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."