Why John Lackey would make a lot of sense for Cubs


Why John Lackey would make a lot of sense for Cubs

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.

[MORE: Cubs have options with David Price heading to Red Sox for $217 million]

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.

[RELATED: Another big free agent splash coming for Cubs?]

“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.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

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.”

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

It's been a tale of two halves for the Cubs veteran Jon Lester, who after a sparkling first half of baseball that saw him win 12 games with a 2.58 ERA, has looked nothing like a 2018 All-Star. Prior to Thursday's start, Lester had posted a 10.32 ERA, allowed 4 or more runs in 4 of his 5 most recent starts, and had yet to win a game in the second of the season. 

The 34-year-old veteran flipped the script Thursday night, throwing 6-shutout innings while striking out 8 Pirate batters in the Cubs 1-0 win in Pittsburgh. Lester surrendered only 5 hits and baffled the Pirates all-night, finally busting out of his slump and giving the Cubs his 2nd quality start since the All-Star break. 

Lester attacked the bottom portion of the strike zone all night with his fastball, which topped out at 93 mph, generating 4 whiffs with his heater. Over the last month, Lester has said he's felt he can't quite execute his "out" pitches, explaining that when he has a hitter set up for a strikeout he hasn't been able to throw the ball effectively in those moments. 

And while Lester walked off the mound after the 6th inning amassing 8 punch outs, the veteran starter never looked like he was trying to strike out batters. He just continued to dot the corners, occasionally raise the eye-level of the batter with an elevated heater, and threw his secondary pitches just enough to keep the Pittsburgh batters uncomfortable at the plate. 

The Cubs offense once again struggled, facing Ivan Nova who has won four his last five starts against the Cubs, but Ian Happ's solo shot in the 4th inning was enough run support for Lester to push the Cubs to 20 games over .500. But the biggest takeaway from Thursday night's win isn't that the Cubs came out on top, it's that Jon Lester returning to form gives this Chicago rotation something they've lacked seemingly this entire season. 

Stability at the front of the rotation. 

With Cole Hamels impressive three starts in a Cub uniform and Kyle Hendricks finally figuring out his issues on the mound, if Jon Lester can replicate Thursday's performance throughout the rest of the season, the Cubs rotation may finally turn into the strength many thought it could be before the season started. At the very least, Lester showed that whatever he's been working through over the last month of baseball is fixable. 

It's only one start in a string of poor outings for Lester, and while The Athletic's Sahadev Sharma did find some positives in his starts prior to Thursday's big win, Lester will have to show he can maintain this level of pitching through the remainder of this season. But I think our own Tony Andracki put it best tonight on Twitter. 

With the Cubs pitchers finally starting to perform to their expected level, and the return of Yu Darvish looking closer each day, it could be the Cubs starting pitching that carries through the rest of the season. 

Joe Maddon speaks out on Wednesday night's Marlins-Braves brawl

Joe Maddon speaks out on Wednesday night's Marlins-Braves brawl

Much has been made about Wednesday night's brawl between the Marlins and Braves, which started when Braves young star Ronald Acuna was nailed in the elbow with a 99 mph fastball from Jose Urena. The strangest part of the whole situation was that it seemed like Urena was unprovoked by Acuna or any of the Braves players prior to plunking the former No. 1 prospect in all of baseball.  

The ever wise Cubs skipper Joe Maddon was asked about the incident prior to Thursday's game, making it clear he felt plays like these needed to leave the game entirely. 

It was announced Thursday afternoon that Urena would be suspended just 6 games for intentionally throwing Acuna, which means the Marlins starter will likely only miss one game for trying to hurt Acuna. The good news is that Acuna did not sustain any serious injuries, but Joe Maddon is right there is no reason for people to be hurling nearly triple-digit fastballs at players. Whether provoked or not, intentionally throwing at players is something that needs to be phased out of the game, and its safe to assume Maddon would agree.