The Chicago Cubs could be aggressive shoppers in the free agent market this offseason, so it’s worth taking a look at some of the players who could be of potential interest to the team. These players present possible fits for the Cubs, at a range of potential costs and talent levels.
Performance in 2015
After having just established that the St. Louis Cardinals were the most overachieving (or fortunate) starting pitching staff during the 2015 season, John Lackey’s line above comes at no surprise. His ERA was 2.77 in a season where his FIP (3.57) and xFIP (3.77) were about a full run higher. To be fair, over his thirteen seasons from 2002-2015, his ERA was smaller than his FIP six times, so it wasn’t entirely unusual. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to say that 2015 was anything but a resounding success for Lackey.
Over his 33 starts (218 IP), he accumulated 3.6 WAR, in addition to his sub 3.00 ERA. Even though his advanced stats indicate that a good amount of his success was due to things outside of his control (like defense), it isn’t a clear sweep across the board for lady luck.
Last season, Lackey’s BABIP (.295) and HR/FB% (9.8%), for a couple examples, were perfectly normal for his career and the league. He didn’t strikeout a ton of batters (19.5%), but that is far from an embarrassing rate. Also, he was able to keep his walks under control (5.9%), in addition to inducing a very solid ground ball rate of 46.0%. However, his overwhelming success was certainly propped up by an unusually high 82.6% left on base rate, but, like I said, it isn’t like he didn’t do plenty of things well, too.
Final verdict: John Lackey was legitimately good in 2015.
Performance before 2015
For most pitchers in this series, I’ve taken a look at what they’ve done for their career, and used it as a baseline to put their 2015 performance in perspective. Sometimes the result is a vindication of the success or failure they experienced, while other times it proves that 2015 was an outlier. In nearly all cases, though, the bigger the sample, the better the baseline, and John Lackey has a big sample. However, I won’t be doing the exact same thing in this instance, and I’ll tell you why…
Although Lackey has pitched in 13 seasons from 2002 to 2015 (nearly 2,500 innings), that wasn’t one continuous mark and it comes with a pretty significant break. At the end of the 2011 season, Lackey received Tommy John surgery, forcing him to miss the entirety of the 2012 season. At 32 years old, it was safe bet to see the surgery as the beginning of the end for the aging righty.
However, that was hardly the case.
In 2013, Lackey made his way back from Tommy John surgery and has now completed three full seasons in a row. Over that stretch, he reached 189.1 IP, 198.0 IP and 218.0 IP over 93 starts from ages 34-36. Given that he is now a 37-year-old Tommy John recoveree who effectively reinvented himself over the past three seasons, I don’t think it would be fair to compare him to his much younger, former self. So let’s just use 2013 and 2014, which is admittedly a small sample, to compare.
Across the 387 innings pitched from 2013-2014, John Lackey looks a lot like he did in 2015. His ERA (3.67) was, of course, a bit higher, but his FIP (3.82) and xFIP (3.49) were more or less in the neighborhood. Given that he was coming off of TJS, a period of returning to form should not be unexpected.
Indeed, some of the peripheral statistics still look great. His ground ball rate over that stretch was still a fantastic 45.5%, his BABIP (.293) was normal, and his strikeout rate (20.2%) and walk rate (5.4%) are more or less in line with what we saw in 2015. Additionally, his fastball rate has essentially remained unchanged from 2007, bouncing from a low of 91.1 MPH (2010) to a high of 91.7 MPH (2014). In 2015, his fastball velocity was 91.6 MPH.
Projection for 2016 and Beyond
As I’m sure you can tell by now, Lackey isn’t the easiest player to project. On the one hand, you have a 37-year-old, TJS recoveree coming off his best year in a while – a performance that was supported, in part, by events that were mostly out of his control. On the other hand, you have a pitcher who, despite arm troubles in the past, has reestablished himself as a reliable starter capable of throwing 200 innings of ball, with an ERA somewhere between 3.00 and 3.50.
Will he finally wear down due to his age and injury history, or does he have a couple of more years in the tank?
Steamer is projecting a slight regression: 3.88 ERA (3.89 FIP) over 190 IP and 2.6 fWAR. Although, the system still projects a 19.4% strikeout rate and a 5.8% walk rate – both of which are very similar to 2015. Essentially, Steamer projects Lackey to have a very similar season to 2015, minus all of sequencing luck… Interested?
Possible Contract/Existing Rumors
Not unlike the difficulty in projecting his performance, projecting the contract Lackey ultimately gets is going to be difficult. Tim Dierkes (MLBTR) has him going to the Cubs for three years and $50M, Dave Cameron (Fangraphs) has him returning to the Cardinals for two years and $26M and Ken Davidoff (New York Post) has him heading to the Astros for three years and $45M.
The average AAV, then, seems to be somewhere in the $15M dollar range. Given that he declined the 1 year $15.8M qualified offer, I’m guessing this goes from a low end of 2/$32M to a high end of 3/$45M.
You already know, by now, that Lackey received Tommy John surgery in 2011, forcing him to miss the entire 2012 season. While it’s true that having previously received Tommy John surgery is one of the biggest precursors to future arm troubles, Lackey has proven himself healthy over three straight seasons. While his age is certainly a cause for concern, I don’t think his health – in a vacuum – is.
Fit For Cubs
John Lackey is 37 years old and made his major league debut in 2002. He’s had some fantastic years, some mediocre years, some injured years and everything in between. In 2011, at the age of 32, he received Tommy John surgery in what was looking like the beginning of the end of his career, but he came back and he came back strong. The Cubs will be very seriously looking for starting pitching this offseason, so any target out there remains a possibility, including 37-year-old pitchers.
I can, however, already sense many fans getting hung up on his age and I have something to say about that, too.
The Chicago Cubs have been rebuilding for a long, long time. During that time, we focused so intently on getting better in the future, that we essentially began to dismiss any player over the age of 30, for fear of what they might become. And, to be sure, players tend to peak early on in their careers and regress near the end of them. But every player isn’t the same. I’ve danced around the following idea quite a bit in this series, but I’m going to continue beating this drum: at some point, with some decision, the Cubs are going to worry about next year and next year alone. That could mean a blockbuster trade of Major League pieces, a blockbuster trade full of top prospects or the signing of a 37-year-old starting pitcher.
Is John Lackey a safe bet for a three-year contract? Truthfully? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean that his potential contributions in 2016 aren’t very real and very obtainable.
For one thing, his fastball velocity has been so consistent over the past eight years – even through the TJS – that a sudden drop off shouldn’t really be expected. And even if his velocity were to drop a little, he is already operating in the low 90s. Velocity hasn’t been the thing that’s carried him all this way. Like with Jon Lester (or even Zack Greinke), I think this front office values pitchers that have made their living without a dynamite fastball precisely because velocity drops are less likely to negatively impact their future performance.
However, I am not blind. I do see the risks, the draft pick compensation, and the very large free agent starting pitching pool around Lackey. On those points alone, it is hard to imagine a marriage, although that isn’t the end of the story. I actually think there is a perfect scenario for Lackey ending up on the Cubs, and it is one we’ve talked about before: The James Shields scenario. With Lackey’s age, contract demands, and ties to draft pick compensation, it is extremely easy to see his negotiations looming on into January and February. Maybe by then, the opportunity for a bargain presents itself, and I can very easily see the Cubs pouncing.
It might not be the most likely scenario in the world, but don’t be shocked if John Lackey is pitching for the Cubs in 2016.