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Lackey's control woes put Cubs in conundrum

Chicago confident in veteran righty, but attractive options are available
MLB.com @philgrogers

CHICAGO -- There's no worse job on a baseball roster than fifth starter, and that's the role veteran John Lackey is in for the Cubs.

It's going to be an interesting ride for a guy with swagger and a trio of World Series rings. He was an ace at the start of his career and still carries himself like one, doing "the John Wayne strut" to the pitcher's mound, to quote Cubs manager Joe Maddon from Lackey's stint with the Cardinals.

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CHICAGO -- There's no worse job on a baseball roster than fifth starter, and that's the role veteran John Lackey is in for the Cubs.

It's going to be an interesting ride for a guy with swagger and a trio of World Series rings. He was an ace at the start of his career and still carries himself like one, doing "the John Wayne strut" to the pitcher's mound, to quote Cubs manager Joe Maddon from Lackey's stint with the Cardinals.

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Lackey has had enough rough outings this season that his ERA is 4.97, and no one seems to know what's coming next. He hit four White Sox batters on Tuesday, but that didn't stop him from stepping boldly into the box to face reliever Chris Beck, who easily could have drilled him.

Beck would have been ejected from the game, as he had already hit Ian Happ with an apparent retaliation pitch. But was Lackey thinking Beck might ignore umpire Lance Barksdale's warnings and plunk him?

"Maybe a bit,"' he said after the Cubs' 7-2 victory. "Once he threw a threw a [first-pitch] slider, I didn't think anything."

Who knows what a 21-year-old Moe Drabowsky was thinking when he hit Frank Robinson twice and two other Reds once in the first game of a June doubleheader back in 1957? But when Lackey became the first Cub since Drabowsky to hit four in a game, he wasn't trying to hit them. He's just in a funk, getting diminished returns from his usual efforts since turning 38.

"I wasn't trying to hit anyone," Lackey said. "But I understand the other side, too."

Lackey has admitted he's battling Father Time. His velocity is down, and it's getting harder to throw pitches past the world's best batters. More mistakes have been going over the fence, and maybe it's harder to trust himself.

Video: CWS@CHC: Lackey retires Anderson to end the threat

Maddon said Lackey was trying to be a little too fine when he came inside with the pitches that hit Jose Abreu (twice), Matt Davidson and Yoan Moncada.

"John's the guy who normally challenges anybody and everybody," Maddon said. "I think the wind was probably aiding the ball to left field today, and that was probably in his thought process."

With the non-waiver Trade Deadline approaching, Lackey's downturn and the availability of more attractive options on the market is combining to present a conundrum for Maddon and the Cubs, and it seems to be coming fast.

Maddon, then a coach on Mike Scioscia's staff, was among those who wanted Lackey to start Game 7 of the 2002 World Series for the Angels even though the young right-hander was a rookie and would be working on three days' rest. He loves the guy.

But 15 years since that Game 7, it's falling on Maddon and Theo Epstein's front office to determine if the proud Texan has enough left in his arm to get a full ride in the rotation as the Cubs try to get back to the postseason.

It's fair to say Tuesday's ragged outing did not make the strongest of arguments in Lackey's favor, especially not if Epstein can find a way to import Justin Verlander, Sonny Gray or another brand-name rotation piece.

Maddon said he's fine with the rotation as is and hasn't had any talks with Epstein or Jed Hoyer about adding another impact arm to the rotation since the team traded for Jose Quintana.

"If you were to bring somebody else in, there's really a lot of moving parts [that] would have to occur for something like that [to happen],'' Maddon said. "That has not been a part of my discussions with Theo and Jed."

Lackey, of course, was part of the drought-breaking Cubs team of 2016 and also has Series rings from his time in Boston and Anaheim. But his inconsistent performance puts him high on the list of potentially moving parts.

Imagine if they could add Verlander or Gray, both of whom are under control through 2019. That would not only give them the arms they want for a run this season but also send them into the offseason with four-fifths of next year's rotation set (Jon Lester, Quintana, Kyle Hendricks and Verlander/Gray).

MLB.com's sources have said the Cubs and Tigers are talking about Verlander and catcher Alex Avila. The Cubs seem to have the financial flexibility to add Verlander's contract, but would Epstein give up the talent necessary to stop Verlander from going to the Dodgers or someone else?

Don't expect Lackey to give an inch in the meantime. He wouldn't even say he was wild after joining Drabowsky in the Cubs' annals, essentially blaming Davidson and Moncada for not getting out of the way of his 89-mph fastballs.

The White Sox scored their two runs off Lackey in the second inning when pitcher Carlos Rodon roped a double to right-center for his first career hit.

Video: CWS@CHC: Rodon doubles for first hit, gets two RBIs

Lackey said he wasn't bothered as much by that as by Addison Russell covering second base on a pitch to catcher Omar Narvaez two batters earlier, with Tim Anderson breaking for second on a hit-and-run.

"I thought I had me a double-play ball to get out of that thing before he got up there," Lackey said of Rodon. "We had different guys covering, and things happened. I shouldn't have ever pitched to the pitcher.''

Spoken more like an ace than a fifth starter.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.

Chicago Cubs