Cubs Link Up With Lackey

This afternoon, the Chicago Cubs found their free-agent pitcher in right-hander John Lackey. According to the marvelous Ken Rosenthal, the deal is of the two-year variety, and will pay Lackey $32-34 million. There are a few interesting things to dissect here, but right off the top it fills up the Cubs rotation, so let’s start there.

Lackey comfortably slots in behind Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester, and perhaps Kyle Hendricks, depending on how you feel about him. But given Lackey’s veteran presence, let’s assume that he will be the Cubs number-three starter, with Hendricks and Jason Hammel slotting in behind him. That’s a solid rotation. It has star power, and it has legitimate depth in Travis Wood and prospect Carl Edwards. All of the five starters project to be worth at least 2 WAR. Of the remaining free-agent pitchers, Lackey was tied with Wei-Yen Chen for fifth in projected 2016 WAR. Lackey was significantly cheaper than Zack Greinke or Johnny Cueto, and comes with a longer track record than Hisashi Iwakuma or Chen. In other words, it’s the sort of signing you would expect from Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Co.

This also marks the second time that Epstein has signed Lackey, as he was still in command of the Red Sox baseball operations when Boston brought Lackey aboard in December of 2009. It’s not hard to see why Epstein would have a fondness for the Texas-bred righty. Aside from 2012, which he missed due to injury, Lackey has tossed 160 innings or more in every year since 2003. And in most of those years, he’s been average or better. In his first full season in Anaheim, he only logged 1.9 WAR, as he hadn’t ratcheted up his strikeout percentage quite yet. In 2008, some trouble with the long ball limited him to 1.4 WAR. And then in 2011, when he pitched hurt, he logged a paltry 0.9 WAR, though in retrospect it was sort of amazing that he was pitching at all. In the other nine full seasons of his career, he’s been worth at least 2.4 WAR, and at least 3.1 in seven of the nine.

Over the last year-plus, he proved that he was completely adaptable to the National League. In fact, little seems to faze Lackey outside of boneheaded plays by his fielders or being pulled out of a game mid-inning. On Slack, Jeff Sullivan described him as “boringly consistent,” and if you don’t believe him, just look at Lackey’s average fastball velocity — 91.5-91.7 mph for each of the last four years. Over the last two years, Lackey has junked his slider for a two-seamer (at least, according to PITCHf/x), but other than that he’s not much different.

If you’re thinking that $32 million is a lot of coin for a pitcher entering his age-37 season, well, I suppose you’re not technically wrong. And if we were to look up the pitchers who netted contracts of $10+ million per year heading into their age-37 season, it’d probably be a short list. But if you think Lackey is between a two-and-three-win pitcher and that a win on the market costs between $7 and $8 million, well then this is a pretty fair deal given our current market conditions. And perhaps there is some extra synergy in Lackey being back with old friend Jon Lester. Epstein and Hoyer clearly aren’t afraid of another chicken and beer scandal.

The Cubs don’t necessarily need to be done working on their starting rotation. But if they are done, they should not only have a good starting rotation, but a stable one. Contrast that to the health question marks in that rotation to the southwest (Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Jaime Garcia) and the defections in that rotation to the east (A.J. Burnett and J.A. Happ) and the Cubs may just head to spring training as the favorites in the National League Central.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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8 years ago

“Cubs may just head to spring training as the favorites in the National League Central”

I didn’t know the off seasons for STL and Pittsburgh ended today.

Paul hate my team!
8 years ago
Reply to  Paul Swydan

Why do you hate my team Paul!

very insecure
8 years ago
Reply to  Paul Swydan

I want that phrase changed right meow,dang it!