MESA, Ariz. — Jon Lester doesn’t worry about what-if scenarios or how his $155 million contract might end with the Cubs.
Medical technology has advanced to the point where reading MRIs is essentially just as much art as science, trying to make an educated guess when the ticking time bomb might explode.
As Lester said: “You can take any pitcher in this game that’s pitched as long as I have and stick him in a tube – you’re going to find something.”
That’s what happened early in Lester’s free-agent process after the 2014 season, as first reported by Yahoo! Sports baseball columnist Jeff Passan in his upcoming book “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports.”
“The ultrasound on Lester’s elbow confirmed the presence of something he long suspected lurked inside: a bone chip,” Passan wrote. “The UCL itself looked fine, thankfully, and the range of motion…was better than expected, but a little grenade floated near his ligament, and at some point it would warrant surgery.”
Lester understood the questions after throwing five innings during Sunday afternoon’s 5-2 win over the Kansas City Royals at Sloan Park. He recently read the chapter – “Pay the Man” – that reconstructs how the Boston Red Sox insulted him with a lowball offer and why Theo Epstein’s front office made such a personal recruiting pitch.
“There is stuff that every other pitcher in this game has to manage,” Lester said. “We all know that there are partial tears and ligament weaknesses and bone chips and any other thing you can imagine that’s probably wrong with us.
“But it’s all about what you can do effectively on that mound.”
The Cubs wanted Lester’s big-market, big-game experience – he won two World Series rings with the Red Sox – and bet on his left-handed delivery and 6-foot-4, 240-pound body.
Lester has topped the 200-inning mark in seven of his last eight seasons, making 30-plus starts for eight consecutive years and earning three All-Star selections.
“Regardless of what an MRI shows, you can throw a pitch and blow out,” Lester said. “That’s the risk of the game. I’ve been pitching a long time. I’ve dealt with different (things) through the years.
“I think my track record speaks for itself. And I haven’t missed any time for any elbow problems. Knock on wood.”
The Cubs went into this with their eyes wide open, knowing the history of nine-figure contracts for pitchers is littered with bad investments and understanding they would have to overpay someone to front the rotation and accelerate this rebuilding process.
Epstein’s Boston-centric baseball-operations department had unique insight and a comfort level after watching Lester grow up in the Red Sox organization and beat a form of lymphoma.
Lester is now 32 years old, with full no-trade rights and a guaranteed contract that runs through the 2020 season.
“I read what Theo said,” Lester said. “He hit the nail on the head when it comes down to knowing me — and knowing my strength program — and how I go about my work. And what I try to do in between starts — and the offseason — to maintain a healthy body and a healthy arm.
“To be honest, I don’t think I would have failed the physical. But I think that (eased) Theo’s mind, knowing where I came from, being with him for so long and what I’ve been through and the work that I put in every five days to be prepared to pitch.
“If you look back on (my) DL time (in) the big leagues, it’s been for two things — cancer and a lat strain — so there hasn’t been any elbow problems. I don’t think it was a huge issue for those guys.”
Lester’s mental block throwing to first base is an issue, and he made another error on Sunday against the Kansas City team that forced the tempo during the 2014 American League wild-card game.
But Lester still looked sharp enough against the defending World Series champs, allowing two runs (one earned) with four strikeouts and one walk in front of a record crowd (15,523) for spring training.
“I think he’s throwing the ball as well as I’ve ever seen him,” said manager Joe Maddon, who guided the Tampa Bay Rays as Lester began to make his mark in the AL East. “His delivery is as good as I’ve seen. It’s clean. The arm stroke is beautiful. The cutter is there.
“Regarding any kind of discomfort in his arm, I’m not aware of that. I’m not aware of that at all. Jonny’s kind of a tough guy. He’s a quiet guy. I think he’s in a good place. So until he talks to me about his arm being uncomfortable, I’m fine with what I’m seeing.”