Cubs

Cubs upgrade playoff-caliber rotation with $32 million deal for John Lackey

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Cubs upgrade playoff-caliber rotation with $32 million deal for John Lackey

In an overheated market for pitching, the Cubs found what they saw as a reasonable solution, reaching an agreement with John Lackey on a two-year, $32 million contract that should stabilize a playoff-caliber rotation.

The short-term deal – first reported by Fox Sports on Friday – also gives the Cubs some flexibility as they try to improve a 97-win team and keep their window to contend open.

Lackey makes sense on so many levels, even at the age of 37, and even with the added cost of a draft pick after declining a one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer from the St. Louis Cardinals.

[MORE CUBS: David Price, Jason Heyward and how Cardinals respond in rivalry with Cubs]

The Cubs are willing to pay that price in this competitive phase. Lackey switches sides in the rivalry after making 33 starts for the Cardinals and going 13-10 with a 2.77 ERA for a 100-win team.

Lackey joins his buddies – $155 million lefty Jon Lester and backup catcher David Ross – from the 2013 Boston Red Sox team that won a World Series at Fenway Park.

Cubs president Theo Epstein once signed Lackey as Boston’s general manager, drawing up a unique five-year, $82.5 million contract that had him working for the major-league minimum this year after Tommy John surgery on his right elbow wiped out his 2012 season.

Lackey also made an impression on Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who worked as Mike Scioscia’s bench coach when the Anaheim Angels rookie beat the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series. 

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs crossed a big item off their list heading into the winter meetings that begin Monday in Nashville, Tennessee. Zack Greinke’s anticipated decision between the Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers could come as soon as this weekend, which should start a chain reaction among free-agent pitchers.

While Epstein has maintained a dialogue with Jeff Samardzija’s camp, the sense is that Shark’s market is escalating to a point that makes the Cubs uncomfortable. Samardzija’s disappointing season with the White Sox (11-13, 4.96 ERA) hasn’t fundamentally changed the perception of his physical skills, clean medical history and upside potential.

The Cubs certainly aren’t done making moves, but with Lackey slotting in behind Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and Lester, they feel like they have a rotation that can get back to October. 

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

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USA TODAY

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: