In his soon-to-be published book “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports,” big-word-using Yahoo Sports baseball scribe Jeff Passan drops a bomb regarding Jon Lester’s health.
Or maybe it’s more appropriate to say he lobbed a grenade.
“The ultrasound on Lester’s elbow [following the 2014 season] confirmed the presence of something he long suspected lurked inside: a bone chip,” Passan reported. “The UCL itself looked fine, thankfully, and the range of motion…was better than expected, but a little grenade floated near his ligament, and at some point it would warrant surgery.”
Huh, maybe that’s why he can’t throw over to first base.
I jest, but the issues of Lester’s throws and the elbow behind them are intertwined to an extent. By that I mean that they’re not big deals until we choose to make them so. Because they hadn’t been observing him closely prior to 2015, many Cubs fans perseverated on what they thought was some new predicament for their team’s $155 million lefty. Ah, but Lester had pretty much stopped trying to hold runners a couple years earlier.
Likewise, the bone chip is less than a novel concept.
“We all know that there are partial tears and ligament weaknesses and bone chips and any other thing you can imagine that’s probably wrong with us,” Lester explained after his most recent start over the weekend. “Regardless of what an MRI shows, you can throw a pitch and blow out. “That’s the risk of the game. I’ve been pitching a long time.”
Well, yeah, that’s cool and all, but it’s your elbow, dude. You can imagine why people might get a little freaked out about a foreign object — even one with with green card — floating around in the crux of your pitching arm.
“I think my track record speaks for itself. And I haven’t missed any time for any elbow problems. Knock on wood. I don’t think it was a huge issue for [the Cubs].”
Hmm, you do bring up a good point. And you did knock wood, which carries mad weight with me and the rest of this curse-loving fanbase. BUT IT’S STILL A BONE CHIP IN YOUR ELBOW!
“It’s all about what you can do effectively on that mound.”
Damn you and your logical trump cards, Lester!
When it comes to logic, though, I’m actually more inclined to trust that of Theo Epsetin, Jed Hoyer, and the rest of the Cubs brain trust. They knew about the issues with throwing over to first. They knew about the little floater in Lester’s elbow. And yet they still felt confident enough in his ability to pitch, and pitch well, to offer him what was the largest free agent contract in club history at the time.
Having seen him come up through the Red Sox organization, Epstein and Co. were intimately familiar with who Lester was, both as a person and a pitcher. You don’t base monster contracts on being friends with a guy, but it sure doesn’t hurt. More than his personality, though, the Cubs’ knowledge of Lester extended to his preparation and overall health, including that of his arm.
“If you look back on DL time (in) the big leagues,” Lester reasoned, “it’s been for two things — cancer and a lat strain — so there haven’t been any elbow problems.”
As a quick aside here, I’d like to kindly ask cancer to eff off.
Lester sort of casually, almost flippantly, mentions his own battle — with anaplastic large cell lymphoma back in 2006 — here, but his calm is telling. This is a guy who doesn’t get rattled easily, who takes the mound every fifth day and goes about his business.
Some people would have seen the MRI Passan wrote of and viewed Lester’s elbow as half full of bone chips. The Cubs, on the other hand, saw it as half empty. That is, they chose not to fixate on something that could go wrong in the face of all the things they’d seen go right over the years. That’s a risky proposition given the time and money involved here, but Epstein isn’t some drunken riverboat gambler chasing cards and hoping to get lucky.
And if he felt enough at ease with Lester’s left arm and all its attendant issues to make the pitcher the Cubs’ top priority last season, I’m not going to treat it like a ticking timebomb. Sure, it’s a little concerning that the guy can’t always be trusted to toss a handheld explosive in the general direction of first base and it’s a little concerning that he’s got a known medical condition that may eventually require surgical correction.
But as far as I’m concerned, the only grenades of note will be those Lester uses to saw off opposing bats and induce ground balls in 2016.