Joe Maddon announced the decision before Lester’s spring debut on Tuesday.

“Pretty cool,” Lester said after pitching 1.2 innings against the White Sox. “Anytime the manager picks you to do that it’s a huge honor. I’m excited. It’s probably the earliest I’ve ever been told.”

Like the rest of the team, Lester feels refreshed after a little bit longer offseason than last year, when the Cubs broke a 108-year championship drought. A season removed from the “hangover” he says the team is coming together quickly.

“Guys are opening up a little more,” Lester said. “It’s our fourth year together. I feel like I’ve gotten older and they’ve grown up.”

He might be a year older, but Lester doesn’t think he’s over the hill — even after a down year in 2017. He spent time on the disabled list, fell short of 200 innings and compiled a 4.33 ERA. Most of it can be chalked up to expending so much energy on winning the World Series in 2016.

“Last year was ‘Hey, we need to slow down, we need to be ready more or less for May than April,'” Lester stated. “For a few of us, that put us behind the eight ball. I don’t think we realized that until the end of the year.”

Lester admits to having a little “chip on his shoulder” as 2018 kicks off. More than anything, he wants that 200 innings back. He missed out on that goal for just the second time in the past 11 seasons.

“Starters need to be more accountable and go deeper into games,” Lester opined. “I don’t think out of a No.1 or No. 2 guy, that 170 or 180 innings is enough. … I think it’s terrible for the game. I think it puts too much pressure on your bullpen. They’re on call every night. I feel like there is a time and a place (for that). The playoffs are a different animal.

“The season is too long to rely on your starters to go five, maybe six. There are too many outs for those guys to get to have them fresh and ready to go.”

As for being named Opening Day starter, it wasn’t a hard decision for Maddon, who admitted early-season matchups were part of the equation. By pitching Opening Day against the Miami Marlins, Lester will miss the run-happy Milwaukee Brewers in the season’s third series of the year. More than anything, Maddon simply believes in his workhorse and the leadership he’s already shown in camp.

“There is an organic change in him that I’m loving,” Maddon said. “He’s feeling this leadership thing but he’s not forcing it whatsoever. … You grow into this spot and people want to follow you.”

When told of Maddon’s comments, Lester downplayed his effect and simply focused on his game. He thinks a rebound season is in order.

“I like my odds to have another good year,” Lester said.

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Reports — New York Yankees agree with reliever Darren O’Day on 1-year, $2.5 million deal

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The New York Yankees quickly found a replacement for their bullpen, agreeing to a $2.5 million, one-year contract with submarining right-hander Darren O’Day, according to multiple reports.

The deal includes player and club options for 2022 and is subject to a successful physical, according to reports.

O’Day takes the spot vacated when the Yankees traded right-hander Adam Ottavino to Boston on Monday, a move that cut $7.15 million from New York’s payroll. O’Day figures to join left-hander Zack Britton and right-hander Chad Green as the primary setup men for closer Aroldis Chapman.

O’Day, 38, was 4-0 with a 1.10 ERA in 16⅓ innings over 19 games last year with Atlanta, striking out 22 and walking five while allowing eight hits. While his fastball averaged just 86 mph, his low arm angle creates deception; right-handed hitters batted .143 (7-for-49) off him with one home run, by Boston’s Xander Bogaerts, the leadoff batter of O’Day’s final appearance of the season. Left-handed hitters were 1 for 10.

He became a free agent when Atlanta declined a $3.25 million option, triggering a $250,000 buyout.

O’Day is a 13-year major league veteran, going 40-19 with a 2.51 ERA and 600 strikeouts and 158 walks in 576⅔ innings for the Los Angeles Angels (2008), New York Mets (2009), Texas (2009-11), Baltimore (2012-18) and Braves (2019-20).

He was an All-Star in 2015, when he had a 1.52 ERA and six saves while striking out 82 in 65⅓ innings, but he missed the final two months of the 2018 season with a strained left hamstring and the first five months of 2019 with a strained right forearm sustained during spring training.

O’Day made $833,333 in prorated pay last year from a $2.25 million salary, down from a $31 million, four-year contract he signed with Baltimore ahead of the 2016 season. His wife, Elizabeth Prann, is a correspondent for HLN and CNN, formerly of Fox News.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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George Springer sees echoes of Houston Astros in Toronto Blue Jays’ young core

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TORONTO — George Springer thinks the Blue Jays‘ promising young core is similar to the group he played with that led the Astros to their first World Series title in 2017.

Springer and the Blue Jays agreed last week to a team-record $150 million, six-year contract. He joined a roster that includes young sluggers Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, The three-time All-Star outfielder was 2017 World Series MVP when he played with Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa.

“This lineup reminds me a lot of them,” Springer said, wearing a Toronto cap and jersey during a video news conference. “It is a young lineup but it’s a very talented, advanced younger lineup. From everything I’ve seen, they’re very, very ambitious. They want to win, they work hard. That’s awesome to see.”

Toronto went 32-28 during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, finishing third in the AL East behind the Tampa Bay Rays and the New York Yankees and qualifying for the expanded postseason. The Blue Jays were swept in two games during a first-round series by the eventual AL champion Rays.

“I think they’re right there,” Springer said of Toronto. “When you play against this team like I have, you could see the talent, could see the potential in their lineup, in their staff, in their arms. I think this team is built to win, and I think they’re going to be built to win for a long time.”

Team president Mark Shapiro said Springer was “clearly a good fit” for the emerging Blue Jays.

“His experience will add a certain level of wisdom to our players,” Shapiro said. “He’s been places where our guys haven’t been yet and knows how to handle those environments.”

In seven seasons, Springer has a .270 career average with 174 home runs and 458 RBIs, including career bests of .292 with 39 homers and 96 RBIs in 2019.

Besides Springer, Toronto also has signed right-handers Kirby Yates and Tyler Chatwood in the past week. The Blue Jays have a pending $18 million, one-year deal with infielder Marcus Semien, subject to a successful physical.

“We’ve taken the next step and we’ll see where that takes us,” general manager Ross Atkins said.

Shapiro insisted the Blue Jays still have flexibility to add payroll, likely to strengthen the rotation, but said “the bulk of our heavy lifting is done.”

Springer split time between center field and right with the Astros, but is expected to become a fixture in center for the Blue Jays. He’s also likely to lead off Toronto’s batting order.

“It’s no secret that George is a great leadoff hitter,” manager Charlie Montoyo said.

“I’m willing to do whatever it is they want me to do,” Springer said. “I’m here for the team, I’m here to win so whatever they want me to do, I’ll gladly do it.”

Springer said the Blue Jays contacted him early in the free agent process, putting him in “a very good state of mind” right from the first call.

“When you have a young talented group that’s already in place, it’s obviously very, very attractive because you know what they could potentially do,” he said.

Springer’s contract is the second $100 million-plus deal in team history. In December 2006, center fielder Vernon Wells and the Blue Jays agreed to a $126 million, seven-year contract.

Under new owner Steve Cohen, the New York Mets were said to be interested in Springer, but the outfielder wouldn’t address their pursuit.

“This is about the Blue Jays,” Springer said. “I don’t really have anything to say on that matter. I’m extremely happy to be where I am.”

Springer was more open to addressing Toronto’s interest in friend and former teammate Michael Brantley, who rejoined the Astros for a $32 million, two-year deal.

“I talk to Mike as a friend probably every day,” Springer said. “It’s not my business to ask him all that stuff. I was hopeful for it but, ultimately, I’m happy for him.”



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New York Mets promote assistant GM Zack Scott to acting GM

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NEW YORK — Zack Scott was promoted to acting general manager of the New York Mets on Wednesday, eight days after GM Jared Porter was fired.

Scott was hired as assistant GM on Dec. 23 after 17 seasons with the Boston Red Sox, the last two as assistant GM.

“Zack has plenty of championship experience to draw upon,” Mets president Sandy Alderson said in a statement. “He has been an integral part of our decision-making processes since his arrival. The entire baseball operations staff, including myself, will continue to work collaboratively.”

Scott, 43, oversaw Boston’s analytics along with advance scouting and professional scouting. He joined the team as an intern, became an assistant in 2005, then spent six seasons as assistant director of baseball operations.

A graduate of the University of Vermont with a mathematics degrees, he worked for Diamond Mind Inc. as a developer of baseball simulation software from 2000 to 2003.

Porter was hired by the Mets on Dec. 13 and was fired Jan. 19, nine hours after ESPN reported he sent sexually explicit, uninvited text messages and images to a female reporter in 2016 when he was working for the Chicago Cubs in their front office.

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