As much as this series against the Washington Nationals is a big test for the Cubs’ fitness as players in the National League this year, Wednesday’s finale at Wrigley Field offers a first-semester Economics-class report card for both teams.
Washington’s Max Scherzer and the Cubs’ Jon Lester – the top two free agent pitchers of last winter – square off for the fourth time in their careers, first in the National League.
But this time with the added intrigue of their combined $365 million free-agent haul.
“Obviously, with everything that went on this offseason with all that stuff, yeah. it’s natural for everybody to get into it,” said Lester, who is 4-0 with a 1.85 ERA this month.
If anything, the showcase of aces is a study in creative financing for teams with big plans and short-term cash restrictions.
Theo Epstein’s front office used 2014 payroll savings it squirreled away after a failed bid for Japanese free agent Masahiro Tanaka to pay the $15 million front half of Lester’s signing bonus and much of his first-year salary on the six-year $155 million deal – achieving a palatable distribution over the next five years of Cubs revenue/spending uncertainty.
The Nationals haven’t seen a dime of local television revenue for two years because of the legal battle over rights-fees distribution between the Nationals and Baltimore Orioles, who both have games carried by the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN).
With the Nationals poised to contend, general manager Mike Rizzo went after Scherzer, the former Cy Young Award winner, aggressively, landing him for $210 million over seven years – half of it deferred tax-free. That allowed the Nationals to make Scherzer’s salaries work under a payroll in a serious state of flux.
Lester and Scherzer were inextricably linked since both turned down offers from their teams more than a year ago and prepared for free agency – eventually turning into the pitching market-setters during the offseason.
Lester went first, during the winter meetings in December, largely because he wasn’t tied to a draft-compensation pick by virtue of his midseason trade from the Boston Red Sox to the Oakland A’s.
“It was a fun offseason I’m sure for him,” Lester said, “and something I definitely don’t want to ever go through again.”
Not that Scherzer’s omnipresence on the market had anything to do with Lester, as far as Lester was concerned.
“Even with [James] Shields,” Lester said of the third big free agent arm. “I don’t feel like you try to compete with anybody. I feel like you’ve just got to stay in your foxhole and try to battle it out and do what’s best for your family, and at the end of the day, obviously Max got a hell of a lot more, and that’s awesome for him.”
That’s definitely not a complaint.
“I think we’re both in pretty good spots,” Lester said.
So who got the better deal? First pitch is 7:05 p.m. as Lester tries to even his lifetime record against Scherzer.
“It’s just like going against a guy like [Pittsburgh ace] Gerrit Cole or [Mets pitchers Matt] Harvey or [Jacob] deGrom, or any of these guys,” said Lester, who beat Scherzer and the Detroit Tigers 2-1 in their first meeteing in 2013 but lost the next two (including a 1-0 game last year). “You know it’s going to be a well-pitched game on their side. You can’t try to do too much.”
—Jason McLeod, the Cubs’ top player development executive, said the front office is having regular internal discussions about the timeline for infielder Javy Baez’s return to the big-leagues, but that nothing has been determined. Baez, who might be the Cubs’ top-fielding middle infielder, is playing both shortstop and second base for AAA Iowa, where he was hitting .311 with five homers and a .911 OPS (through Monday) since joining the team a month ago. “All we’re concerned about right now is him maintaining this,” McLeod said.
—Right-hander Pierce Johnson, the Cubs’ No. 2 pitching prospect (Baseball America), is expected to return from a back injury and join his Class AA Tennessee team by the first week of June, said McLeod. Johnson, who missed significant chunks of last season with leg injuries, has dealt with the back problem since early in spring training.