How Oakland helped redirect Jon Lester and turn Cubs into contenders

How Oakland helped redirect Jon Lester and turn Cubs into contenders

Maybe institutional arrogance would have inevitably driven Jon Lester out of Fenway Park. The Boston Red Sox lowballed their homegrown ace – really their only consistently reliable drafted-and-developed starting pitcher in a generation – with a no-chance spring-training extension offer in 2014.

But Oakland A’s baseball czar Billy Beane gave the Cubs another assist at that trade deadline – four weeks after the Jeff Samardzija/Addison Russell deal – by shipping out Yoenis Cespedes and acquiring Lester in a move that shocked the industry.

That meant Lester – a creature of habit comfortable in Boston – would get an eye-opening experience outside Red Sox Nation and broaden his horizons a little bit. The Red Sox couldn’t seriously play the loyalty card anymore, while the A’s couldn’t tag Lester with a qualifying offer after his no-decision in an American League wild-card loss to the Kansas City Royals.

The Oakland Coliseum doesn’t have a reputation for being family-friendly, and the Cubs played up all the planned amenities at a renovated Wrigley Field during Lester’s recruiting visit to Chicago, paving the way to a six-year, $155 million megadeal with a last-place team that needed to show the franchise would be serious about winning.

The butterfly effect is a fascinating concept while looking back on how Theo Epstein’s baseball-operations group built the team with the best record in baseball. Seeing Lester (11-4, 2.95 ERA) pitch against a green-and-gold backdrop on Friday night on the same lot where the Golden State Warriors built a Super Team will be another reminder.

[MORE: John Lackey came to Chicago to win a World Series]

“It was a big surprise,” Lester said. “I didn’t actually think I would get traded. I knew that was a possibility. But I was just thinking if things didn’t work out, they would want that draft pick, knowing those guys (in Boston). It ended up working out.”

Lester will always remember July 31, because it’s his oldest son’s birthday. Hudson turned four the day Lester got traded from the organization that drafted him out of high school in 2002 and gave him two World Series rings.  

“We were having a party,” Lester said, at the family’s house in suburban Boston. “I had found out that morning. I went and got some stuff from the (clubhouse). We all sat around and we were watching MLB (Network). Somebody would get up and take a phone call and we’d be like: ‘Oh, OK.’

“And then Andrew Miller would come (back) in and (say): ‘Yeah, I’m going to Baltimore.’ It would come up on the screen: ‘Andrew Miller traded to Baltimore.’ And then Stephen Drew got traded to the Yankees, who we were playing at the time. ‘Lack’ (John Lackey) got traded (to St. Louis).

“We were all sitting around just watching MLB (Network) while the kids were going crazy. And paused for some cake and went back to watching MLB.

“It was just a really weird day that will definitely go down as a lasting memory for my family.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs focused most of their energy on upgrading the bullpen before this week’s non-waiver deadline, getting game-over closer Aroldis Chapman and a few more complementary pieces. While supply-and-demand dynamics, long-range planning and intradivision/crosstown politics factored into those decisions, the bottom line is the Cubs already made their biggest moves.

“We’re all kids here in the toy aisle,” Lester said. “We’re all trying to play GM and say: ‘Why don’t you get this guy?’ There’s always logistics that we don’t understand, (things) that we don’t see. ‘Just get this guy and give him $10 million bucks next year’ – we don’t understand the ramifications of that.

“It’s still fun to sit back and say: ‘What if? What if we get this guy? What it we get that guy?’ You’re definitely paying attention to it. (But) I pay less attention to it now that I don’t have to worry about it.”

Epstein’s front office ignored the rule already broken for Lester and gave no-trade protection – and $240 million combined – to Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward with October power pitching in mind. How much is enough? A lineup anchored by MVP candidates Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant – with All-Star leadoff guy Dexter Fowler at the top – is either good enough or it’s not.

Jake Arrieta must perform at a Cy Young Award winner-level in the playoffs. Lackey will show up for the Big Boy Games or he won’t. And the Cubs aren’t going very far in October without Lester living up to his reputation as one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation.

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

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


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: