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."

Cubs down to only one All-Star starter in voting update

Cubs down to only one All-Star starter in voting update

The Cubs are down to only one starter in next month's All-Star Game in Miami: reigning MVP Kris Bryant.

Jason Heyward lost his grip on the final starting outfielder spot to Marlins star Marcell Ozuna in the latest All-Star balloting update released by the MLB:

That may be for the best, as the Cubs are currently banged up (Heyward. Ben Zobrist and Kyle Hendricks are on the disabled list) and slogging through a season where they've hovered around .500. So maybe four days off in a row would be beneficial for the defending champs.

Heyward is 29,270 votes behind Ozuna and Zobrist is 118,248 votes behind Heyward. It appears as if Washington's Bryce Harper and Colorado's Charlie Blackmon are sure things for the top two outfielder spots in the NL.

Bryant is only 58,082 votes ahead of Nolan Arenado at third base. Anthony Rizzo trails Ryan Zimmerman at first base, Javy Baez comes in well behind Daniel Murphy at second base and Buster Posey has more than twice as many votes as runner-up Willson Contreras at catcher.

Addison Russell is third among shortstops. Kyle Schwarber — despite being demoted to the minors last week — is eighth among NL outfielders.

It's a far cry from 2016, when the Cubs made up all four infield spots in the NL starting lineup.

Voting ends in four days. Fans can head to MLB.com to vote.

If Nationals are playoff preview, what should Cubs do at trade deadline?

If Nationals are playoff preview, what should Cubs do at trade deadline?

WASHINGTON – Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio has perspective after sitting through the darkest days of the rebuild, the sign-and-flip cycles and moments like “Men Playing Against Boys,” the way ex-manager Dale Sveum once sized up the team during a 2012 series against the Washington Nationals.

Bosio trusted future “World’s Greatest Leader” Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and the rest of a growing front office would deliver talent during the 101-loss season that led to the Kris Bryant No. 2 overall draft pick and the Ryan Dempster/Kyle Hendricks buzzer-beater deal at the trade deadline.   

So while Bosio is a hardened realist who understands the banged-up Cubs haven’t played up to their potential, he also knows these are first-division problems. 

“If Theo and Jed can find a way to make our team better, you can bet they’re going to do it,” Bosio said. “But at the same time, they’re not going to sacrifice our future. They know that the team (here has) a lot of holdovers from the World Series club. There’s a lot of holdovers from the team that went to the National League (Championship Series in 2015). We’ve been through that. And when it comes crunch time, we produce.”

With that in mind, a look at where things stand five weeks out from the July 31 trade deadline as the defending champs begin a potential playoff preview on Monday at Nationals Park:

• If Max Scherzer flirts with another no-hitter or a 20-strikeout game on Tuesday, the questions will start all over again about adding a hitter. Javier Baez even let this slip over the weekend after a win over the Miami Marlins: “Pretty much not having a leadoff guy right now is kind of tough.” But shipping Kyle Schwarber to Triple-A Iowa is not necessarily the start of an offensive overhaul.

“Our focus is going to be on pitching,” Hoyer said. “I would never say never to something like that, because I don’t know what’s going to present itself as we get closer to the deadline. I will say this: When it comes to our offense, I really do see it as these are our guys. We’re as deep with position players as any team in baseball. These guys have performed exceptionally well. Most of these guys have won 200 games over the last two years.

“We believe in them for a reason. We don’t have rings on our fingers without all these guys.”

• With Jake Arrieta and John Lackey on the verge of becoming free agents, the Cubs feel like they should start working on their winter plans this summer and begin remodeling the rotation. The 38-37 record makes you wonder how ultra-aggressive the front office will be to win a bidding war for a frontline starter, but the Cubs are only 1.5 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers, a first-place team for now that was supposed to be rebuilding this year.   

But the Cleveland Indians got to the 10th inning of a World Series Game 7 with Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin and Ryan Merritt making nine playoff starts combined, because they had Corey Kluber and a dynamic bullpen.

The primary focus will have to be on the rotation, but adding another high-leverage reliever to work in front of lights-out closer Wade Davis would shorten games and help preserve Carl Edwards Jr. (170 pounds) and Koji Uehara (42 years old).   

“At some point, you’re going to assess your own team,” Hoyer said. “Sometimes strengthening a strength can work. You see teams that sometimes have a good offense – and add another good hitter – and all of a sudden we’re going to beat you in a different way.”

• Without making this summer’s blockbuster deal for a closer – the way the Cubs landed Aroldis Chapman – Washington risks wasting Bryce Harper’s second-to-last season before free agency and another year of Scherzer’s $210 million megadeal.

Six different Nationals have saved games for a 45-30 team and the bullpen ranks near the bottom of the majors with a 4.88 ERA. Can’t blame that on Dusty Baker, who has notched more than 1,800 wins as a manager and guided four different franchises to the playoffs.

But it won’t be easy to find a quick fix for the Washington bullpen or Cubs rotation. The American League opened for business on Monday with only three of its 15 teams more than three games under .500, and one being the White Sox, who are (obviously) not seen as a realistic trade partner for the Cubs.

“The American League is incredibly jumbled up,” Hoyer said. “That’s why a lot of deals don’t happen this time of year, because people are still sorting it out. The next five weeks of baseball will determine a lot of that. Some of those teams that are in the race now will fall back.

“There’s a lack of teams right now that have a true sense of sellers. I think there are a lot of teams right now that are close enough that they’re not going to admit it that they’re going to be sellers. That five weeks will determine a lot about who ends up on which side of the fence.”