Cubs

How John Lackey could come back to Cubs and strengthen 2018 rotation: ‘Never say never’

How John Lackey could come back to Cubs and strengthen 2018 rotation: ‘Never say never’

MESA, Ariz. – There's always been an obvious difference between how John Lackey is perceived by the outside world and inside the clubhouse. 

"Really?" Jon Lester said sarcastically.

Yeah, that's breaking Cubs news, but Lackey has seemed a little goofy this spring, or at least more eager to fire off one-liners at the media, zinging David Ross for saying 'yes' to everything in retirement and slamming the idea of a Grandpa-style farewell tour, saying he just won't show up the next year. 

"That's a fact," Lackey said with a laugh after looking sharp during Saturday afternoon's 6-4 win over Team Japan at Sloan Park. "I promise you."

This might only last until the first time the best-in-baseball defense doesn't turn what Lackey thinks is a double play. It shouldn't be interpreted as Lackey turning soft after getting sized for his third World Series ring. 
 
But between the Lester bromance, a talented, professional young core that lives up to his old-school code and a Cubs rotation that could be in tatters after this season, Lackey is going to keep his options open. 

"At this point, I think I'm more likely to pitch next year than not pitch," Lackey said. "But we'll see at the end of the season."   

In front of 14,204 in Mesa, Lackey gave up one run across five innings against a Japanese team heading to the World Baseball Classic semifinals at Dodger Stadium. Between the command, experience and velocity, Jake Arrieta predicted Lackey could pitch another three years if he wanted.   

"A couple years might be a stretch," Lackey said. "But we'll see. I'm just going to pitch this season (first)." 

After that, the Cubs could be looking at replacing at least 40 percent of their rotation, the assumption being super-agent Scott Boras will negotiate a megadeal for Arrieta somewhere else. As for Lackey, he will be 39 on Opening Day 2018, more than six years removed from Tommy John surgery at that point.  
   
"Never say never," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "This guy's been defying Father Time for a while."

Lackey recovered from the procedure on his right elbow and rehabbed his image around Fenway Park, helping the Boston Red Sox win the 2013 World Series. Since getting traded to the St. Louis Cardinals and signing a two-year, $32 million deal with the Cubs, Lackey has thrived in the National League, going 27-21 with a 3.20 ERA in 72 starts.

"The way his career's been set up, it almost feels like two different careers," Hoyer said. "He had the great run before he got hurt. He had some struggles in Boston when he was hurt, but he had the surgery, and he's been a really good pitcher ever since. His work ethic is fantastic. 

"It's not a decision that you make right now. But certainly we love having him. I think his edge, his swagger is fantastic for our team. And we're certainly glad that we signed him last winter." 

Like Lackey famously said, he didn't come here for a haircut. If he wants more jewelry, this might be the place. 

"Any time you're with a new team for the first time," Lester said, "you want to prove: 'Hey, this is why I'm good,' regardless of the contract that you've signed. I think that was part of it. I think he kind of wanted to fit in here and prove who he was and all that stuff.

"I get the same 'Lack' regardless. I know when to stay away from him – and when to poke him with the cattle prod a little bit and get him going."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Jon Lester struggles against the division-rival Cardinals

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Jon Lester struggles against the division-rival Cardinals

It was a tough day for the North Siders.

The Cubs got obliterated by the Cardinals as Matt Carpenter had a three-homer, two-double day. Ben Finfer, Seth Gruen and Maggie Hendricks join David Kaplan on the latest SportsTalk Live Podcast to talk about the blowout.

Was Jon Lester due for this kind of terrible outing? And do the Cubs have enough to swing a big trade before the deadline?

Plus, the panel discusses Matt Nagy’s first training camp practice in the rain and Roquan Smith’s absence in Bourbonnais.

You can listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Jon Lester saw a start like this coming

Jon Lester saw a start like this coming

Jon Lester had easily his worst outing of the year, allowing the Cardinals to score eight runs on seven hits, the veteran All-Star only managed three innings before Joe Maddon turned to his bullpen. 

The Cardinals would take game two of the series by the score of 18 to 5, and while none of the Cubs pitchers could silence the Cardinal bats, Lester didn't shy away from his poor outing. 

"You know, I don't want to chalk this up as bad days happen," said Lester. "I think mechanically this has kinda been coming." 

Lester knew he was struggling to hit his spots, and while his ERA was a sparkling 2.58 coming into this start, his peripheral stats had him pegged as a potential regression candidate in the second half of the season.

His 4.35 FIP and 3.30 walks per nine innings show a pitcher who is relying heavily on his defense to get outs, which isn't surprising for a 33-year-old veteran but the walks are a concern. 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon was aware Lester had been working on his mechanics, but even he was surprised that Lester's start went downhill so quickly. 

"I thought he had good stuff to start the game, hitting [92-93 mph] and I'm thinking this might be a good day," said Maddon. "But you could just see from the beginning he was off just a little bit." 

Over Lester's last four starts his ERA has been an uncharacteristic 4.57, issuing 10 walks over those four starts, and only making it past the 6th inning once. At this point of Lester's career, he knows the best way for him to get outs isn't through strikeouts but by inducing soft contact and avoiding walks. 

And while both his hard contact rate and walks have increased this season, Lester's experience and high baseball I.Q. has allowed him to navigate his way through sticky situations. 

"I've been getting outs," Lester said candidly. "I just feel like when I've had that strikeout or I have a guy set up for that pitch I haven't been able to execute it." 

And while this outing was one to forget, it's at least a positive sign that Lester is aware of his issues on the mound. The veteran knows how to get outs and he knows what he needs to do to be successful in the latter part of his career. He just needs to get back to executing those pitches. 

Just don't expect Lester to dive head first into the analytics on how to fix his issues, he'll stick to hard work and baseball common sense. 

"I'm not too concerned with the analytic B.S., I'm worried about my mechanical fix for my next start."