Focused on winning big with Cubs, John Lackey doesn’t care what you think

Focused on winning big with Cubs, John Lackey doesn’t care what you think

In the middle of a sit-down interview near the end of spring training, Theo Epstein noticed John Lackey and called out: “I’m just saying nice things about you.”

“Oh Jesus,” Lackey said, stopping for a moment in between the Cubs clubhouse and the weight room at the team’s Arizona complex. 

Epstein kept talking: “You don’t give a f--- what people think. And that’s why…”

“That’s a good point,” Lackey said with a smile. “That’s a fact.”

Epstein laughed and turned back to the reporter sitting at a patio table: “Ask any clubhouse he’s ever been in — he’s beloved by the other 24 guys.”

The last time he pitched at Wrigley Field, a raucous crowd chanted “LACK-EY! LACK-EY!” after he gave up a thunderous three-run homer to Javier Baez in the National League divisional round, the Cubs eliminating the St. Louis Cardinals in their first-ever playoff matchup in a rivalry that stretches all the way back to 1892.

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Lackey should get a warmer reception on Wednesday night when he faces the Cincinnati Reds and makes his first start in a Cubs uniform at Clark and Addison. If not, hey, he’s not angling for a media gig in his post-playing career or worrying if the bleacher bums will boo him.

“I just think it’s irrelevant,” Lackey said. “Who cares? As long as the guys in here feel a certain way about me, I’m good.”

The Cubs wanted an edgier personality to push their pitching staff and enhance their clubhouse chemistry. Lackey called Chicago his favorite city as a visiting player and knew enough people inside the organization that he didn’t even string his free-agent decision out to the winter meetings.

As president of baseball operations, Epstein has autonomy over scouting, player development and the big-league product, the aura that comes from the two World Series teams he helped build for the Boston Red Sox and the expectation that he will soon become the highest-paid personnel executive in the game. 

In Chicago, seemingly every waiver claim, trade throw-in and faded Red Sox prospect became a chance to look at the roster churn and find deeper meaning in The Plan. Like the T-shirts said after he arrived in October 2011: “In Theo We Trust.”

That made the mixed reactions to the Lackey signing on Twitter so interesting. Even Epstein noticed the hot takes on social media after closing a two-year, $32 million deal that looked very reasonable in an overheated pitching market.

“He’s someone who doesn’t spend any time whatsoever trying to manicure his reputation anywhere besides inside the clubhouse,” said Epstein, who had put together a five-year, $82.5 million contract for Lackey in Boston. “He doesn’t care what the media thinks. He doesn’t care what the fans think. 

[MORE: Before and after: What a difference for red-hot Cubs at Wrigley Field]

“So that combined with his intense demeanor on the mound, I think he’s perceived — as someone from the outside looking in — as like this big brute who must be a tough guy to get along with. 

“And the reality is — ask anyone who’s ever played with him — he’s beloved inside the clubhouse.”

Lackey pitched Game 4 for the Cardinals on short rest last October, and teammates appreciate how he always wants to take the ball. It’s the way he made 28 starts and accounted for 160 innings with the Red Sox in 2011 — and then had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.    

Manager Joe Maddon — the Anaheim Angels bench coach when Lackey beat Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series — compared the 6-foot-6 Texan to John Wayne. 

“He’s a fun guy to have around, actually,” veteran catcher Miguel Montero said. “He’s a guy that you hate when you played against him. I never thought he was a nice guy. The way he is, I mean, I never thought he was a really good guy. I didn’t really like him. And (I find out) he’s a great teammate.”

Some of this is inevitable when you pitch almost 2,500 innings in The Show, perform in 15 playoff series (8-5, 3.11 ERA) and have that snarling demeanor on the mound. 

Just ask Jon Lester, Lackey’s close friend through the turbulence in Boston who also helped the 2013 Red Sox go worst-to-first and win a World Series title.

[RELATED: Joe Maddon doesn't think new Wrigley clubhouse will turn Cubs soft] 

“Lack sometimes gets a bad rap,” Lester said. “I would imagine I’m not liked too much on the other side. I think when you compete against guys — and he’s been around a long, long time — you just end up getting that kind of stigma.

“Listen, when we’re pitching, we’re grinding. We’re yelling and spitting and screaming and hollering. Just like in life, you have different personalities when it comes (to) playing (the game). 

“Jake (Arrieta) doesn’t show emotion. You never see him show emotion. I actually envy guys like that. Their face never changes and it’s just hard for guys like me and (Lackey). We wear our emotions on the sleeve.”

The Angels drafted Lackey with the 68th overall pick in 1999 — or five years after shortstop Addison Russell was born. Lackey made his big-league debut in June 2002 — against a Texas Rangers lineup that featured Alex Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez and Rafael Palmeiro.

“When you’re on the other side – especially when somebody’s good — you want to beat them,” Lester said. “When somebody has a name and they’ve established themselves, you always watch them a little bit more.

“Once you have a name and (some success), guys start nitpicking at things that stand out and bother them. But I would put money on it: There’s not one person that he’s ever played with that would have a bad thing to say about him.”

If Lackey doesn’t obsess over his legacy at the age of 37, he’s still aware of how he will be remembered if he’s part of the Cubs team that finally wins the World Series for the first time since 1908.  

“Coming here was a chance to make history,” Lackey said. “Choosing to do something special was a factor, for sure. It’s something I thought about. Hopefully, we get it done.”

Maybe the early exit was just what the Cubs needed

Maybe the early exit was just what the Cubs needed

A year ago, the Cubs world was in essentially the exact same place — trying to find answers for a season that ended earlier than expected.

There was only one difference: Time.

The 2018 Cubs woke up on the morning of Oct. 22 having been out of action almost three full weeks. That's a long time in terms of decompressing, letting your body heal and evaluating what went wrong.

A year ago today, Ben Zobrist was in the midst of trying to heal his ailing wrist after a third straight trip deep into the postseason.

A year ago today, Theo Epstein was roughly 48 hours removed from his annual end-of-season eulogy.

A year ago today, Kris Bryant was trying to catch his breath after what he called the most draining campaign of his life.

Yet we woke up Monday morning 19 full days removed from the latest iteration of Epstein's end-of-season eulogy, Zobrist is making light-hearted Instagram videos and Bryant is already nearly three weeks into the process of letting his left shoulder heal completely and adding strength.

Of course, that trio of Cubs figures would gladly trade in these extra few weeks of time off for another shot at the NL pennant, even if they fell short in the NLCS again.

Still, there's a lot of value in extra time off, especially after three straight falls where they went deep into October playing high-stress baseball. The Cubs absolutely will go in 2019 much fresher than they went into this year's spring training.

For example, Jon Lester threw 8.1 fewer innings this October than 2017 and 29.2 fewer innings than 2016. Zobrist played 8 fewer games this October than 2018 and 16 fewer than 2016 (he also won the World Series in 2015 as a member of the Kansas City Royals). That matters when players' ages start creeping up into the mid-to-late 30s.

It shouldn't take the sting out of the disappointing end to 2018 for the Cubs or their fans, but extra time off for these guys is certainly not a bad thing. 

The Cubs have already gotten the ball rolling on offseason changes, including replacing Chili Davis at hitting coach with Anthony Iapoce

On top of that, each individual player has now had enough time to evaluate why or how they went wrong offensively down the stretch.

"A full winter — especially this extra month that we unfortunately have — is a luxury in baseball," Epstein said. "There are things that come up all the time during the course of the season with teams and with individual players that you say, 'We'd love to address.' But that's so hard to address during the season because there's always another game tomorrow. 

"Guys are surviving. We have to wait 'til the offseason, then we can get right physically, then we can wade into the mental game, then we can address this swing change, then we can handle this fundamental. Well, we now have that luxury — unfortunately — of a full offseason. How do we take full advantage of this so we're never in this position again?

"We don't want to be a part of an offensive collapse in the second half again. We don't want to be part of losing a division lead late again. We don't want to be part of looking back and recognizing that, gosh, maybe a greater sense of urgency from Game 1 through 162 would've led to one more game and then we're still playing. We don't want to be part of that ever again, so we need to make good use of this time."

The early exit also helps to create a chip on the shoulder for each member of the organization. It's hard to see the Cubs spending much time in 2019 lacking the same "urgency" they had this summer. The painful NL Wild-Card loss will leave a bad taste in their mouths that can carry over all the way until next October. 

Like Lester said, sometimes you "need to get your dick knocked in the dirt in order to appreciate where you're at." 

We saw that play out on the North Side of Chicago from 2015 into 2016 and Cole Hamels has seen this script before with a young core of players in Philadelphia.

In 2007, the Phillies made the playoffs, but were swept out of the NLDS by the Colorado Rockies. They rebounded to win the World Series the next fall over Joe Maddon's Tampa Bay Rays.

"That [2007 sweep] really kind of taught us what the postseason experience was and what it was to not just play to the end of the season and instead to play to the end of the postseason," Hamels said. "This is a tremendous experience for a lot of guys and you have to go through the hardships before you get to enjoy the big moments.

"I know there's a lot of players here that have won a World Series, but there's also a lot that didn't have that sort of participation that you would kind of look towards, so I think this is great for them. 

"It's exciting to see what they're gonna be able to do next year and the year after that because this is a tremendous team here with the talent that they have. It's gonna be a great couple years."

Should the Cubs bring Daniel Murphy back in 2019?

Should the Cubs bring Daniel Murphy back in 2019?

With MLB Hot Stove season about 10 days away, Cubs fans are on the edge of their seats waiting to see how Theo Epstein's front office will reshape an underperforming lineup this winter.

The first step in that will be determining if there is a future with Daniel Murphy in Chicago and if so, what that future might entail. 

Murphy's introduction to the North Side fanbase was rocky, but he drew rave reviews from his teammates and coaches for how he conducted himself in the month-and-a-half he wore a Cubs uniform. 

He also filled a serious hole in the Cubs lineup, hitting .297 with an .800 OPS in 35 games (138 at-bats) while spending most of his time in the leadoff spot, helping to set the tone. Extrapolating Murphy's Cubs tenure over 550 plate appearances, it would be good for 23 homers, 86 runs, 49 RBI and 23 doubles over a full season. That would be worth 3.4 WAR by FanGraphs' measure, which would've ranked third on the Cubs among position players in 2018 behind only Javy Baez (5.3 WAR) and Ben Zobrist (3.6). (By comparison, Baseball Reference rated Murphy a -0.2 WAR player with the Cubs due to a much worse rating on defense.) 

Murphy's performance defensively at second base left quite a bit to be desired, but it's also worth pointing out he had major surgery on his right knee last fall. The procedure wasn't just a cleanup — he had microfracture surgery and cartilage debridement and wasn't able to return to the field until the middle of June this summer despite an Oct. 20, 2017 surgery.

The Cubs will begin the 2019 season without a clear, everyday choice at second base and the lineup can use a guy like Murphy, who has a great approach each time up and leads baseball with a .362 batting average with runners in scoring position since the start of the 2016 season.

So could a reunion be in the cards?

"I wouldn't rule anything out," Epstein said the day after the Cubs' 2018 campaign ended prematurely. "It was a pleasure having Daniel here. He did a lot to right our offense right after he got here and contribute while being asked to play a bigger role than we envisioned when we got him because of some other injuries, because of our lack of performance offensively and then because of the schedule. He was asked to play a lot more than expected, than probably he was ready to based on the proximity to his knee surgery.

"So I think he's gonna have a real beneficial offseason, get even stronger and be ready to contribute next year. Which league that's in and for what team remains to be seen. But I certainly think he acquitted himself well here, was REALLY respected by his teammates. Our guys loved talking hitting with him. It was a daily occurrence. Long discussions about hitting with him, picking his brain. 

"We look a lot better with him than without him, so I wouldn't rule anything out."

There's a lot to unpack here. Epstein was refreshingly honest throughout his whole press conference and that continued with regards to Murphy.

For starters, notice how Epstein first said he wasn't sure "what league" Murphy will be playing in. The Cubs president of baseball operations is typically extremely measured when speaking with the public and he almost never says anything by accident.

Murphy will turn 34 April 1 and was never renowned as an elite fielder even before that major knee surgery. Meaning: The writing has been on the wall for over a year that the veteran may be best suited for a designated hitter role with his new contract and Epstein is clearly well aware of that perception/narrative.

The other aspect of Epstein's comments is how he began and ended his statement on Murphy — that he wouldn't rule anything out and the Cubs obviously thought it was a successful pairing.

It's hard to argue with that on the offensive side of things and his impact was also felt off the field, where he was praised often by his teammates and coaches for talking hitting with younger players like Ian Happ and David Bote. 

Imagine how the final 6 weeks of the season would've looked had the Cubs not acquired Murphy in the middle of August to agument the lineup. The Brewers would've probably nabbed the division lead well before a Game 163.

Still, Murphy's hitting prowess both on and off the field wasn't enough to help the Cubs lineup avoid a slide that led to a date with the couch before the NLDS even began. Epstein's statement about how the Cubs "look a lot better" with Murphy than without is probably more about how fresh the sting was from the inept offense that managed just 2 runs scored in 22 innings in the final two games of the season.

Given his consistency the last few years, his advanced approach at the plate and his (recent) unrivaled ability to come through in key spots, Murphy's bat would be a welcome addition to any Cubs lineup moving forward. 

But it would still be tough to fit Murphy on the Cubs' 2019 roster for a variety of reasons. 

For starters, if the Cubs truly have a desire to write out a more consistent lineup next year, it's tough to add another aging veteran to a mix that already includes Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 next year), especially when they both spend a majority of their time at the same position (second base) and shouldn't be considered everyday players at this stage in their respective careers.

Murphy's defense/range also doesn't figure to get much better as he ages — even with an offseason to get his knee back up to 100 percent health — and second base is a key spot for run prevention, especially in turning double plays with a pitching staff that induces a lot of contact and groundballs.

Offensively, Murphy isn't perfect, either. He's never walked much, but in 2018, he posted his lowest walk rate since 2013. He also struck out 15.7 percent of the time in a Cubs uniform and while that's a small sample size, it still represents his highest K% since his rookie 2008 season (18.5 percent). 

Then there's the splits — the left-handed Murphy hit just .238 with a .564 OPS vs. southpaws in 2018, a far cry from the .319 average and .864 OPS he posted against right-handed pitchers. That was a steep drop-off from the previous three seasons (2015-17), in which he put up a .296 average and .810 OPS against lefties.

Add it all up and Murphy's potential fit with the 2019 Cubs is questionable at best, especially if an American League team hands him more money and years to come DH for them and hit near the top of their order.

But like Epstein said, don't rule anything out.