No matter what happens with the Wrigley Field renovations and the next TV contract, the Cubs will be in position to make a splash and sign Jon Lester to a megadeal.
Multiple industry sources say the Cubs are targeting Lester and will make a run at him this winter, trying to set a foundation piece in the rebuild at Clark and Addison.
That doesn’t mean the Cubs will win a bidding war with the New York Yankees – remember the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes? – and Lester is said to be on pretty good terms with the Boston Red Sox brass after the July 31 deadline trade that shipped him to the Oakland A’s.
But Lester is believed to be open-minded about his future, and the connections to Chicago are obvious. Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, the former Red Sox general manager, watched Lester develop into an All-Star, beating cancer and winning the clinching game in the 2007 World Series.
Lester again showed why he will be in demand on Tuesday night at U.S. Cellular Field, going eight innings and beating the White Sox 11-2. That stopped the bleeding for an Oakland team that had been 28 games over .500 on Aug. 9 and began Sept. 9 barely clinging onto a wild card.
Lester (14-10, 2.52 ERA) has put together his best season, even after coming down from the World Series high. Even with the contract talks leaking out in Boston and all the speculation about his next destination. Even in getting traded from the only team he’d ever known and being dropped into a completely different environment.
“I just try to do my job,” Lester said. “Year in and year out, I just try to do my job. I only get to do it every five days, so I take a lot of pride in that fifth day, regardless of the circumstance, whether it’s playoffs, whether it’s contract year, whether it’s anything else. If I do my job, all that stuff will take care of itself.”
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Either this winter or next, the Cubs are expected to acquire one or two big names to anchor their rotation. Even if it didn’t lead to a blockbuster trade with the Philadelphia Phillies, claiming Cole Hamels on waivers last month showed how the Cubs are thinking.
Epstein’s baseball operations department already built a war chest with leftover money from a losing bid for Tanaka (six years, $120 million). The Alfonso Soriano megadeal finally falls off the books after this season.
The Cubs have less than $30 million committed to Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Jorge Soler, Edwin Jackson and Ryan Sweeney next season, a projection that doesn’t include arbitration cases.
“Because we have so many young players who are going to be cost-controlled over the next several seasons,” Epstein said, “we have tremendous flexibility built into our roster as it is. We’re going to field a pretty good nucleus with a very low payroll associated with that.
“That in and of itself – and some of the savings that we’ve made over the last offseason for example – will allow us the flexibility we need to be very aggressive should the right player or players present themselves to us.”
That doesn’t solve all the big-picture issues for the Ricketts family and Crane Kenney’s business operations department. It won’t automatically spike the payroll back to where it was during the final years of Tribune Co. ownership. But the Cubs are getting to a place where they can overpay for pitching and absorb decline seasons when someone like Lester reaches his mid-30s.
“On a longer-term look,” Epstein said, “as we get closer to a new TV deal, and as we start to realize some of the revenues associated with the renovated Wrigley Field, I believe that will only enhance our flexibility and our aggressiveness.
“That’s down the road. I’m very confident in our business side, that the right TV deal will be struck at the right time and we’re going to realize revenues from Wrigley Field.
“But those two things combined – the flexibility that we have and the potential for increased payroll down the road with increased revenues – has got to make Cubs fans excited.”
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Lester will be 31 next season and has already won two World Series rings, which might make him a little more patient – as long as the money’s right – while the Cubs try to piece together a perennial contender.
Max Scherzer is not believed to be interested in a rebuilding situation, and the Scott Boras client already turned down a reported six-year, $144 million offer from the Detroit Tigers in spring training.
Lester checks all the boxes. He’s durable, on track to make 30-plus starts for the seventh straight season. He’s a good teammate who knows all about the pressures of playing in a big market.
“I love Jon,” said Oakland pitcher Jason Hammel, an ex-Cub who grew up near Lester in Washington. “He’s a Tacoma boy. I played against him in summer ball. We came up against each other. We played against each other in tournaments all the time. He’s a great guy. I can see why he’s successful and also why he’s very likeable. (He’s a) good family guy and a hard worker.”
“You always feel like you have a great chance to win the game,” Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. “You feel like he’s going to keep you in the game, regardless, and he’s done that for us.
“As far as confidence as a team goes, it always starts with the starting pitcher that you run out there on that particular day. Whatever team he’s on, you’re going to feel good about your chances to win that day.”
The Cubs understand they need someone to set the tone for their pitching staff, help establish a clubhouse culture and take the ball for Game 1 of a playoff series. That’s what Lester could do on the North Side.