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.”

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:


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