The Chicago Cubs finalized a two-year, $32 million contract with John Lackey on Tuesday afternoon. The addition solidifies the No. 3 spot in Chicago’s starting rotation behind Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester.
Lackey, 37, looks like an upgrade over Kyle Hendricks, Jason Hammel and Travis Wood, who at different points during the 2015 season acted as Chicago’s third-best starter.
Adding Lackey accomplishes two things. Theo Epstein fortifies the rotation and steals from the division rival St. Louis Cardinals. Lackey posted the lowest ERA of his career (2.77) in his thirteenth Major League season. His 218 innings and effective pitching were the reason the 2015 Cardinals had success despite losing Adam Wainwright.
He finished ninth in the National League Cy Young voting, earning votes for the honor for the first time since 2007.
Lackey’s strikeout and walk rates remained stable, while his home run rate was improved this past season. His FIP (3.57) indicates he is due for a regression, especially as he creeps towards 40. He was poor defensively, adding to a running narrative with Lester part of the same rotation. They were teammates with the chicken-and-beer Boston Red Sox, but that was in the slugging American League East when both were younger.
Epstein, who adds to his streak of nepotism, didn’t sign Lackey expecting 60-plus starts of the pitcher we saw from April to October. The Cubs will be happy with a slight regression that makes the rotation much deeper. Joe Maddon hopes to find Lackey more reliable than Hendricks (3.95 ERA), Hammel (an up-and-down 3.74) or Wood (3.84).
Grade for Cubs: C-
The salary isn’t exorbitant, but the likelihood Lackey continues to pitch like a top-of-the-rotation starter at his age makes the spending questionable. Lackey receives a $7 million signing bonus and salaries of $12.5 million in each of the next two seasons. The Cubs surrender a high draft pick to the Cardinals, who extended a qualifying offer to Lackey. They have no shortage of young prospects, so losing the pick doesn’t cut too deep.
If the Cubs make a deep run in October 2017, they’ll be asking a 39-year-old Lackey to take the mound with a famous curse on the line in a swing game. If they weren’t going to go for broke and add David Price or Zack Greinke, it would have been prudent to give a young pitcher some seasoning or look for a cheaper stopgap.
Grade for Lackey: A
Lackey has collected more than $100 million during his career, but earned this payday. He was one of the most valuable pitchers in baseball this past season thanks to a $507,500 salary. Lackey’s last contract, originally signed with the Boston Red Sox, called for him to make the minimum in 2015 if he missed significant time. He missed the entire 2012 campaign following Tommy John surgery.
His performance in 2015 put him in position to be selective in free agency. The Arizona Diamondbacks, San Francisco Giants, Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox and the Cardinals were all linked to Lackey.
The Cubs give Lackey seemingly all he could ask for -- money, familiar faces and a chance to win third World Series.