Chicago Cubs

How John Lackey could come back to Cubs and strengthen 2018 rotation: ‘Never say never’

How John Lackey could come back to Cubs and strengthen 2018 rotation: ‘Never say never’

MESA, Ariz. – There's always been an obvious difference between how John Lackey is perceived by the outside world and inside the clubhouse. 

"Really?" Jon Lester said sarcastically.

Yeah, that's breaking Cubs news, but Lackey has seemed a little goofy this spring, or at least more eager to fire off one-liners at the media, zinging David Ross for saying 'yes' to everything in retirement and slamming the idea of a Grandpa-style farewell tour, saying he just won't show up the next year. 

"That's a fact," Lackey said with a laugh after looking sharp during Saturday afternoon's 6-4 win over Team Japan at Sloan Park. "I promise you."

This might only last until the first time the best-in-baseball defense doesn't turn what Lackey thinks is a double play. It shouldn't be interpreted as Lackey turning soft after getting sized for his third World Series ring. 
 
But between the Lester bromance, a talented, professional young core that lives up to his old-school code and a Cubs rotation that could be in tatters after this season, Lackey is going to keep his options open. 

"At this point, I think I'm more likely to pitch next year than not pitch," Lackey said. "But we'll see at the end of the season."   

In front of 14,204 in Mesa, Lackey gave up one run across five innings against a Japanese team heading to the World Baseball Classic semifinals at Dodger Stadium. Between the command, experience and velocity, Jake Arrieta predicted Lackey could pitch another three years if he wanted.   

"A couple years might be a stretch," Lackey said. "But we'll see. I'm just going to pitch this season (first)." 

After that, the Cubs could be looking at replacing at least 40 percent of their rotation, the assumption being super-agent Scott Boras will negotiate a megadeal for Arrieta somewhere else. As for Lackey, he will be 39 on Opening Day 2018, more than six years removed from Tommy John surgery at that point.  
   
"Never say never," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "This guy's been defying Father Time for a while."

Lackey recovered from the procedure on his right elbow and rehabbed his image around Fenway Park, helping the Boston Red Sox win the 2013 World Series. Since getting traded to the St. Louis Cardinals and signing a two-year, $32 million deal with the Cubs, Lackey has thrived in the National League, going 27-21 with a 3.20 ERA in 72 starts.

"The way his career's been set up, it almost feels like two different careers," Hoyer said. "He had the great run before he got hurt. He had some struggles in Boston when he was hurt, but he had the surgery, and he's been a really good pitcher ever since. His work ethic is fantastic. 

"It's not a decision that you make right now. But certainly we love having him. I think his edge, his swagger is fantastic for our team. And we're certainly glad that we signed him last winter." 

Like Lackey famously said, he didn't come here for a haircut. If he wants more jewelry, this might be the place. 

"Any time you're with a new team for the first time," Lester said, "you want to prove: 'Hey, this is why I'm good,' regardless of the contract that you've signed. I think that was part of it. I think he kind of wanted to fit in here and prove who he was and all that stuff.

"I get the same 'Lack' regardless. I know when to stay away from him – and when to poke him with the cattle prod a little bit and get him going."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Which Cub will make biggest impact down the stretch?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Which Cub will make biggest impact down the stretch?

Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000), Chris Hine (Chicago Tribune) and Jordan Bernfield join David Kaplan on the panel. Jon Lester, Addison Russell and Willson Contreras all work out with the Cubs before their game. Which player’s return with have the biggest impact down the stretch?

Plus, the guys discuss how many snaps Mitch Trubisky should take with the first team, debate who won the big Cavs/Celtics deal and Scott Paddock drops by with the latest NASCAR news.

Listen to the SportsTalk Live Podcast below. 

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

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USA TODAY

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

Jon Lester isn’t expected to be on the disabled list for long, which of course is great news for the Cubs.

But while he’s there, it’s once again time for Mike Montgomery to audition for a spot in the team’s 2018 starting rotation.

The Cubs are facing the possibility of losing two members of that starting staff this offseason, when both Jake Arrieta and John Lackey will be free agents. Montgomery seems like a logical replacement, but he’ll need to be better than he’s been as a starter this season. He’s put up a 5.13 ERA in eight starts.

He’ll get another opportunity to show his stuff over the next week or so, as he makes one or two spot starts with Lester on the shelf resting up his left lat tightness and general shoulder fatigue.

“I don’t want to see anybody get hurt, especially our ace. But it’s a challenge. I’m looking forward to going out there and helping the team win,” Montgomery said over the weekend. “I’m going to go out there and prepare and be ready to help this team get to the playoffs.”

Montgomery doesn’t have to worry about instilling confidence in his bosses. Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein both lauded Montgomery’s efforts since he was acquired about a year ago, in the middle of the 2016 team’s march to that curse-smashing World Series win. It was Montgomery who earned the save in Game 7.

And again this season Montgomery has given plenty of reason for those guys to have confidence in him. He’s turned in a strong 2.57 ERA in 27 relief appearances, one of the more reliable arms out of what is becoming an increasingly shaky bullpen. This past Thursday, he relieved the early-to-depart Lester, pitching 4.1 shutout innings and allowing just three hits and a walk against the Cincinnati Reds.

Throw in the versatility of being able to effectively switch between starting and relieving, and that’s a recipe for sticking on a big league roster.

“He’s good about bouncing back and forth,” Maddon said. “He’s been invaluable to us the last couple years. He’s still learning his craft. Every time I talk to him it’s kind of like the little lightbulb constantly goes off for him regarding his stuff and how to utilize it. That’s what I’ve been talking about with him the last couple years. This guy’s got all kinds of tools in the toolbox but he doesn’t really know how to utilize them all, and I think he’s finally understanding the cutter, the curve, the changeup to go with the fastball. He’s one of those guys that he should never get wild with his fastball because his pitches are so good and he can throw them for a strike.”

Montgomery’s reliability has been enough that Epstein said there’s no plan for the Cubs to add another starting pitcher before this month’s waiver trade deadline. Of course, the fact that Lester’s injury isn’t as bad as initially feared and the July acquisition of Jose Quintana factors into that, as well.

“We’ve expended a lot of prospect capital trying to make this team better. We think it’s just a start or two (that Lester will miss), and Mike Montgomery is more than capable of filling in,” Epstein said. “He’s thrown the ball really well, like what we saw from him (Thursday). So we’re going to fill that vacancy internally with Mike and go from there.”

While every start made by any pitcher this season seems important — the Cubs entered Monday’s day off with just a two-game lead on the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central standings, with a playoff spot hardly guaranteed — Montgomery’s efforts could have just as great an effect on next season. If Arrieta and Lackey both end up departing via free agency, the Cubs will need some replacements. Montgomery figures to be among the first options, especially if this midseason audition goes well.

Of course, Montgomery is happy to do whatever he needs to to help his team. He’s not complaining about a bullpen role or one that has him shuttling between the relief corps and the rotation. But he admitted that starting is his goal, meaning the importance of this moment likely hasn't been lost on him.

“Yeah, absolutely, I wanted to start. But also I wanted to be a guy who could fill another role and hopes that makes our team better,” he said. “If me starting makes us better in their mind, then that’s what I want ideally. But I’ve realized I can’t always control that, I can go out there and pitch well. If I pitch well, they’re probably going to give me more opportunities, which is probably going to lead to starting.

“I think it’s because I spent five years in Triple-A from the time I was 21 and I had a bigger ego. And then you realize that you just want to be in the big leagues and that Triple-A kind of stinks. I think it’s just how I’ve gotten to this point. And coming here last year from a team that was trying to get in the playoffs to a team that was clearly going to win the division, you realize that your role isn’t to come here and start making demands, it’s to come here and just do your job.”

Right now, the Cubs need Montgomery to fill the void while Lester rests up. And if he can make his starts look a little more like his bullpen outings, he’ll do just that. And if that’s what happens, maybe they’ll call on him next season to do a whole lot more.