DETROIT – Whether or not this is some grand plan, or just the random nature of opportunities in this business, the Cubs have been developing hitters and buying pitchers, using their eyes and their laptops to build a team their own way.
It’s not quite as simple as that, especially with so many financial complexities surrounding this franchise, but the $155 million ace is the bottom-line place to start after Tuesday night’s 6-0 loss to the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park.
Head down, Jon Lester walked off the mound with the bases loaded and one out in the fifth inning, the Cubs already trailing 4-0 and $52 million reliever Edwin Jackson coming out of the bullpen.
“There are a lot of things that need to be fixed – and they will,” Lester said afterward. “It sounds simple, but it’s just a matter of getting back out there and doing it again. I had a great bullpen this last time. I felt good about coming into this. And I go out there and throw that slop.”
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The Cubs have spent first-round picks on position players in each of the last five drafts, beginning with Javier Baez in the final year of the Jim Hendry administration and leading up to Ian Happ, the University of Cincinnati outfielder/second baseman Theo Epstein’s front office grabbed on Monday night with the No. 9 overall pick.
The Cubs backed themselves into this corner, understanding they would eventually have to overpay for a No. 1 starter, knowing that history shows nine-figure contracts for pitchers are usually bad investments.
After an awful April (0-2, 6.23 ERA) and an excellent May (4-1, 1.76 ERA), Lester hasn’t looked sharp in June (0-2, 10.61 ERA).
“I’ve actually felt better the last two starts than I did in May, so take that for whatever it’s worth,” said Lester, who gave up five runs on nine hits against the Tigers (31-28).
“They both sucked. Just not good. Not good. Not getting deep into games. Regardless of runs, hits, errors, walks, strikeouts, whatever, (I) gotta do a better job pitching innings. (That’s) what it comes down to.”
The Cubs say they aren’t worried about the 31-year-old lefty, who won two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox and seems almost numb to big-market overreactions after spending so much time at Fenway Park.
“I wouldn’t say he pitched well, but he had good stuff,” personal catcher David Ross said.
Manager Joe Maddon pointed to the 93 mph fastballs, the depth on Lester’s breaking ball and a lineup that revolves around Miguel Cabrera.
“They moved the ball around,” Maddon said. “It’s not like they just beat him up badly. It was well placed and he never could really seem to find a real rhythm or groove.
“It’s just one of those nights. Move it along and I’m good for his next time out there. I’m really not concerned or upset."
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The Cubs couldn’t generate anything against Anibal Sanchez, who came into the game with a 3-7 record and a 5.69 ERA but walked off the mound to a standing ovation in the eighth inning, saluting the crowd of 33,301 (even with the bases loaded).
The Cubs courted Sanchez in December 2012, with Epstein and chairman Tom Ricketts meeting the pitcher, his wife and his agent at a Miami restaurant. That same day, general manager Jed Hoyer and Dale Sveum, the manager at the time, met with Jackson, his fiancé and his agent in Newport Beach, California.
The Cubs got used for leverage in the Sanchez negotiations, the Tigers ultimately stepping up with five years and $80 million guaranteed. The Cubs maxed out at five years and $77.5 million and moved on to Plan B: Jackson (who gave the bullpen a break by finishing this game).
This isn’t how you envision the big-ticket signings at that first press conference. But even without Lester hitting his stride, the Cubs are still 30-26 and in wild-card position. Everyone knows what it would mean if their No. 1 guy starts living up to his own expectations.
“If we’re worried about the wild card right now, we’re worried about the wrong things,” Lester said. “We got to play a good baseball team tomorrow. That’s No. 1. But if you want to talk about the future, yeah, obviously, that would mean a lot to this team, this organization, this city.
“We’ve been playing good baseball. I feel like at times we’ve been playing better baseball than what the results have been. But this team does a good job of grinding. It seemed like we grinded a lot on Anibal. He just seemed to be one step ahead of us, and that happens sometimes. I didn’t do my part tonight.”