Starting Strong: Lackey Boosts Cubs’ Rotation
Second in a 5-part series looking at the Cubs’ key offseason acquisitions and how they will fit into the team’s 2016 picture
By Randy Richardson
The Cubs may have lost out in the offseason bidding war for free-agent pitcher David Price, but don’t underestimate the value of the one they did reel in: John Lackey.
In December, after Zach Greinke signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks, MLB.com’s Paul Casella ranked baseball’s top 5 projected 2016 starting rotations. The D-backs didn’t even crack the list. On it are the Dodgers, Indians, Nationals and Mets.
Oh, and the Cubs, topping them all.
Relying on Steamer’s 2016 projections on FanGraphs, the Cubs projected rotation of Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks has a projected combined WAR of 17.4. The Mets rotation that dominated the Cubs in the NLCS last year came in second at 16.7, followed by the Nats (16.2), Indians (15.9) and Dodgers (15.7).
Casella ranked Lackey’s addition to the Cubs pitching staff as one of baseball’s 10 best upgrades of the offseason. Based on last year’s fWar and Steamer’s 2016 projections, Casella wrote, Lackey projects to be worth 2.9 WAR in 2016, which is an improvement of +2.0 WAR over the pitcher he effectively replaces, Dan Haren.
When you consider those projections, even at 37 years old, Lackey seems like a downright bargain at $32 million over two years.
Add that to Lackey’s reputation as a big-game pitcher and the veteran hurler seems like a perfect fit for a Cubs team seeking to end a 108-year World Series drought. Lackey has thrown 180-plus innings in nine of his 13 seasons in the majors, including last year when he went 13-10 with a 2.77 ERA in 218 innings with the Cardinals.
Lackey’s career has had its ups and downs. He made his MLB debut with the Angels in 2002 and helped the franchise win its first World Series title that year. In 2010, Theo Epstein, then GM for the Boston Red Sox, signed Lackey as a free agent prior to the 2010 season. It was with the Red Sox when his career hit its lowest point. In the end of the 2011 season, Lackey and two more starting pitchers (Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, allegedly) were in the center of a controversy that told that the three (and sometimes more) drank beer and ate fried chicken in the clubhouse during games in which they were not pitching. Lackey didn’t help his public relations cause when he sat out the entire 2012 season following Tommy John surgery and was later seen drinking beer in the clubhouse during his rehabilitation. But he rebounded in 2013 as the Red Sox won the World Series.
While Lackey is known to have a sour demeanor on the ballfield, two of his ex-Boston teammates who are now with the Cubs, Lester and catcher David Ross, are two of his biggest supporters. Indeed, Lackey calls Lester “his best friend in baseball.” The feeling is mutual, as Lester went out of his way to recruit Lackey to join the Cubs.
How bad did Lester want to get back together with John Lackey?
“I was the crazy ex-girlfriend,’ Lester joked at the Cubs Convention. “I’m like, should I text him, should I not text him…what should I say?”
“It was a little awkward, but we got it done.”
For Lackey, it is the opportunity to end his career on a high note more than anything else that persuaded him to choose the Cubs even when other teams, including the Cards, were putting more money on the table.
“Really, the chance to make history; the chance to win a world championship in this city,” Lackey said at this year’s Cubs Convention. “At this point in my career … winning is the biggest thing to me. If this is my last couple of years in the big leagues, to go out like that would be pretty dang cool.”
Randy Richardson is the author of the Wrigleyville murder mystery, Lost in the Ivy, and a regular contributor to Wrigleyville Nation.