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.
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.”