Cubs

Why John Lackey would make a lot of sense for Cubs

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Why John Lackey would make a lot of sense for Cubs

Connecting the dots between the Cubs and John Lackey is too easy.

The Cubs certainly feel some level of anxiety about handing out another megadeal to a 30-something pitcher, and Theo Epstein’s front office obviously has a comfort zone with people who used to work at Fenway Park.

Now that the Boston Red Sox have given David Price the largest contract for a pitcher in baseball history – for the moment at least – the dominos should start falling in the run-up to next week’s winter meetings in Nashville, Tennessee.

Coming off a 97-win season and still dealing with limited financial flexibility, the Cubs didn’t have Boston’s sense of urgency to fix a last-place team, or that glaring need at the top of the rotation, even though Price sent out signals that he wanted to come to Chicago.

It at least got to a point where Price’s camp called the Cubs when he made the final decision to accept Boston’s seven-year, $217 million offer.

But Jon Lester still has five guaranteed seasons left on the richest contract in franchise history, a six-year, $155 million deal that represented a $20-million markup from what the Red Sox were willing to pay for a frontline starter last December.

[MORE: Cubs have options with David Price heading to Red Sox for $217 million]

The Cubs also have Jake Arrieta under club control for only two more seasons, and reigning Cy Young Award winner plus Scott Boras client usually doesn’t equal a long-term extension.

Lackey makes a lot of sense if the Cubs want to avoid a risky long-term commitment, save some bullets for the future and upgrade their rotation with a reliable veteran starter who has a career 3.11 ERA in 127-plus postseason innings.

Lackey declined the one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer from the St. Louis Cardinals after going 13-10 with a 2.77 ERA during his age-36 season, so he would also cost a draft pick, though that calculus has changed for a franchise in win-now mode.

Lackey worked for the major-league minimum this year, part of a creative contract drawn up when Epstein had been Boston’s general manager. Unlike virtually all the other pitchers linked to the Cubs now, Lackey already scored the biggest deal of his career.

That five-year, $82.5 million contract saw Lackey put up a 6.41 ERA in 2011, miss the 2012 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery and help the Red Sox win the 2013 World Series.

Lackey had an icy relationship with the Boston media, but reshaped his image after the fried-chicken-and-beer controversy and still brings an edge to the clubhouse.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon saw it in the rookie as Mike Scioscia’s bench coach for the Anaheim Angels, watching Lackey beat the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series.

[RELATED: Another big free agent splash coming for Cubs?]

“He was always kind of fearless,” Maddon said. “He comes from Texas, kind of does the John Wayne strut out there. He’s that guy.”

Lackey remains tight with Lester after their time together in Boston, a connection that became a storyline before Game 1 of the National League division series.

“I know Lack,” Lester said in October. “He’s just such a good competitor. He’s going to almost out-will you sometimes, if that makes sense. I learned a lot from him in Boston.

“Our friendship will go beyond this game, it will go beyond our careers, and it’s something that means a lot to me.”

Lackey won Game 1 at Busch Stadium and then got rocked on short rest in Game 4, with Javier Baez drilling a 94-mph fastball into the Wrigley Field bleachers for a three-run homer that helped eliminate the Cardinals. The Cubs went through almost 500 bottles of champagne that night.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Money talks in the end, but the Cubs will make any free agent pay attention with a competitive offer.

“It’s a popular destination,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It’s a great city. It’s a great ballpark, a great manager and coaching staff. I still think the trump card is always the drought. I think everyone wants to be a part of the team that wins in Chicago.

“I felt like in Boston, after 2003, we turned that corner as well. We were a fun team (with) a lot of talent. We went to the ALCS and lost (to the Yankees in Game 7). After that year, a lot of people were like: ‘Hey, I watched the playoffs on TV. That looked like a fun team.’

“People love playing in Fenway, and I think this is very similar in a lot of ways. We got to the NLCS (and) they got to see us play. I do think that being on that national stage and seeing our kids play on a daily basis, they realized how talented we were. Add in Wrigley (and) a new clubhouse (and) then the drought – it’s a really good recipe to lure players.”

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

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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: