MESA, Ariz. – If the baseball season goes according to plan for the Cubs, John Lackey will turn 38 about the time they’re wrapping up the National League Championship Series next fall.
If they’re doing that, then it likely means Lackey’s right arm is still attached and functioning well enough to be ready for a fifth World Series start.
If not, then it might be a sign some of those baseball projection pundits were right to be wary of the big Texan’s advancing age.
“It’s a non-issue, really,” said Lackey, who produced statistically the best season of his career last year for the 100-win Cardinals, before signing a two-year, $32 million deal with the Cubs as a free agent. “I feel as good as I have.”
He could have been mistaken for a kid again on Monday, if only for his six-inning role in a Class A minor-league game on a back field at the Cubs’ spring training facility.
Of course, the scruff of beard, weather-beaten face and smooth command as he pitched gave him away during the Cubs’ lone off day on the Cactus League schedule.
Lackey schooled the A-ball kids with six strikeouts during the scoreless outing, allowing only one hit and a walk and just four balls hit out of the infield. He retired the final 10 he faced.
“Physically, I feel good,” he said. “I feel like things are coming together well. Camp’s been running pretty smoothly. I think I’ll be right on time.”
Cubs fans can take that any way they want as the Lackey prepares for an April 7 Cubs debut in Arizona during a season with more expectations and hype than any Cubs season in his lifetime.
And if you want to worry about his age, well, “I feel probably better now than I did when I was 30, to be honest with you,” he said.
“Well I had a broke elbow for about two years that I was trying to grind through,” he said. “That was no fun.”
In fact, since returning from Tommy John surgery in 2013, Lackey has produced three of the six lowest ERAs of his career, his 218 innings last year ranked second in his career only to his 2007 All-Star season, and manager Joe Maddon said he believes Lackey is a better pitcher than when Maddon watched Lackey pitch the Angels to a World Series victory in 2002.
“I have more options, more pitches, more things I can do if one thing’s not working,” said Lackey, whose velocity since surgery has been consistently in the low 90s. “I can trust my abilities and trust pitching to contact and making hitters make decisions.”
Note: Outfielder Matt Szczur, who had been sidelined much of camp with a “slight” oblique injury, batted for the second minor-league game in three days Monday, and looked strong enough to suggest a Cactus League debut in the next few days. Szczur’s roster status is complicated by the fact he’s out of options and likely will be lost to the organization if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster.