Jon Lester sounds the alarm baseball's lack of free-agent spending this winter

0216-jon-lester.jpg
USA TODAY

Jon Lester sounds the alarm baseball's lack of free-agent spending this winter

MESA, Ariz. — Spring training is no longer some upcoming deadline. Spring training is here.

And still there are dozens of free agents without jobs, including some of the bigger names in the game, guys like Jake Arrieta, J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer and plenty of others.

The reasons behind this inactive offseason have been written about ad nauseam. But to the players themselves, as Jon Lester put it, it’s just alarming.

“It’s crazy,” Lester said, talking at length about the situation Friday at Cubs camp. “I kind of thought once February hit, it would be kind of a mass signing, that guys would sign in that first week and we really wouldn’t talk about it anymore. But obviously that’s not the case.

“I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know behind closed doors what’s being said, what’s been said. It’s just alarming, that’s kind of how I look at it. We’re not talking about middle relievers with 5.00 ERAs. We’re talking about big guys. We’re talking about guys that need to be playing. It’s alarming. Hopefully we can get this thing figured out and get these guys a team relatively soon.”

The Cubs have made plenty of moves this offseason, making the league-wide situation seem like it might not apply to the North Siders. After all, the Cubs have been the ones to hand out the two biggest pitching contracts of the winter, first to Tyler Chatwood and then to Yu Darvish earlier this week.

But the affected parties are closer to home than it might seem, with Arrieta being perhaps the biggest unsigned name out there. It would be completely unforeseen if Arrieta returned to the Cubs after the Darvish signing locked the rotation into place for the foreseeable future. But the topic of where one of the biggest parts of the team’s three-year playoff stretch might land continues to be a big one in Cub World. Tommy La Stella spoke about it earlier Friday. Then it was Lester’s turn.

“I would imagine (Arrieta is frustrated), yeah. He doesn’t have a job,” Lester said. “This is what we do. So I can only imagine what those guys are going through probably emotionally and physically, too. If they do a free-agent camp, if they don’t, whatever, you’re physically behind the 8-ball when you come back. You’ve got to get to know your new teammates or even just settle into a team that you were with. It’s alarming. I don’t understand it. Selfishly, I’m glad I’m not in that situation. But for those guys, it’s got to be hard.”

Lester continued to hit home that he had no insider information, but he came to the same conclusions many have, that next winter’s free-agent bonanza starring Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, potentially Clayton Kershaw and a host of other All-Star caliber players is having a big effect this winter. And he also made an understated finger-point at the owners, talking about teams’ unwillingness to spend on free agents like they have in every offseason prior.

The caveat with that, of course, is that it’s Lester’s team that has potentially set the trend that player agents have been complaining about. Not the one of refusing to spend — Lester, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and Darvish have big paychecks from the Ricketts family — but the trend of a total teardown rebuild. Theo Epstein’s front office committed to multiple years of losing in order to produce this current team, one of the best in baseball for the past three seasons with no sign of slowing down, using top draft picks to build the core.

“There’s too many good players out there that don’t have teams, you’re kind of scratching your head on why,” Lester said. “I think each individual year is different, it’s just like the season. I know people have kind of downplayed it, but you’ve got next year, as well. Big class that’s coming out. I would imagine that has something to do with it, teams trying to set themselves up to be able to spend next year on those guys. But at the same time, it screws the guys that are going through it now.

“There’s no reason why Jake Arrieta or J.D. Martinez or any of these guys should have to sign a one-year deal. That’s ridiculous. There’s too much money in the game. It’s going up, our game’s not suffering at all. There’s money there to be spent, and for whatever reason it’s not being spent.

“The money that’s being made on the other side in this game, absolutely (I could foresee a $400 million contract next winter). I think people are forgetting where a lot of that money is actually going to. It’s there to be spent, and it’s not being spent right now.”

The unpredictability of the offseason signals that the upcoming months will be unpredictable, as well. Who knows when Arrieta and the other jobless players will sign? As Lester mentioned, those guys are already behind schedule. And while they’re surely working out and keeping their bodies in shape, it’s tough to sign a contract in March or April or May or June and instantly hit the ground running with a new team.

So while baseball season is indeed underway in Arizona and Florida, there’s still a lot of uncertainty about how the season will play out — because some of its main characters have yet to receive their roles.

One Cub on Jake Arrieta's ongoing joblessness: 'I don't think anybody knows what to make of it'

0216-jake-arrieta.jpg
USA TODAY

One Cub on Jake Arrieta's ongoing joblessness: 'I don't think anybody knows what to make of it'

MESA, Ariz. — Jake Arrieta still doesn't have a job.

While that's extremely unusual with spring training already underway, it's the reality of this ridiculously inactive offseason. The guy who the National League Cy Young Award in 2015 and who helped the Cubs to three consecutive NL Championship Series and that curse-smashing World Series win in 2016 is still waiting to suit up. Meanwhile, his former team moved on in dramatic fashion earlier this week, signing Yu Darvish to a six-year contract.

But Arrieta's name isn't forbidden in the Cubs' clubhouse or anything, and one of his friends and former teammates was asked about what the heck is going on.

“It’s strange. I don’t think anybody knows what to make of it, it’s kind of just the way the market has gone this offseason and that’s what it is," infielder Tommy La Stella said Friday. "He’ll land somewhere, obviously, and it’ll be the right fit because that’s just kind of the way these things go.

"He’s a great competitor and a great player, so it’s going to be tough to imagine him falling into a situation that doesn’t line up.”

Arrieta should have been a huge splash this winter for a team needing an upgrade in the starting rotation, and he still will be whenever he signs. But when that signing comes is anyone's guess right now. The game of chicken between baseball's teams and free agents has been broken at times throughout this offseason — most notably by the Cubs with Darvish, the Milwaukee Brewers with outfielder Lorenzo Cain and the Philadelphia Phillies with slugger Carlos Santana — but Arrieta and a host of other big names remain unsigned.

Of course Arrieta will always be linked to Darvish, the guy the Cubs went with instead of bringing back one of their aces from three straight playoff runs. Until the games start counting, there will be a debate over whether the Cubs' front office made the right decision.

“I don’t think there’s any miscalculation on their end, to be honest," La Stella said. "They’re very calculated with everything that they do. They weigh the pros and cons of everything. Any time you’re going to miss out on anything, obviously you stand to gain somewhere else. So I think that’s what the situation was.”

It's possible Arrieta could land elsewhere in the NL Central, as the Brewers have been linked to him throughout the offseason as they search for a top-of-the-line starting pitcher to better compete with the Cubs for the division crown.

Seeing his former team often throughout the next few seasons would probably fire him up. But wherever Arrieta lands, this is a famously focused guy who worked like crazy to not just get in incredible shape but to go from a trade piece in the Scott Feldman deal to the most dominant pitcher in the game for a spell.

“He’s never lacking in motivation. He always goes out there and pitches with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder," La Stella said. "I think that’s what makes him so good. I’m sure he’ll take a little bit from it.”

Miguel Montero signs with team that stole seven bases off him last summer

montero_nlcs_.jpg
USA TODAY

Miguel Montero signs with team that stole seven bases off him last summer

The world can be a funny place sometimes.

Late last June, Miguel Montero was catching for the Cubs against the Washington Nationals. With Jake Arrieta on the mound, the Nationals stole seven bases in just four innings, ultimately winning the game 6-1. The night ended with Montero famously calling out Arrieta for his inability to hold on runners. 

“It really sucks because the stolen bases go on me,” Montero said. “When you really look at it, the pitcher doesn’t give me any time. It’s just like: ‘Yeah, OK, Miggy can’t throw nobody out.’ Yeah, but my pitchers don’t hold anybody on. It’s tough, because it doesn’t matter how much work I put in.

“If I don’t get a chance to throw, that’s the reason why they were running left and right today, because they know he was slow to the plate. Simple as that. It’s a shame that it’s my fault because I didn’t throw anybody out.”

Ironically enough, the Nationals signed Montero Thursday to a minor league deal with an invitation to MLB Spring Training. The move reunites him with former Cubs' bench coach and new Nationals' manager Dave Martinez.

The Cubs designated Montero for assignment for his comments, eventually trading him to the Toronto Blue Jays a few days later. He hit a subpar .216 with six home runs and 16 RBIs in 76 games between the Cubs and Blue Jays while also surrendering a woeful 58 stolen bases in 63 attempts.

The Nationals already have a starting catcher in Matt Wieters, so Montero will compete for a backup position. He could prove useful in Washington, as he is a left-handed hitter that can hit for power. At this point in his career, though, his best days might be behind him.

Montero's stay in Chicago ended poorly, but he will always be remembered for his contributions that helped the Cubs win the World Series in 2016.

The veteran backstop hit a grand slam in Game 1 of the 2016 NLCS, propelling the the Cubs to a 1-0 series lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers. He also hit an RBI single in the 10th inning of Game 7 of the World Series, putting the Cubs ahead 8-6 in a game that they won 8-7 to clinch their first championship since 1908.