BALTIMORE – Joe Maddon says the Cubs aren’t discussing the idea of moving John Lackey to the bullpen: “We’re not there yet.” But as Lackey himself said last month after another bad start: “Joe doesn’t have much to do with the pitching.”
A manager who has known Lackey’s quirks and competitiveness ever since he was a rookie with the 2002 Anaheim Angels still gave the vote of confidence before Jose Quintana’s Cubs debut on Sunday afternoon at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
“Just try taking him out of the game, and then trying to tell him something like that,” Maddon said. “Oh my God, exponentially worse.”
The Cubs shut down Lackey (5-9, 5.20 ERA) before the All-Star break because of plantar fasciitis in his right foot and plan to activate him from the disabled list on Tuesday and start him against the Atlanta Braves that night.
Once the Cubs return to Wrigley Field after this road trip, Kyle Hendricks (right hand tendinitis) should be slotted back in the rotation, assuming Monday’s rehab start goes well at Double-A Tennessee.
The most likely scenario is the Cubs will move Mike Montgomery back to the bullpen, because the lefty swingman can pick up valuable innings, help keep the other relievers fresh and has an unselfish, easy-going attitude. The positive spin is that Lackey has pitched in 18 playoff series, showed up in a Cy Young Award vote as recently as 2015 and posted a 3.35 ERA last season.
“I believe he’s going to have a really good second half,” Maddon said. “His foot was bothering him a bit. I’m watching him right now. He looks very focused. I think the break helped him a lot, combined with getting well. So for us, there’s no speculation internally right now.
“I do anticipate good. As long as he’s healthy, which I think he is right now, I think you’re going to see a better version than you saw in the first half. He likes this time of the year. He likes being a part of this kind of a moment.”
The negative slant is that Lackey is 38 years old and might be unable to rediscover himself as a starter or reinvent himself as a reliever. Including the playoffs, Lackey’s pitched almost 3,000 innings in The Show and made four appearances as a reliever.
Lackey sort of blamed Maddon for the strained right shoulder that put him on the disabled list for a few weeks late last season, believing that warming up as an emergency reliever in extra-inning games contributed to the injury.
So even if the Cubs wanted to bump Lackey to the bullpen, those final two-and-a-half months of a $32 million contract would probably wind up being a sunk cost.
“There’s all those little things going on that I think kind of push veteran players this time of the year,” Maddon said. “And you have to be in the race to really push a guy that’s won three World Series. I like it. Directly, we have not talked about that. Indirectly, I really think that from what I’m seeing right now, you’re going to see a really different version.”