John Lackey has become face of Cubs frustration
By: David Haugh
John Lackey, baseball's grumpiest old man, looks as annoyed as Cubs fans feel when he pitches as poorly as he did Monday night against the Mets — which happens far too often these days.
Lackey cusses more than a comedian on cable TV when he struggles, which seems like every start. He glares at umpires after close calls like they cut him off in traffic on the way to the park. He labors like a man who would rather be anywhere else but on the mound throwing batting practice, which his fastballs suddenly resemble.
It typically takes only a few batters before Lackey affixes his familiar mask of frustration, the pained expression that epitomizes everything in a year marked by underachieving. Every Cubs fan can relate to that reaction. Lackey's long face belongs on one of manager Joe Maddon's custom-made T-shirts under the 2017 mantra: “We've Embraced The Suck”
Forget panicked; the people invested emotionally in this Cubs season have become more perturbed than Lackey every fifth day watching their favorite players sleepwalk through the first 63 games. Irritation outweighs anxiety.
The sorry state of the National League Central, where the cream rises to the middle, still makes it wise not to overreact to a team searching for consistent starting pitching and timely hitting. The length of the season remains the biggest reason to avoid Lackey-like outbursts in your living room. Despite everything, the Cubs still should finish atop a division apparently nobody wants to win. But even Maddon, ever the optimist, has shown recently how natural it is to wonder about these Cubs in moments of weakness.
"We can't keep using that as an excuse — the other team's pitcher is good," Maddon told reporters after losing the series opener to the Mets. "We have to start beating some better pitchers. Period."
Cubs hitters answered with an exclamation point Tuesday night, but it will take more than one game to show progress.
Except for Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, every Cubs regular needs to respond to avoid Maddon's method of tough love. It starts with Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell, the biggest disappointments whose home runs Sunday felt cathartic but hardly solved anything. That so many people rave about Jason Heyward's batting average hovering in the .250 range shows how far a disastrous 2016 season lowered the bar for Heyward offensively.
Ben Zobrist is hitting like a middle infielder instead of a World Series MVP. Javier Baez remains Mr. All-or-Nothing. Ian Happ must counter the adjustments pitchers made after a torrid start before the Cubs ask him to pack for a summer vacation in Iowa. Jon Jay and his .298/.383/.768 slash line make a strong case for more at-bats. If this prolonged slump throughout the lineup continues, especially with runners in scoring position, how long before sports-talk radio callers start mispronouncing the name of Cubs hitting coach John Mallee? (It's MAY-lee.)
Yet blaming the mediocrity on the Cubs offense only obscures the bigger problem. This team will go only as far as the starting pitching takes it, which right now is in circles. No starter has an ERA below 4.00. The Cubs selected left-hander Brendon Little and right-hander Alex Lange with their first two picks in Monday's amateur draft but, alas, neither can join a reeling rotation in Pittsburgh. The urgency in adding a top-of-the-rotation starter currently matches the importance of acquiring a closer at this time last year. Somehow, the Cubs need to find a way to trade for a starting pitcher who will bolster the rotation similarly to how Aroldis Chapman boosted the bullpen.
If that sounds unrealistic, blame Cubs President Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer. Epstein and Hoyer not only earned the benefit of the doubt in assembling a World Series winner but raised expectations for every season that followed. Not only will fans trust whatever big move the Cubs make before July 31 but now they anticipate it will be among the smartest deals executed, even if it means giving up a top prospect — and it could.
In an organization brimming with young talent, shouldn't keeping the Cubs' championship window open this year matter more than the development of any individual player? Nobody necessarily wants the Cubs to part with 20-year-old outfielder Eloy Jimenez or Class a pitcher Dylan Cease or Happ in a trade for a proven starting pitcher, but the open-minded Cubs must be willing to engage in such discussions. Adding an ace-caliber starter wouldn't cure everything but would represent a good start. Rays pitcher Chris Archer or A's starter Sonny Gray — the most speculated targets — might be worth the high price. The chance to change the direction of this season definitely is.
With Kyle Hendricks experiencing tendinitis in his throwing hand and Lackey dealing with life at 38, the Cubs front office must consider acting sooner rather than later. The starting pitching solution isn't on the roster or in the organization. Every start Lackey makes only reinforces that reality. He has given up 11 home runs in his last six starts and 19 already this season. The Lackey the Cubs describe is the cowboy-up pitcher who starred for the Cardinals, Red Sox and Angels more than the overpaid veteran who was a playoff disappointment in 2016 and a liability this year. It's time the Cubs are honest with themselves about Lackey and what this team lacks most.