Jon Lester, Edwin Jackson and a Cubs rotation that keeps rolling

Jon Lester, Edwin Jackson and a Cubs rotation that keeps rolling

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.

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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.”

Report: People around baseball believe Joe Girardi is waiting for managerial job with Cubs or White Sox


Report: People around baseball believe Joe Girardi is waiting for managerial job with Cubs or White Sox

Joe Girardi won't be the manager of the Cincinnati Reds in 2019, perhaps because he has hopes of landing a gig in Chicago.

According to Fancred's Jon Heyman, Girardi was in the running for the Reds' managerial job (which went to former Cubs third-base coach David Bell this weekend) but pulled himself out, this after interviewing for but not getting the same position with the Texas Rangers. Heyman cites "industry speculation" that Girardi might want to remain a free agent so he can land the job of skipper in Chicago.

Heyman is of course not specific, listing a city with two major league teams, leaving this open for interpretation as either the Cubs or the White Sox.

Obviously Girardi has a history on the North Side. He had two stints there as a player, from 1989 to 1992 and again from 2000 to 2002. Joe Maddon has one year remaining on his contract, and Cubs president Theo Epstein said during his end-of-season press conference that the team has not had discussions with Maddon about an extension. After managing the New York Yankees to their most recent World Series championship in 2009, Girardi might again want a crack at managing a big-market contender.

But if Girardi is simply itching to get back to his home state — he was born in Peoria and graduated from Northwestern — perhaps he has the White Sox on his wish list, too. Rick Renteria has one year remaining on his current contract, as well, and should the rebuilding White Sox see all their young talent turn into the contender they've planned, the manager of such a team would be an attractive position to hold.

But just because folks believe Girardi wants to manage in Chicago doesn't mean there'd be mutual interest. Despite Epstein's comments that there have been no extension talks with Maddon, the president of baseball operations also backed his manager in that same press conference, refusing to blame Maddon for the team's "broken" offense down the stretch last month. And Rick Hahn and the rest of White Sox brass heap frequent praise on the job Renteria has done in his two years, describing him as an important part of player development and of establishing a culture hoped to spread throughout the organization.

Plus, it's worth mentioning that Girardi's decade-long tenure in the Bronx came to an end amid suggestion that he was unable to connect with his young players. It's unknown how much of a realistic concern that would be for any team thinking about hiring him. But the recently fired Chili Davis believed that very issue was part of the reason his time as the Cubs' hitting coach came to an end. And there are few teams out there younger than the White Sox.

Again, it's just speculation for now. But if for some reason one or both Chicago teams don't hand out new contracts to their current managers, perhaps Girardi would be interested in an opening on either side of town.

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

A few weeks after we (the Cubs) were eliminated from the 2003 playoffs, I got a phone call from my college professor. Since it was officially the offseason, I was in the early stages of a break from following a pocket schedule to tell me where to be every day for nearly eight months.

But this was a man I could not refuse. I chose my college major to go into his field of transportation engineering and he was calling because he needed a teaching assistant to accompany him on his trip to South Africa.

One minute, I could barely move off of my couch in my Chicago apartment after losing Game 7 against the Marlins. The next minute, I would be standing within miles of the Southern most point in Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. Why not? I needed the distraction so I agreed to go.

The offseason is its own transition. Leaving the regimen of routine, of batting practice and bus times, to an open ended world that you have to re-learn again. When I finished my first full major league season in 1997, I lived in Streeterville at the Navy Pier Apartments.

That offseason, I decided to stay an extra month in Chicago only to wake up panicked for the first two weeks because I thought I was missing stretch time for a home day game. A major league schedule becomes etched in your DNA after a while.

It is also a time that you get to reflect. The regular season does not give you a moment to really get perspective on what was just accomplished, what it all means, what you would change. I always joked about the T-shirt I wanted to a sell that listed all of the things a major league player figures out during the off-season. From the perfect swing to the ex-girlfriend you need to un-break-up with next week.

It all becomes so clear when a 96 MPH fastball isn’t coming at you.

For years, I would arrange a training program to follow, but I quickly learned that I had to mix it up. There was only so much repetition I could stand in the off-season. So some years, I moved to the site of spring training and worked out early with the staff, other years I found a spot at home where I grew up or wherever I played during the season, to train.

I was single when I played, but now with a family, I have a better understanding of the challenges my teammates would express as they were re-engaging as a daily father again after this long absentee existence.

To keep it fresh and spicy, when I got older in the game, I enrolled in a dance studio and took a winter of dance lessons. Salsa, Foxtrot, Rumba, you name it. On Thursdays we had to dance for an hour straight, changing partners in the room every song change. Dancing with the Stars had nothing on me.

Of course, not every offseason is fun and games. There were years when I wasn’t sure I would have a job the next year, or I was in the throes of a trade rumor. In 1997, I was traded from the Cubs to the Phillies two days before Christmas. In 2002, my father passed away on the last game of the season, leading the offseason to be a time of mourning.

By my final season in 2005, I thought I was officially on my couch forever. I was going to fade away into oblivion like many players do. No fanfare, the phone just would stop ringing and I would just let the silence wash over me. The Yankees had called earlier in that off-season, acting like they were doing me a favor which I turned down, then they called back later with a more open tone, seeing me as a potential key piece in their outfield with Bernie Williams slowing down quite a bit at that point.

I did get off that couch for that call, only to get released the last week of camp, so I was back on the couch, with a fiancé and some extra salt in the wounds after that final meeting with Brian Cashman and Joe Torre, who boxed me into the coaches office to tell me I was released. Released? Come on. Never had that happen before.

The Cubs players will go through all of this if they have the good fortune of playing a long time. The wave of uncertainty, the meaning of age in this game spares no one. Each offseason is a time to reset, a period where you get away, seemingly adrift from the game, then as spring gets closer, the shoreline comes up in the horizon once again, magnetically drawing you to its shores for another season.

Amazingly, you don’t always know your age and what it has done to your body. 34 can’t be that old, right? I can still run, or throw 95. Then those 23-year-olds in camp are the wake up call, or maybe you are that 23-year-old and can’t believe your locker is next to Ryne Sandberg’s.

Then you blink, and you are advising Jimmy Rollins about etiquette and realize you have become that guy, the seasoned vet, preaching about locker room respect.

For the 2018 Cubs, they fell short of their goal to repeat their 2016 magic. Failed to meet their singular destination that meant success over all else. Yet, those who come back for 2019, will not be the same player, the same person, that left the locker room at the close this season. They will have grown, changed, aged, wizened up, rehabbed, hardened. All of which means that new perspective is the inevitable part of this time off, whether you like it or not.

Baseball is a game that has this unique dynamic. The highest intensity rhythm of any sport. Every day you are tested. You are pushed to the brink by sheer attrition. According to my teammate Ed Smith, who was playing third base at the time when Michael Jordan reached third, Jordan, after playing well over 100 games in a row, said to him “Man, I have never been this tired in my entire life.”

The grind.

Then it stops on a dime. Season over. Only on baseball’s terms.

But you may be granted another spring. Another crack at it. Until one day, the baseball winter never ends and its time for you to plant your own spring.