In the immediate wake of Ernie Banks’ death last January, and as the old bleachers lay in piles of rubble beyond the outfield wall, I realized things were going to be different for the Cubs this year. And, as the maybe-it’s-a-jinx-after-all cover of Sports Illustrated can attest, this has been a year unlike any we’ve seen on the North Side in a long time.
With 34 games left to play as of Sunday morning, the partial focus of this is the Cubs’ own number 34, Jon Lester. He didn’t pitch poorly in Los Angeles on Saturday night, but the Cubs still lost the game. Some people point out that a pitcher’s won-loss record is a meaningless measure of a pitcher’s value to a team, and hopefully one day I’ll understand the game in the same profound way that they do. But for now, I see an 8-and-10 record and wonder if it shouldn’t be better than it is.
With five weeks in the regular season left, I may be ready to admit that catching the Cardinals is not going to happen. I made the prediction, along with Anthony Rizzo, that the Cubs would win the NL Central this year, but the Cardinals are playing too well for that. They are clearly the team to beat when the postseason begins.
So where does this leave the Cubs? They pulled to within two games of the Pirates in the wild card standings, but dropping four straight games has allowed Pittsburgh to open a sizable lead once again. Unless something dramatic happens over the next five weeks, we can prepare ourselves for a one-game elimination battle with the Pirates in PNC Park in early October.
So back to Jon Lester again. Does he automatically get the start in that game? His postseason experience and $20 million salary suggest he should, but there’s a compelling case to be made that Jake Arrieta should get the nod instead.
How compelling a case can be made for Arrieta? Consider that he’s 10-and-1 in road starts this season, while Lester is just 2-and-3. Again, the “wins don’t matter” crowd will object to this reasoning, but 10-and-1 should tell any baseball fan something about how good Arrieta has been this year.
Then there’s the matter of pitching in PNC Park. Arrieta has done so this season, and has been successful, with a win earlier this month and another one back in April. Lester hasn’t pitched there at all this year, and in his only career start at PNC Park, back in June of 2011, Lester lasted six innings and took a loss to the Pirates, while they were still enmeshed in their brutal run of sub-.500 seasons. This suggests that for a one-game season in Pittsburgh, Jake Arrieta would be the better choice for a starting pitcher.
The question is whether Joe Maddon would pull the trigger on this decision. Lester is signed for huge money as far as the eye can see, and Arrieta will probably be gone once his free agency arrives in 2018. Offending Jon Lester in 2015 could have some blowback attached to it. Starlin Castro was expected to–and for the record he has–accepted a demotion in favor of Addison Russell for the good of the team. Could Jon Lester do the same, if it came to that? It hasn’t come to that yet, and hopefully it won’t when the Cubs overtake the Pirates and bring that game back to Wrigley Field. But a one-game, win-or-make-plans-to-play-lots-of-golf-in-October scenario leaves no margin for error, either.
We’ll see what happens, but pay close attention to road starts the rest of the way this season. It looks like there could be an additional one coming up in a few weeks, and it doesn’t hurt to start thinking about it already.