Is Jon Lester getting over a minor arm issue (dead arm) or is he just building arm strength for the season? However you frame it, Lester will make his final Spring appearance tomorrow morning in a minor league game, and the Chicago Cubs haven’t announced their starting rotation just yet. Presumably, the Cubs will wait to finalize the rotation until after Lester’s start tomorrow.
Although I suppose that could engender concern – Lester’s Spring has not proceeded like the other starters, and he’s as important as anyone on the team, so yeah, some concern – it’s also possible that everything is just precautionary, and Lester will be out there on Sunday facing the Cardinals and looking good.
Lester, whose last minor league outing was “normal,” will hopefully get up to 70 or 80 pitches in tomorrow’s outing, which would put him in position to be in the 90 to 100 range on Opening Day (a cold, first start in April at Wrigley? Hell, I’d be fine with him being pulled before 100 pitches even if he was completely healthy). If Lester needs another build-up start, though, so be it. The season is long, and, as long as there isn’t an actual injury, this could easily prove to be nothing but a blip we barely remember come July and August. (Hopefully.)
After the Lester question, the remaining issues to sort out in the rotation are who is the fifth starter – Travis Wood or Edwin Jackson – and what is the order. But Lester’s situation impacts that stuff, too. If Lester has to miss a start, then the Cubs might elect to shift around the rotation order to maximize who faces the Cardinals. Further, since Lester has been only in minor league games the last week, the Cubs could backdate a 15-day disabled list stint – if necessary! – so that he misses just one turn through the rotation, and each of Wood and Jackson could get a start. If Lester has to miss more than one start, then the “fifth” starter decision is deferred for a little while.
But let’s not go panicking about any of that stuff just yet. Lester starts tomorrow, and we’ll see what the Cubs opt to do. I think the presumption is still that he’ll be good to start – but slightly limited in pitch count – on Sunday.
As for that fifth starter job, Wood has seemed like the favorite for quite a while now, with Jackson on the outside looking in – his good start yesterday wasn’t going to change things. Still, it sounds like Joe Maddon is no longer considering a creative platoon-type strategy for the two starters, meaning one will be the fifth starter and one will be dealt or in the bullpen (Cubs.com, CSN, ESPN).
If no last-minute trade comes, it seems likely that Wood will be in the rotation, and Jackson’s role will depend on Lester’s health and the bullpen formulation. If Lester looks good following tomorrow’s start, then Jackson probably will become the long reliever in the bullpen to start the season (here’s me still wondering whether he could be a quality one-inning guy, but maybe that ship has sailed). Then, when Tsuyoshi Wada or Jacob Turner is ready to return, the Cubs will have to do more shuffling.
Barring their own last-minute injury, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, and Kyle Hendricks will be the other three starters in the Cubs’ rotation, and each has looked good this Spring.