Jon Lester has no doubts Jonathan Papelbon and his “Cinco Ocho” alter ego would be able to fit into an anti-rules clubhouse that already has strobe lights and a fog machine for postgame dance parties.
“He’s one of the best closers in baseball,” Lester said Wednesday at Wrigley Field. “I don’t see why he wouldn’t.”
The Cubs have been linked to Papelbon, who’s never really fit in with the Philadelphia Phillies, a luxury item at a time when the franchise needs to tear it all down and rebuild again.
Lester and Papelbon came up through the Boston Red Sox system that Cubs executives Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod helped developed at Fenway Park. Papelbon saved the clinching World Series game Lester won for the Red Sox in 2007 against the Colorado Rockies.
Lester stays in touch with Papelbon and recently spoke with the Phillies closer, who has 338 career saves, a 1.88 ERA this season and a limited no-trade clause.
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“We all hear what goes on,” Lester said. “I think he’s got a lot of things on his plate and he’s got the opportunity to either veto or accept some of these trades. I’m sure he’s got a lot of things going through his mind. It’s always hard when midseason you have to uproot your family and move and all that.
“I’ve talked to him just based on: Hey, man, how you doing? How you holding up? Stuff like that. Not really anything about possibly coming here.
“I know he would be excited to come here, and be excited to help.”
The obstacles to a potential trade are bigger than Papelbon’s larger-than-life personality. The Philadelphia front office is in turmoil and has a reputation for being difficult to deal with.
It’s also unclear how much financial flexibility the Cubs will have at the July 31 deadline and beyond. Papelbon is owed about $6.5 million in the second half of this season and has a $13 million vesting option for 2016 (when he will be 35 years old).
“I love ‘Pap.’ I always have,” Lester said. “We all kind of get different raps for what people see on TV. People think that I’m like the most serious guy in the world, but that’s my day, that’s important.
“When he’s out there, he’s hyped up, he’s out of his mind and he’s trying to get a save. So people just assume that’s the way you are every day. So I think he’s gotten a bad rap. I loved him in Boston. The guy’s a competitor. He never shies away from taking the ball.”
The Cubs moved some pieces around and stabilized their bullpen, which had a 1.49 ERA between May 23 and June 23. But Papelbon – who has seven saves and a 1.00 ERA in 27 postseason innings – would be another weapon for manager Joe Maddon.
“Any time you have a back-of-the-bullpen guy like that,” Lester said, “I would imagine that can only help, especially when you add that experience level that he brings. Not only just closing games in the regular season, but closing games in the playoffs and World Series.”
There are no sure things here. Lester pitched extremely well (6-4, 2.35 ERA) after getting traded from Boston at last year’s deadline, but the Oakland A’s still limped into the playoffs and lost to the Kansas City Royals in the American League wild-card game.
Whether or not the Cubs go all-in with Papelbon, this team has shown it’s worth an investment by July 31, earning the benefit of the doubt with a pace to win around 90 games.
Lester’s $155 million megadeal won’t be the only sign the Cubs are serious about winning now.
“Would it boost the clubhouse? Absolutely,” Lester said. “(But) I’ve been on both sides of it. Each individual season is kind of unique, so you try to leave it up to those guys (in the front office).
“When you’ve been playing good and you get an addition, all of a sudden you just get that extra boost. Even in ’13, we got Jake Peavy (for Boston’s World Series run) and no one really thought that was going to really help us. But I think when you bring in character guys, it can give you that boost in the clubhouse and on the field.”