SAN DIEGO – The Cubs completely whiffed in their evaluation of Edwin Jackson and still built the best rotation in baseball, one filled with Cy Young Award candidates.
Whether or not This Is The Year, the Cubs will feel confident in any October matchup, even with John Lackey (strained right shoulder) on the disabled list, reliever Rob Zastryzny (2013 second-round pick) finally becoming the first pitcher from the Theo Epstein regime’s five draft classes to play for the big-league club and Jackson on his third team since getting released last summer in the middle of a $52 million contract.
The Cubs kept rolling through this summer of great expectations with Monday night’s 5-1 win over the San Diego Padres at Petco Park, or about a mile from the Manchester Grand Hyatt, where team executives did shots in a hotel bar to toast the $155 million Jon Lester megadeal during the 2014 winter meetings.
Lester limited a rebuilding (again) Padres team to one run across six innings, giving the Cubs 15 quality starts through 20 games this month. The rotation has gone 13-1 with a 1.89 ERA in August, making the downturn that gave Cubs fans and the Chicago media All-Star-break fodder seem like ancient history.
Lester’s All-Star season in Year 2 (14-4, 2.81 ERA) might get more attention if Jake Arrieta (15-5, 2.75 ERA) wasn’t the National League’s defending Cy Young Award winner and Kyle Hendricks (2.16) didn’t lead the majors in ERA. Take away two bad starts – a 10-2 loss to the New York Mets and Sunday’s clunker at Coors Field – and Jason Hammel would be 13-4 with a 2.14 ERA. Not that Lester – who comes from the Lackey School of Big Boy Games and Not Coming Here for a Haircut – feels overlooked.
“I don’t really care,” Lester said. “I don’t care what’s being said or what’s being looked at or whatever. I just try to do my job. That’s all I worry about. At the end of the year – like I’ve said before – the main number for me that I’m always concerned about is 200 innings. So if that’s there, then all the other stuff is kind of gravy.”
Lester has accounted for 154 innings this year and his 20 quality starts are tied for the major-league lead with Justin Verlander and Madison Bumgarner. Not that Lester – who brought a sense of purpose and a competitive drive into this clubhouse – is satisfied with that or happy with a 100-pitch count on a night where he had bat-breaking stuff.
“I don’t really like quality starts,” Lester said. “I think it’s kind of a made-up stat that helps guys that don’t go deep into ballgames. I think quality starts should go to the seventh inning.”
Jackson – who went 16-34 with a 5.37 ERA in a Cubs uniform and whose four-year deal will finally come off the books after this season – couldn’t navigate this lineup. Jackson got through five innings and gave up five runs, including homers to Addison Russell (18), Kris Bryant (32) and Jason Heyward (after a Joe Maddon-imposed four-game mental break).
“I wasn’t here when Eddie came in, but I can understand why the guys did it,” said Maddon, who managed Jackson with the Tampa Bay Rays. “He’s got that kind of ability, man. It’s in there. There’s no question it’s in there.
“He’s had a couple really wonderful years where expectations and reality came together. But overall with him, it’s just a matter of command and where his fastball is going. Stuff-wise, athletically speaking, he is one of the better young pitcher athletes to come around in a long time.”
That never happened in Chicago. The Cubs once dreamed about Jackson’s under-30 potential, giving a long-term deal to a player who had already bounced around to seven different teams. The Cubs understood you have to take risks in the free-agent market and projected a durable right arm. The Cubs got a good clubhouse dude who’s not a front-of-the-rotation leader.
Lesson learned. In Lester, Epstein’s front office could leverage all their shared history with the Boston Red Sox – makeup, medical, big-market/championship experience – and have a much better idea of the return on that investment.
“He’s just been really rolling them out there,” Maddon said. “Game after game after game, you kind of know what to expect from him right now.”