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.”

The Cubs' Achilles' heel is rearing its ugly head again this winter

The Cubs' Achilles' heel is rearing its ugly head again this winter

If the Cubs ultimately don't sign Bryce Harper or another big ticket free agent this winter and fans are wondering why, look no further than Rob Zastryzny.

It's not Zastryzny's fault, of course. 

But he is the poster boy of sorts for the Cubs' issues in drafting and developing pitching that can make any sort of an impact at the big-league level.

Zastryzny has made at least 4 appearances over each of the last three seasons, racking up 34.2 innings to lead the way for the 147 pitchers drafted by Theo Epstein's front office over the last seven summers. 

As a result, the Cubs have had to spend a lot of money to form their pitching staff over the last few years. That money adds up. 

Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr. — who spent time in the Cubs farm system, but were originally drafted and largely developed by the Texas Rangers — are the only two truly impactful pitchers that have come up through the minor leagues and still a big part of the current roster. 

Where are the Josh Haders and Corbin Burnses and Josh Jameses and Walker Buehlers coming up through the Cubs system?

All four of those guys played major roles for their respective teams (Brewers, Astros, Dodgers) this fall.

Look, it's no secret to the Cubs they haven't developed a Hader-type weapon and they're disappointed about it, too.

"Candidly, those guys aren't found on the market very often," GM Jed Hoyer said last week. "Those guys are usually found internally. We haven't been able to develop that guy. Hopefully we will in the future. That guy makes a massive, massive impact."

Former Cubs draft picks accounted for 27 innings in the majors in 2018, and 1 of those innings came from Ian Happ (who is obviously not a pitcher). Of the remaining 26 innings, 5.1 came from Dillon Maples (who was drafted by Jim Hendry's front office in 2011).

That leaves 20.2 innings for a trio of draft picks — Duane Underwood Jr. (2012 selection) Zastryzny (2013) and James Norwood (2014). 

The Cubs are projected to pay more than $130 million (with arbitration included) to only 12 pitchers in 2019 and they still figure to add at least another late-inning bullpen arm or two to that mix.

That obviously hampers what they want to do this winter in a free agent class loaded with potential impact bats that could make a huge difference for an underachieving lineup, though would come with a hefty price tag.

Last winter, Epstein's front office committed $185 million to a trio of free agent pitchers — Yu Darvish, Brandon Morrow, Tyler Chatwood — and all three guys were out of the team's picture by September either because of injury or ineffectiveness.

The contracts of those three guys are hanging over the 2019 squad and major questions follow each guy entering the new year. 

But the Cubs are also in a tight spot financially because their homegrown position players are now starting to get exponentially more expensive.

"Of course we want more out of our homegrown pitching and I think we will have more as we go forward," Epstein said. "But we also built around bats. We built around homegrown bats and developing a nucleus that way knowing that in our minds, the right strategic move was to develop bats and then acquire pitching that's already good or about to become good or known commodities. 

"If you look at our pitching track record, it's really good. Yeah, it's expensive. That's part of it."

The Cubs still have high hopes for young right-hander Adbert Alzolay, the top pitching prospect in their system who was shut down halfway through 2018 with a lat injury. But he's also only pitched 72.1 innings above A-ball in his career and will undoubtedly have an innings limit and other restrictions coming off the injury, so it's hard to count on him as a potential cost-effective part of the 2019 pitching staff.

The Cubs hope more pitchers are on the way along with Alzolay, but they don't know why the arms are lagging so far behind the bats.

"I think it's improving," Hoyer said. "I think our pitching depth is improving and hopefully that will start to bear fruit this year or next year. Overall, I think we've done an exceptional job of developing hitters. 

"The pitching has lagged behind that. That's no secret. We're very accountable to that and we need to figure out why."

2018 Cubs Trivia… in Reverse

2018 Cubs Trivia… in Reverse

Normally baseball trivia is consumed by the average fan in a question-answer format.  Today, we are going to try something different.  I’ll name a player from Cubs history, present a little background of that player, then finally reveal why the player is relevant in terms of 2018 Cubs trivia.  Let’s get started.

Ted Savage
Savage was the 1961 International League MVP for the Buffalo Bisons. After a promising rookie season with the Phillies, he was traded to the Pirates and ended up bouncing around the league for several seasons. In all, the outfielder played nine Major League seasons with eight different teams. His finest season was 1970 when he played for the Brewers in their first season in Milwaukee (they had been the Seattle Pilots in 1969), hitting .279/.402/.482 with 12 HR & 10 SB. 

In 1967 Savage was purchased by the Cubs from the Cardinals. He appeared in 96 games for Chicago, and he stole seven bases.  Three times he stole second.  Twice he stole third.  Twice he stole home.  And no Cub would again steal home twice in a season… until Javier Báez in 2018. 

Fred Pfeffer
Fred Pfeffer hit one home run in 85 games in 1882 as a rookie for the Troy Trojans.  He hit one home run the following season in 96 games for the Chicago White Stockings (the team we know today as the Cubs).  He hit 25 home runs in 1884.  This wasn’t really an incredible power surge, since the fences at Chicago’s Lake Front Park were about 180 feet away and prior to that season anything over the fence was a ground rule double.  Three of his teammates also hit at least 20 homers.  They ended up moving to a new park the next season.  But still, Pfeffer was the second baseman of the dominant Chicago teams of the 1880s. 

Back to that 1884 season.  Pfeffer not only hit 25 home runs that season, he also knocked in 101.  And he even made an appearance on the mound.  Does that sound familiar?  It should.  Because Anthony Rizzo also hit 25 home runs with 101 RBI and a pitching appearances this past season. Rizzo and Pfeffer are the only players in franchise history to do that.  Of course Rizzo had a higher degree of difficulty.

Ellis Burton
A switch-hitting outfielder, Burton played for the Cardinals for eight games in 1958 and 29 games in 1960.  After some more time in the minors, he resurfaced with the Indians in 1963 and was purchased that May by the Cubs. August 1963 was easily the most eventful month of his Major League career.  On the first of that month, he homered from each side of the plate – the second Cub ever to do that; the other was Augie Galan on June 25, 1937.  On the final day of August he had perhaps his finest moment.  The Cubs trailed Houston 5-1 entering the bottom of the 9th inning.  It was 5-2 with two outs after a pair of flyouts, three singles and a walk.  Burton stepped to the plate to face Hal Woodeshick (who replaced Hal Brown – unlikely we’ll ever see a two-Hal inning again), and hit an ultimate grand slam – a walkoff grand slam with the team down three runs.  

It was a feat which wouldn’t be duplicated by a Cubs batter until David Bote turned a 3-0 deficit to a 4-3 win with one swing of the bat on August 12 against the Nationals.