Chicago Cubs

Jon Lester breaks down Jose Quintana trade and where Cubs go from here

Jon Lester breaks down Jose Quintana trade and where Cubs go from here

BALTIMORE – Jon Lester decided to sign with a last-place Cubs team during the 2014 winter meetings, taking a leap of faith while still expecting to be in the pennant race every season on that six-year, $155 million megadeal.

As much as anyone in the clubhouse, Lester understands how team president Theo Epstein operates and what a huge hole there will be in the rotation if/when Jake Arrieta and John Lackey leave as free agents after this season.

That’s why “until 2020” jumped out at Lester after the initial shock from the blockbuster Jose Quintana trade with the White Sox wore off quickly.

“I know Theo,” Lester said before watching Arrieta shut down his old team during Saturday’s 10-3 win at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. “I know his track record. I know what he’s all about. That wasn’t going to go unaddressed.

“I was a little surprised that it happened now. Usually, a trade like that happens kind of last minute. So that’s good for us – we get those extra couple weeks with him here and get him comfortable.

“That’s probably a win-win for everybody. You don’t see trades where you don’t have to move houses. He’s pretty well-set and established, knows his way around the city. And now he’s just got to drive north instead of south.”

As much as Epstein made this deal for the future, the 2017 Cubs needed Quintana to: reinforce a rotation pushed through back-to-back playoff runs; protect an overworked bullpen; and change a clubhouse vibe that’s been off. Quintana can finish off a three-game sweep of the Orioles – and create a real sense of momentum for a .500 team – when he makes his Cubs debut on Sunday afternoon.

“Any time you make an acquisition, it’s a boost,” Lester said. “It just means that the front office and ownership believe in this team and they want us to go further. They think whatever piece it is (will) make us go.

“Any time you make a trade like that, obviously the belief is there. That just kind of gives you a little shot in the arm to say: ‘Hey, let’s get going and make this mean something.’

“As opposed to making a trade and you waste prospects for nothing, kind of like the (Aroldis) Chapman deal last year. If we don’t win the World Series, you waste prospects for basically nothing.”

Epstein made it clear that how the Cubs respond after the All-Star break will influence how aggressive he will be leading up to the July 31 trade deadline.

[MORE: Joe Maddon knows it's time to start pushing Cubs harder - except Wade Davis

Selling isn’t an option, because the Cubs are still within striking distance of the Milwaukee Brewers in a bad division and have too much on-paper talent. There is real value in all these young players experiencing more meaningful games and building up that competitive culture.

But if the Cubs get hot, then Epstein can look harder at a veteran catcher, another reliever and a starting pitcher – Sonny Gray seems out of reach – instead of sitting out the deal-making frenzy.

“That’s on us to play well,” Lester said. “Whatever he decides that we need, we need. But at the same time, the guys in this clubhouse can’t worry about what’s going on up there and who’s talking about what.

“I was part of those talks for a long time as a young guy. And it can be distracting sometimes when you see your name on the bottom line or they’re talking about it on MLB (Network) saying a team put your name into this trade.

“Nine times out of 10, it’s not even true. I know that’s difficult for a young guy sometimes. But the biggest thing is, like I’ve always said: Man, just stay in your lane. Do your job. It’s not your pay grade to worry about what Theo does.”

Cubs lose Pierce Johnson on waivers

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Cubs lose Pierce Johnson on waivers

The Cubs have parted ways with the first pitcher drafted by Theo Epstein's front office.

The Cubs designated Pierce Johnson for assignment last week when they purchased the contract of Jen-Ho Tseng to make his first MLB start against the New York Mets.

Now Johnson is with a new organization.

The San Francisco Giants claimed Johnson off waivers Wednesday. He was initially selected in the supplemental first round in 2012 with the 43rd pick, 37 spots behind Albert Almora Jr.

Johnson is now 26 and just made his first — and only — big-league appearance May 19 this spring.

In Triple-A Iowa, Johnson had a 4.31 ERA in 43 games, including one start. He struck out 74 batters in 54.1 innings, but also walked 27 batters and had a 1.454 WHIP. 

Johnson spent six years in the Cubs minor-league system, going 29-21 with a 3.24 ERA, 1.305 WHIP and 9.3 K/9, working slightly more than half the time as a starter (74 starts, 56 relief appearances).

With the Cubs taking Johnson off their 40-man roster in mid-September as opposed to promoting him with expanded big-league rosters, it clearly shows he was not a part of their long-term pitching plans.

Imagine Chris Archer playing for a big-market team like the Cubs

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USA TODAY

Imagine Chris Archer playing for a big-market team like the Cubs

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Picture Chris Archer performing with Wrigley Field as the backdrop – the one Joe Maddon compared to a computer-generated scene from “Gladiator” – instead of a dumpy building off Interstate 275.      

Archer could see, feel and hear the Cubs fans who took over Tropicana Field on Tuesday night, a crowd of 25,046 saluting Maddon and watching the defending World Series champs play a sharp all-around game in a 2-1 win over a Tampa Bay Rays team that has a less than 1 percent chance of making the playoffs now.  

“It’s weird,” Archer said after the tough-luck loss, comparing the scene to last week’s games relocated to New York in the wake of Hurricane Irma. “I didn’t know we had that many people from Chicago, Illinois, Midwest area, in Tampa, but I guess we do. It was just weird for their players to come out and get announced and get so much love. It was strange.

“It felt like we were in Citi Field playing the Yankees, honestly. I’m not being critical. It was just crazy how much royal blue there was out there. When Willson Contreras went out there to warm up the pitcher, he had a standing O.

“I’ve been here for however long – and seen some really good players come – and I’ve never seen anybody get as much love (as they did when) they ran out of the dugout to warm up.

“It was just kind of crazy.”  

Archer pitched in the Before Theo farm system, at a time when the Cubs were scrambling to try to pry their window to contend back open after winning back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008. Maddon became the beneficiary when the Cubs packaged Archer – who had 13 Double-A starts on his resume at that point – in the blockbuster Matt Garza trade in January 2011.

Archer, who worked last year’s World Series as an ESPN analyst, has pitched in only two playoff games, making two relief appearances out of Maddon’s bullpen when the Boston Red Sox handled the Rays during a 2013 first-round series.   

Archer lost 19 games last season while putting up a 4.02 ERA and 200-plus innings. He earned his second All-Star selection this year and will turn 29 later this month. Wonder what the good-but-not-great numbers in 2017 – 9-11, 4.02 ERA, 32 starts, 241 strikeouts – would look like on a contender.       

“He is among the elite pitchers, there’s no question about that,” Maddon said. “I don’t watch him enough to know when he goes into these bad moments what exactly is going on. (And) I don’t even know how much certain years luck plays into it or not.

“But the thing about him in a big-city market that would intrigue me is him. He’s really bright. And he’s very socially engaged. For him to be in more of an urban kind of a setting with a greater audience, he could make quite an impact.”

Archer is locked into a team-friendly contract that will pay him roughly $14 million in 2018 and 2019 combined, plus the Rays hold bargain club options for 2020 ($9 million) and 2021 ($11 million). Meaning it would take an unbelievable offer just to get Tampa Bay’s attention.

Archer is also a face of the franchise, a two-time Roberto Clemente Award nominee who visits young men and women in the Pinellas County Juvenile Detention Center and stays involved with Major League Baseball’s RBI Program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities).

“Beyond being a pitcher who is very, very good, I would be curious if he was in a larger situation,” said Maddon, who has an offseason home and a restaurant in Tampa and sat with Archer during a Buccaneers game last season. “Just because socially, in a community, he’s already done it here. But you put him in a large city with more of an urban situation – he could really be impactful in that city. He’s really engaging when he speaks. He’s very bright. He’s really well-thought-out.”

Archer has come a long way from the Mark DeRosa salary-dump trade with the Cleveland Indians on New Year’s Eve 2008. Stan Zielinski, the beloved scout who died in January, lobbied then-general manager Jim Hendry, insisting the Cubs shouldn’t do the deal without Archer, a Class-A pitcher who went 4-8 with a 4.29 ERA that season.

While closing the Garza deal, the Rays actually pushed for another pitching prospect, but the Cubs wanted to hold onto Trey McNutt. Other players bundled in that trade became useful major-league pieces (Brandon Guyer, Robinson Chirinos, Sam Fuld), but the headliner was supposed to be Hak-Ju Lee, a South Korean shortstop already blocked by Starlin Castro who never made it to the big leagues.    

“There was a lot of good players that came the Rays’ way at that time,” Maddon said. “I didn’t know what to expect (from Archer). I saw him in camp. Great arm. Didn’t really have a good feel for command at that time.

“But when you talked to the kid, you couldn’t help but really like him a lot. He and I connected on more of an intellectual level regarding books and stuff, because he’s really well-read. He’s a lot smarter than I’ll ever be. I’ve always enjoyed my conversations with him. And then all of a sudden, he started finding the plate. And that slider’s electric.”

Maddon has already seen what the Cubs brand and Chicago platform can do for his baseball legacy, bank account and off-the-field interests.

Do you want Archer back?

“I didn’t say that,” Maddon said. “That’s something I cannot (say).”