Jon Lester

How the Jose Quintana deal changed everything for Cubs and White Sox this winter and beyond

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AP

How the Jose Quintana deal changed everything for Cubs and White Sox this winter and beyond

ORLANDO, Fla. – White Sox general manager Rick Hahn didn’t really pay attention to how Jose Quintana performed for the Cubs in the playoffs, the opportunity he desperately wanted during those lost seasons on the South Side.

“Not so much,” Hahn said. “I saw a little bit of it here and there, but my kids are probably the better ones to ask about how he did in the postseason than me.”

Hahn’s kids weren’t made available to the reporters staking out the lobby this week at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, and the White Sox executive wasn’t the same popular media target he’d been during last year’s GM meetings.       

The Quintana trade that shocked the baseball world during the All-Star break changed everything for the Cubs and White Sox, how the two franchises will approach the rest of the offseason after checking out of this resort hotel on Wednesday and leaving Florida. It could also frame the next three, five, maybe even 10 years of Chicago baseball.

Getting top prospects Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease from the Cubs – on top of the returns for Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, Todd Frazier, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Anthony Swarzak and Melky Cabrera – positioned the White Sox as a team that can be patient and opportunistic and keep cultivating one of the industry’s best farm systems and methodically building a perennial contender.  

“I had one GM say something to me recently about being cautious for doing deals – with his tongue in cheek – because of how well we did,” Hahn said. “I said: ‘All I did was notice former White Sox players all over my TV screen in October.’ So it works both ways.”

Imagine how desperate the Cubs would feel trying to replace 60 percent of their rotation – without the financial flexibility created by Quintana’s club-friendly contract.

Imagine how a front office that fired multiple coaches from a staff that went to a third straight National League Championship Series might react to not playing in October.   

Imagine how much heat manager Joe Maddon would be feeling if Quintana hadn’t come to the rescue and stabilized the team and energized the clubhouse.

“It was well worth it,” Epstein said. “Without Jose Quintana, I don’t think we make the playoffs, honestly, (after) seeing what happened to our starting rotation. Jonny Lester went down. Jake Arrieta went down. ‘Q’ was a consistent performer for us in the second half. He pitched really well in two of the three playoff games.

“The bottom line: I don’t think we make the playoffs without him. And the biggest factor in that deal was not even 2017. It was 2018, ’19 and ’20 and solidifying a pitching staff and putting us in a position to be able to make a couple more moves and have a really outstanding starting rotation.”  

This is the price to acquire pitching: Hahn played along with a question that compared Jimenez to David Ortiz and suggested he could become the Big Papi-like presence that turned the Boston Red Sox into World Series champions in 2004, 2007 and 2013.  

“That’s possible,” Hahn said. “I don’t like putting too big a name on guys. Let him be the first Eloy Jimenez instead of the next David Ortiz. That said, if he could match him from a ring standpoint, that would be a positive. It would be a nice step or standard to emulate going forward.”

One year later, the GM meetings ended with the White Sox moving in the right direction, no more wondering if they would actually go through with a teardown, now setting their sights on what the Cubs have become on the North Side.

“Honestly, I didn’t watch a ton of the postseason,” Hahn said. “I get a little uneasy watching other teams perform when we’ve been eliminated. But certainly it was difficult to turn on a game and not see a former White Sox player out there doing well and contributing. If anything, that made us hungrier for our fans to experience it with quality players in our uniform.

“I’m certainly happy for the players that were out there and got that opportunity. But at the same time, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that you also think about the missed opportunity where we didn’t have the chance to have them in the postseason while they played for us.”

John Lackey isn't riding off into the sunset just yet, but is a Cubs reunion in the cards?

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USA TODAY

John Lackey isn't riding off into the sunset just yet, but is a Cubs reunion in the cards?

John Lackey is not riding off into the sunset just yet.

The veteran cowboy/pitcher/haircut-non-getter has always said he wouldn't announce his retirement and just march quietly back to his Texas home with nothing close to a David Ross-esque farewell tour.

Lackey — who just turned 39 last month — is not ready to call it quits, according to Jon Heyman:

Lackey went 12-12 with a 4.59 ERA in 2017, while giving up a league-high 36 homers. But he was hardly the only pitcher directly affected by the home run explosion in baseball in 2017 and he made 30 starts for the ninth time in his career.

It is curious that Lackey's sources have already said he'll be back in 2018 after his good buddy Jon Lester toasted to what was "probably" Lackey's last regular season start in St. Louis in late September:

The day the Cubs were eliminated from playoff contention last month, reporters crowded around Lackey's locker in an effort to interview him before he rode off into the sunset, but he shut that down immediately, waving off the Chicago media.

So if he does return to professional baseball, is a reunion in the cards for the Cubs and Lackey in 2018? 

The Cubs have two openings in their starting rotation and Lackey is a guy that can eat up innings as a quality No. 5 starter — he went 6-2 with a 3.82 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 8.3 K/9 in his last 12 starts of 2017.

But Lackey's year was also rocky, though that's probably to be expected of a guy who is ridiculously competitive and never hesitates to speak his mind.

He had an issue with Anthony Rizzo in the dugout in late July and was ejected in an epic tirade in mid-September. He also gave up the walk-off homer to Justin Turner in Game 2 of the NLCS and surrendered four runs on five hits and a pair of walks in 3.2 postseason innings as he was relegated to the bullpen.

At this point in his career, a move back to the American League would be at least a little head-scratching and the only two National League teams he's pitched for are the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals. It would make sense that he would prefer to return to a team, situation and city he's already familiar with, so the Cubs and Lester may have the inside track at retaining Lackey's services if they so choose.

But the Cubs also may want to get some fresh blood in the starting rotation rather than a quick fix that would probably only be for the 2018 campaign.

Looking ahead with Jon Lester as Cubs try to reload for another World Series run

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USA TODAY

Looking ahead with Jon Lester as Cubs try to reload for another World Series run

Jon Lester could never pick up a baseball again and the Cubs would still be satisfied with their $155 million investment. The parade down Michigan Avenue will always be worth it.

But 362 days later, Lester isn’t ready to spend all his time hunting in Georgia and playing celebrity golf events. The Cubs still absolutely need Lester’s presence and credibility. Not to prove that this franchise is serious about winning — the way his decision to sign with a last-place team after the 2014 season accelerated the rebuild — but to again anchor a rotation that might be at its most vulnerable point since those summers of flip deals.

Super-agent Scott Boras wants to keep all big-market teams in play for leverage — and Jake Arrieta is too savvy to completely rule out a return — but signs point to the Cy Young Award winner getting his nine-figure megadeal somewhere else. The expectation is John Lackey will retire and become the anti-David Ross, only popping up in Twitter photos when his family goes trick-or-treating with the Arrietas and Tommy La Stella. The farm system isn’t producing internal solutions anytime soon.

That leaves Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and two giant question marks for this winter, the Cubs likely pursuing one free-agent starter (Alex Cobb?) and trading from their surplus of hitters (Ian Happ?) to get a young pitcher and continue the momentum from three straight trips to the National League Championship Series.

“Everybody involved has done nothing but deliver on their promises to me when I signed here,” Lester said, crediting by name chairman Tom Ricketts, team president Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and manager Joe Maddon after the Los Angeles Dodgers dismantled the Cubs in the NLCS.

“I know you guys are probably sick of me by now, but I’ve got a guaranteed three more to go, so suck on that one,” Lester said, cracking up the reporters surrounding his locker inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse. “Hopefully, in those next three years, we’re able to maybe win another one or two. That’s up to these younger guys to carry my load on that one.”

Lester has credited Hendricks for the unmatched preparation that made him the Game 1 starter against the Washington Nationals in the first round of the playoffs, and raved about Quintana’s work ethic and personality since getting traded from the White Sox during the All-Star break.

But even with the blockbuster Quintana deal, the Cubs are still bracing for the possibility of replacing 40 percent of their rotation, at a time when Lester is about to turn 34 and coming off a season where he put up his lowest number of innings (180.2) since 2007 (when he was still recovering from a cancer diagnosis and lymphoma treatments). Lester’s 4.33 ERA was almost exactly the league average and his trip to the disabled list in the middle of August/early September was his first since 2011.

“Halfway through, I think we’re really happy with the first half of that deal,” Epstein said. “It’s been a really nice success for him and for us. That’s really the half of the deal that’s the key when you make those kinds of deals. If you don’t get return on the first half, you’re probably in trouble.

“You better get production in the first half of those deals — or it’s going to end up being a big mistake.”

The Cubs hope Lester can model Andy Pettitte, the left-handed pitcher he’s been compared to since coming up with the Boston Red Sox. Pettitte got some, uh, help, admitting to using human growth hormone while recovering from an elbow injury in 2002, his reputation stained in the Mitchell Report. But the overall picture of Pettitte is someone who won four World Series rings with the New York Yankees, accounted for 276-plus innings in the playoffs and started 30 times during his age-41 season.

No matter what happens from here, Lester has been worth every penny. No one else in the big leagues has made at least 30 starts in each of the last 10 seasons. He essentially averaged a strikeout per inning this season and is only a year removed from finishing second in the NL Cy Young vote.

“In Jon’s case, look, he still has all the characteristics that we think make him an effective pitcher and a reliable bet going forward,” Epstein said, “because his mechanics are still sound. His arm — he had a little bit of shoulder fatigue — but bounced back from that. Knock on wood, he’s avoided any kind of significant injury.

“He’s shown the ability to pitch — and pitch effectively —  without his best stuff on certain days when he doesn’t have it. He had a few uncharacteristic really rough outings this year and was prone to the long ball more than normal.

“But besides that, he had some really nice stretches where he was sort of everything we hoped he could be. We’re counting on him to be a really big part of our pitching staff moving forward.”

The bottom line is that Lester has guts and the Cubs have faith that he will somehow figure out a way to compete. He shut down Washington for six innings in Game 2, leaving with a 2-1 lead before a bullpen meltdown at Nationals Park. He retired the first 10 Washington hitters he faced as a Game 4 reliever at Wrigley Field, a sign of how much the Cubs wanted to win that day. Three days later, he exited a 1-1 NLCS game at Dodger Stadium in the fifth inning, which will be remembered for Justin Turner’s three-run walk-off homer against Lackey.

This will be an opportunity for Lester to show even more of his personality, take on a more vocal leadership role, work with a new pitching coach (Jim Hickey) and maybe even cement his spot in the Hall of Fame with another World Series run.

“I don’t really care what people say about me on the field,” Lester said. “I may be an a------. I may show my emotions too much. I might show up the umpire too many times. I may yell at hitters. I don’t really care. But in this clubhouse — with my guys and my team — that’s what drives me.

“When I walk away from this game — just like if John Lackey walks away — (I want) everybody in this clubhouse (to) say the exact same thing: ‘That sumb---- had our back.’

“At the end of the day, man, the stats and all that other BS, that’s great. But that’s what I want. That’s what I want my guys to say about me.”