Connecting the dots between the Cubs and John Lackey is too easy.
The Cubs certainly feel some level of anxiety about handing out another megadeal to a 30-something pitcher, and Theo Epstein’s front office obviously has a comfort zone with people who used to work at Fenway Park.
Now that the Boston Red Sox have given David Price the largest contract for a pitcher in baseball history – for the moment at least – the dominos should start falling in the run-up to next week’s winter meetings in Nashville, Tennessee.
Coming off a 97-win season and still dealing with limited financial flexibility, the Cubs didn’t have Boston’s sense of urgency to fix a last-place team, or that glaring need at the top of the rotation, even though Price sent out signals that he wanted to come to Chicago.
It at least got to a point where Price’s camp called the Cubs when he made the final decision to accept Boston’s seven-year, $217 million offer.
But Jon Lester still has five guaranteed seasons left on the richest contract in franchise history, a six-year, $155 million deal that represented a $20-million markup from what the Red Sox were willing to pay for a frontline starter last December.
The Cubs also have Jake Arrieta under club control for only two more seasons, and reigning Cy Young Award winner plus Scott Boras client usually doesn’t equal a long-term extension.
Lackey makes a lot of sense if the Cubs want to avoid a risky long-term commitment, save some bullets for the future and upgrade their rotation with a reliable veteran starter who has a career 3.11 ERA in 127-plus postseason innings.
Lackey declined the one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer from the St. Louis Cardinals after going 13-10 with a 2.77 ERA during his age-36 season, so he would also cost a draft pick, though that calculus has changed for a franchise in win-now mode.
Lackey worked for the major-league minimum this year, part of a creative contract drawn up when Epstein had been Boston’s general manager. Unlike virtually all the other pitchers linked to the Cubs now, Lackey already scored the biggest deal of his career.
That five-year, $82.5 million contract saw Lackey put up a 6.41 ERA in 2011, miss the 2012 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery and help the Red Sox win the 2013 World Series.
Lackey had an icy relationship with the Boston media, but reshaped his image after the fried-chicken-and-beer controversy and still brings an edge to the clubhouse.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon saw it in the rookie as Mike Scioscia’s bench coach for the Anaheim Angels, watching Lackey beat the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series.
“He was always kind of fearless,” Maddon said. “He comes from Texas, kind of does the John Wayne strut out there. He’s that guy.”
Lackey remains tight with Lester after their time together in Boston, a connection that became a storyline before Game 1 of the National League division series.
“I know Lack,” Lester said in October. “He’s just such a good competitor. He’s going to almost out-will you sometimes, if that makes sense. I learned a lot from him in Boston.
“Our friendship will go beyond this game, it will go beyond our careers, and it’s something that means a lot to me.”
Lackey won Game 1 at Busch Stadium and then got rocked on short rest in Game 4, with Javier Baez drilling a 94-mph fastball into the Wrigley Field bleachers for a three-run homer that helped eliminate the Cardinals. The Cubs went through almost 500 bottles of champagne that night.
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Money talks in the end, but the Cubs will make any free agent pay attention with a competitive offer.
“It’s a popular destination,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It’s a great city. It’s a great ballpark, a great manager and coaching staff. I still think the trump card is always the drought. I think everyone wants to be a part of the team that wins in Chicago.
“I felt like in Boston, after 2003, we turned that corner as well. We were a fun team (with) a lot of talent. We went to the ALCS and lost (to the Yankees in Game 7). After that year, a lot of people were like: ‘Hey, I watched the playoffs on TV. That looked like a fun team.’
“People love playing in Fenway, and I think this is very similar in a lot of ways. We got to the NLCS (and) they got to see us play. I do think that being on that national stage and seeing our kids play on a daily basis, they realized how talented we were. Add in Wrigley (and) a new clubhouse (and) then the drought – it’s a really good recipe to lure players.”