Even with Lester, Cubs won’t contend in 2015

SAN DIEGO –€“ Ken Rosenthal broke the news about Jon Lester agreeing to a deal with the Cubs, and then wrote a solid piece about what this means for the balance of power in the National League Central. I’€™m going to argue with Ken, just a little, though… 

Because while the addition of Jon Lester obviously means the Cubs are serious about winning –€“ you know, just in case anybody ever doubted that Theo Epstein would take a job where he couldn’€™t eventually get serious about winning –€“ I don’€™t believe it means they’€™re serious about winning immediately.

I’€™ll explain myself in a moment. First, let me be really clear about this: Lester’€™s contract is perfectly reasonable, in the sense that this is exactly the sort of money that pitchers like Jon Lester get. Hell, he might have been able to get even a little more from some other club. Yes, six years is a long time. Five years is a long time. But maybe the equation changes a little when you’€™ve got special knowledge about a pitcher, and Theo Epstein certainly has special knowledge about Lester. Monday, Derrick Goold asked Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak about Missouri native and baseball enthusiast Max Scherzer, and I found this instructive:

“Our opportunity just doesn’t really exist for someone to come in here unless we’re willing to bump somebody out of the rotation,” Mozeliak said. “To do that at the price of five, six, seven years doesn’t seem like it’s in our best interest.”

The Cardinals have shied away from offering starting pitchers long-term deals except for pitchers already in their organization. Wainwright received a five-year extension added on to a previous contract that gave him six years guaranteed — the longest by the club for a pitcher…

–snip–

The starters that Mozeliak has signed as free agents all have started with one-year deals, such as Kyle Lohse, Brad Penny and Sidney Ponson. … Mozeliak described longer term deals for pitchers as “a risky position” and that time missed with injury has to be “baked” into the salary offered.

Every team that accepts the Winner’€™s Curse has its reasons: some of them good, some maybe not so good. Some of those reasons are emotional, and some of them are logical, and you can guess which usually lead to better outcomes. I guess we could devise a study to see if teams fare better when re-signing their own players than when signing less-familiar players. For the moment, I will assume that familiarity does lead to better outcomes.*

* Granted, the Red Sox have just as much "€œspecial knowledge" about Lester as the Cubs, and yet the Sox reportedly made a substantially smaller offer. But that’s getting in the way of my narrative, damn it.

Anyway, we don’€™t know if the Cubs were actually the highest bidders; if they were, we might assume they had some extra information on their side, and information is the name of the game. Well, information and luck. Luck helps.

In 2015? The Cubs will need a lotta luck to challenge the Cardinals and the Pirates.

In 2014, the Cubs went 73-89 and were outscored by nearly a hundred runs.

In 2014, Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija combined for 216 2/3 innings and a 3.14 FIP with the Cubs. Also in 2014, Jon Lester pitched 220 innings with a 2.46 ERA. Not exactly but essentially, Lester does little but replace what the Cubs lost when Hammel and Samardzija were mailed to Oakland last summer.

In the short term. 

The Cubs have also acquired Miguel Montero. Now, Montero’€™s better than incumbent catcher Wellington Castillo, particularly if you believe in Baseball Prospectus’ pitch-framing metrics. But it’€™s not like the Cubs just replaced Drew Butera with Buster Posey or something. Castillo’€™s decent, Montero’€™s pretty good.

In the short term, adding Lester and Montero makes the Cubs maybe two or three games better than they were last year. Or maybe I’m WAY OFF … and it’€™s four or five games. Now tack on another four or five to account for the mystical powers of Joe Maddon. That still leaves them well short of scaring the Cardinals.

In the short term.

In the long term, of course, Lester’€™s around for a while and Montero’€™s signed through 2017, which is two fewer things for Theo and Jed to worry about. If Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks and the recently re-signed Jason Hammel were for real last season, that’s even three fewer things to worry about.

But the Cubs finished 12th in the National League in scoring last season, largely because of a .300 team on-base percentage. Is that going to improve much in 2015? I don’€™t see how, with the personnel at hand, because Anthony Rizzo’€™s the only excellent hitter on the 40-man roster.

Yes, the Cubs have a ton of young talent. If they’€™re willing to trade some of that young talent for hitting, they could contend in 2015. My guess is they’€™ll hold most of their young talent, targeting 2016 or even ‘€™17 for that elusive championship. Sure, if the Cubs get off to a hot start next spring and the kids are playing well enough already, they can always make a deal or two. But I think signing Lester is just the first exciting part of a long-term plan that does not include mortgaging the long-term future. Because I think that’s how Theo Epstein prefers to operate, and he can do that in Chicago without the specter of past success that haunted him in Boston.