Can Jon Lester be key for Cubs’ pitching stability post-Arrieta?

MESA, Ariz. — It’s there, lurking on the horizon.

At the end of the season, starters Jake Arrieta and John Lackey become free agents, creating an urgency not only to win again now but also to find another impact performer for the rotation.

All-Star closer Wade Davis and postseason veteran Koji Uehara also are signed only through this year.

Veteran left-hander Jon Lester — one of the most significant acquisitions leading up to last fall’s championship — sees the same storm clouds approaching. But he all but scoffs at the gloomy forecast.

Jon Lester in Game 5 of the NLCS last fall. (AP/Mark J. Terrill)

“You just kind of roll with it from there,” Lester said. “That’s the unfortunate part about the game is that guys move on, guys retire, important pieces retire and move on, and you have to find that next guy to replace him.

“You hopefully move on to that next guy and replace him with a quality guy.”

Lester suggested it will help that the Cubs “figured out how to win” the last two years. And the Cubs are operating under a front-office philosophy of developing their own hitters while building rotations out of pitchers developed elsewhere.

Of course, that process is only as stable or as volatile as the market.

And it’s hard to imagine the Cubs sustaining the kind of success they had in trading for Arrieta, who in 2015 had the best 20-game finish for a pitcher in history. Or in trading for minor-leaguer Kyle Hendricks, who led the majors in ERA last season.

Or even in signing Lackey, a veteran workhorse with three championships, a man Lester said “helped change the team and our mindset” when he walked into the clubhouse last spring.

Maybe the Cubs will find some of their answers in Mike Montgomery (acquired last July from Seattle) or in promising change-of-scenery guy Eddie Butler (acquired last month from Colorado). Butler pitched four scoreless innings Thursday against the Dodgers.

“Theo [Epstein] does a good job of bringing in good people in all the places that I’ve been,” said Lester of the Cubs team president who was the Red Sox general manager when Lester pitched in Boston. “And I think that translates on the field.”

Lester, who’s in the third year of a six-year, $155 million deal, might be the key to the future rotation.

A four-time All-Star and Cy Young runner-up in 2016, Lester doesn’t shy from the responsibility as the veteran under contract these next four years to help the pitching staff maintain some semblance of the same championship stability the hitting core already looks like it has locked down.

“I think I’ve kind of done that since Day 1,” Lester said. “I don’t talk a lot. I’m not a vocal guy as far as a clubhouse presence. I try to go about my work and be ready to play every five days. I would like to think that I kind of just lead by example.

“We’ll see how it goes. I think the guys that Theo has brought in, whether young or old, have all been kind of in the same mold. I talk to our young guys all the time, and it impresses me to see how they prepare for a game, day in and day out, whether it be a [starting] pitcher or a relief pitcher or a position player or a bench guy.”

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