Cubs

Why Cubs bet big on Jon Lester (and won’t look back)

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Why Cubs bet big on Jon Lester (and won’t look back)

Why have you been so durable throughout your career?

Jon Lester listened to that question after the Cubs revealed their $155 million lefty had been dealing with a “dead arm” in spring training. He shrugged his shoulders and paused for a few seconds, searching for an answer he couldn’t find.

“I don’t know,” Lester said at least four times. “Luck?”

Lester is obviously better than what he’s shown Cubs fans in April (0-2, 6.23 ERA), and he will get a chance to prove that on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field against the Milwaukee Brewers.

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The bigger issue is how a 31-year-old pitcher holds up across the next six seasons. The Cubs went into this with their eyes wide open, betting Lester would age gracefully and become their version of Andy Pettitte.

Remember how the Cubs planned an entire offseason around waiting for Masahiro Tanaka, only to have the New York Yankees blow them away with a $175 million investment?

Well, the Yankees put Tanaka on the disabled list this week with a strained right forearm and tendinitis in his right wrist – after shutting him down last season with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, the kind of injury that usually signals Tommy John surgery. 

Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish – another Japanese pitcher the Cubs once bid on – is already recovering from his Tommy John surgery. The Philadelphia Phillies don’t know if Cliff Lee’s left elbow will allow the Cy Young Award winner to throw another pitch again. One season into a six-year, $105 million contract, the Cincinnati Reds aren’t sure if Homer Bailey will need the Tommy John procedure.

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If Theo Epstein isn’t numb to that kind of news by now, the Cubs president of baseball operations certainly understands the odds and realizes no one is immune to the epidemic.

“You know it going in,” Epstein said. “That’s why we just kind of curse ourselves up and down for even considering big money on free-agent pitchers at the beginning of every offseason. Because you know the injury risk and you don’t want to do it. But at some point you kind of have to.

“If you don’t want to bet on first-round pitchers, because the position players are a safe bet, and you don’t want to bet on young pitchers as the headliners in trades because you can get guys like Addison Russell back, then you can’t sit there and hold your nose on free-agent pitching and say no.

“You’ll end up with no pitching. You have to do it one way or the other. I will say this: The worst part of the job is the fear of the phone ringing and it being a trainer with franchise-altering news about one of your pitchers. That (bleeping) sucks living with that every day. But it’s part of the game. It’s the same for everybody.”    

The Cubs bet on Lester because they understood his personality, medical history, work ethic and family values through all their Boston Red Sox connections. It’s hard to argue with the track record: 30-plus starts in each of the last seven seasons, and at least 200 innings every year except for 2011, when he threw 191.2.  

“The kid answers the bell every five days,” Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona said. “He keeps himself in phenomenal shape. Loves to pitch. It’s scary, I think, for teams to give away that kind of money. But…I’d have a hard time finding somebody you would (rather) give it to. He’s phenomenal in just about every aspect of everything he does.”

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Francona grew close to Lester while managing the Red Sox amid all the drama at Fenway Park. Lester got the cancer diagnosis during the 2006 season, beat anaplastic large cell lymphoma and then won the clinching game of the 2007 World Series against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field.

The Cubs got Russell in the Fourth of July deal for Jeff Samardzija, who immediately noticed Lester’s consistency when the rental pitcher joined the Oakland A’s after a deadline trade from Boston.

“The dude’s a horse,” said Samardzija, now pitching for the White Sox in his walk year and expecting to sign his own nine-figure contract. “You look in this league, there are 30, 40 horses out there that you write a check for.

“You just close your eyes, because you know that no matter what amount you pay ‘em, they’re going to go do their job and it’s going to be a good investment. If I was an owner, the No. 1 thing that I would want is wherever I spend my money, when it’s all said and done, I was happy who I gave it to and how it was spent.

“I think they’re going to be very happy with what they get out of Jonny. He’s not going to shut it down. He’s not going to be content. And I think that’s what it’s all about, being that same guy you were when you were a rookie.”

Lester is obsessive with his routine, trying to throw the exact same bullpen sessions and warm-up pitches, whether it’s preparing for a minor-league scrimmage or the World Series.

Otherwise, Lester thinks, the emotions would get out of control. That tunnel vision has probably helped him stay healthy, though it doesn’t completely explain or guarantee his durability.     

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“We all have things that we deal with through the season that come up,” Lester said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to kind of, I guess, minimize those things to where I’m still able to pitch.

“If I had an answer, I could give it to guys that struggle with being healthy. But I don’t (have an answer). I just try to (go for) as many starts as I can. That’s all I try to worry about.” 

It hasn’t been the first impression the Cubs wanted, but the last word will belong to Lester, who has a career 2.57 ERA in 84 postseason innings and those two World Series rings from the Red Sox.

“Some guys start fast and finish terrible,” Lester said. “Other guys start slow and finish good. So I’d rather be the latter. That’s what you play for – the end of the year.” 

No momentum yet on potential Cubs-Zobrist reunion

No momentum yet on potential Cubs-Zobrist reunion

SAN DIEGO — Theo Epstein's front office has a lot of difficult decisions to make this winter, but Ben Zobrist has yet to come up with his own tough answers.

The 2016 World Series MVP is currently a free agent after wrapping up his four-year deal with the Cubs. He played a major role on the team in September following a four-month absence to deal with a family matter. 

Zobrist, 38, said at the end of the season that he was unsure if he would call it quits after an impressive career or return for another season on the diamond. More than two months since he last put on a uniform, he still has not reached an answer:

If he does play another season, it would have to be in the right situation for his family. He's made enough money in his career and accomplished plenty — including hoisting a couple championship trophies — but he clearly still had the drive and desire to play, as he said in his September return.

The Cubs figure to be on the short list of teams that would make sense for Zobrist given the mutual familiarity, a home in Chicago and how the entire organization supported him as he stepped away from the team to address his personal life.

It would seem to fit from the Cubs' perspective as well, since they talked all season long about how they missed Zobrist's professional at-bats and his presence inside the clubhouse. 

But there is no traction on the reunion front at the moment.

"I haven't talked to him recently," Epstein said Monday. "I've talked to him since the season ended, but it was more just checking in on his family. As far as baseball, he hadn't made a decision at that point. He was gonna wait a while before deciding what to do. He left open the possibility, but that was it."

The Cubs have an avenue for playing time next season at second base and potentially in the outfield for Zobrist and they are currently searching for leadoff options. He proved he can still play at his advanced age by hitting .284/.388/.377 in September after months away from the game. He isn't an everyday guy anymore, but can still provide value as a role player.

If Zobrist decides to give it one more go, the price would have to be right for the financially-hamstrung Cubs, but a reunion would make a lot of sense for both sides.

Angels' search for catching help could lead them to Willson Contreras

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USA TODAY

Angels' search for catching help could lead them to Willson Contreras

Could we see a Willson Contreras-Joe Maddon reunion in Los Angeles?

According to Maria Torres of the Los Angeles Times, the Angels are “heavily engaged in the catcher market,” and are having “active conversations with two teams” regarding a trade for a catcher.

Torres didn’t specifically mention Contreras, but he’s one of several Cubs who have been linked to trade rumors this offseason. The Cubs aren’t looking to enter another all-out rebuild, but they’re keeping the future of the organization in mind following a disappointing 84-win season.

The Cubs farm system has grown barren of impact talent. They’ve struggled to develop big-league starting pitching under team president Theo Epstein. Their payroll is projected to exceed MLB’s luxury tax threshold for a second straight season, meaning they’d encounter a 30 percent luxury tax on their overages and see their draft position drop 10 spots, should they exceed the $208 million threshold by $40 million or more.

Trading Contreras — who’s projected to make $4.5 million via arbitration next season — won’t solve the financial problem. However, trading him could net the Cubs the type of blue-chip prospects they desperately need to replenish their farm system.

Contreras is also under team control through 2022, so there’s not a huge rush to deal the two-time All-Star. But if the Cubs sense he’s unlikely to sign a contract extension now or in the future, they must do their due diligence on him and see what they could acquire in a potential trade. The same is true for Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber.

The Angels have one top 100 prospect, (outfielder Jo Adell — No. 5 overall), according to MLB Pipeline, so what Los Angeles could offer the Cubs is questionable. Epstein and Co. won’t trade their backstop for the sake of doing so, especially if they deem any offers to be unsatisfactory.  

Contreras hit .272/.355/.533 with 24 home runs and 64 RBIs last season. He’d be a major addition for the Angels, whose catchers posted a combined .221/.293/.344 slash line with 15 home runs and 61 RBIs. The 27-year-old also has a special bond with former Cubs/current Angels manager Joe Maddon.

Contreras posted a heartfelt good-bye to Maddon on Instagram after the Cubs announced they weren’t retaining the manager for 2020. Contreras later commissioned a painting of he and Maddon as a gift for his former skipper.

Monday, Maddon said it’s “weird” to hear Bryant and Contreras mentioned in trade rumors, adding that he likes both players. 

The Angels aren't definitively linked to Contreras and Epstein recently advised to take rumors with a "mouthful of salt." But considering the Angels are reportedly seeking a catching upgrade, it won't be a surprise to see that change soon.