Why Cubs bet $155 million on Jon Lester's left elbow


Why Cubs bet $155 million on Jon Lester's left elbow

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.”

[MORE: Joe Maddon lets Cubs lay down the law in clubhouse]

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.”

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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.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 31st homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 31st homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Sosa's 18th homer of June and 31st of the season came off the Tigers in the Cubs' brief 2-game Interleague series in Detroit. 

Sosa connected in the first inning off Tigers starter Seth Greisinger, going back-to-back with Mickey Morandini. 

The Cubs wound up getting out to a 5-0 start in the game but still lost 7-6 on a Gabe Alvarez single in the bottom of the 11th.

The aforementioned Morandini homer was only the 3rd of the season for the Cubs second baseman. He finished with 8 homers on the year and 224 total bases on 172 hits in what was a very good offensive season. Yet it paled in comparison to Sosa, who had nearly 200 more total bases (416) and a slugging percentage nearly 200 points above Morandini's (.647 to .471), a testament to how truly incredible Sosa's season was.

Fun fact: Tony Clark was the Tigers' cleanup hitter that day. Clark is now the head of the MLB Players Union.

Fun fact No. 2: Paul Bako was the Detroit catcher in the game. He later became the Cubs backup catcher in 2003 and 2004, when he posted a .611 OPS in 119 games over the two years.

Maddon gets funky with bullpen, calls catcher Chris Gimenez to mound


Maddon gets funky with bullpen, calls catcher Chris Gimenez to mound

The Cubs continued their recent struggles, suffering their third straight loss to the Cincinnati Reds. 

But the game was not without its fair share of drama. The matchup was a back-and-forth affair, up until the Reds blew the game wide-open in the bottom of the third inning. This included a grand slam by Reds pitcher Anthony DeSclafani, the first home run of his career.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon turned to the bullpen following Cincinnati's third inning explosion, and things did not get much better from there.

With the Cubs down six runs in the bottom of the eight inning, Maddon brought in catcher Chris Gimenez to pitch. 

This was not new territory for Gimenez, who despite being a catcher, now has 10 MLB pitching appearances to his name. 

Down six runs, Gimenez didn't have a lot to lose. But Reds first basemen Joey Votto hammered a fastball in the zone for his eighth homer of the year.

Gimenez had a career ERA of 8.00 before Saturday's appearance, and he certainly didn't do much to help lower that figure.

According to ESPN's Jesse Rogers: "Including one today, Cubs relievers have allowed 41.1 percent of inherited runners to score in June, sixth most in the NL." 

A tired bullpen is certainly cause for concern for the Cubs, who are locked into a battle in the NL Central with the Brewers and Cardinals. Maddon was surely hoping to keep his bullpen arms fresh with the move, seeing as the game was already out of reach. 

So yes, the game did end in a 11-2 win for the Reds. But with a grand-slam by a pitcher—on his first career HR no less—and four-seam fastballs from a catcher, Cubs baseball always keep things interesting.