Jon Lester changes Cubs' course

SAN DIEGO -- The moment the text message lit up his cell phone late Tuesday night, Joe Maddon knew that everything had changed.

Holy Cubby Bear. Jon Lester was about to become a Cub. He wasn't going to Los Angeles. He wasn't going to San Francisco, home of the World Series champs. He wasn't going back to Boston.

Nope. He had chosen, of his own free will, with the slight enticement of 155 million negotiable Ricketts family dollars, to become a Cub. Wow.

Maddon looked at the text from Theo Epstein and quietly put the phone back in his pocket. He didn't change expressions. He didn't alert the world. But he knew.

Everything about the direction the Chicago Cubs were heading -- next season and beyond -- had just been altered. The Cubs, ladies and gentlemen, were suddenly going for it. The Cubs!

"It's not often," said Maddon, the manager of those Cubs, "that you get to win the lottery."

Yeah, but you know what's right up there with Powerball? Power arms. And now, with Lester on board, the question is whether, with the addition of this particular power arm, the Cubs have suddenly changed the balance of power in the National League Central.

"Well," smiled Maddon, "this definitely propels us into Plan A."

Oh, he didn't exactly lay out the specifics of Plan A. But he didn't have to. Did he?

With one thunderous acquisition, the Cubs were no longer that anonymous last-place team with a roster full of Junior Lakes and Brian Schlitters. They were an official baseball powerhouse, making a statement about who they were and where they were going.

Asked if the addition of Lester was the kind of signing that alters the course of this franchise, Maddon replied: "We'd like to believe that, yeah. I mean, that's why you do things like this."

No doubt. But then again, how would anybody in Chicago possibly know that? The Cubs just don't do "Things Like This." Then again, nobody but the Yankees has ever been known to do "Things Like This."

Before this deal, the only team not located in the Bronx to sign a free-agent pitcher to a contract greater than $126 million was the Dodgers, with their 2012 signing of Zack Greinke, for six years and $147 million.

But this deal was different. Different from all of them. Different because the Cubs didn't have to do this.

They weren't built to win next year. They were being built, carefully and painstakingly, by Epstein and Jed Hoyer, to win in 2016 or 2017 or maybe even 2018, depending on how things came together and the young guys progressed.

So they really should have been chasing Lester with the idea that if they got him, great, and if they didn't, hey, what was the big deal? It wasn't their time. It wasn't their place. And there was a great crop of free-agent arms coming next winter, too.

But that wasn't how this pursuit unfolded at all. From the first day of free agency, they were all-in. With every ounce of energy the front office could muster. And every ivy leaf on the outfield wall. And every dollar in the Ricketts' checkbook.

And why? Because, if they could pull this off, they could alter both their image and their timetable. They could slam that gas pedal to the floor. They would no longer be rebuilding from their messy past. They'd be building toward their beautiful future. They were speeding up their assault on the rest of their division and the rest of their sport.

"I don't know yet how this speeds it up," Maddon said Tuesday night, from the middle of an impromptu media crush in the winter meetings hotel lobby. "But this is very exciting."

Only a few hours earlier, the Cubs had traded for Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero, a two-time All-Star. Now they'd topped off an amazing day by reeling in Lester. And when that happens, the manager said, "you can really throw the cards in there a little bit and see where it's going to take you."

A day like this doesn't help Javier Baez make more contact, of course. A day like this doesn't turn Addison Russell or Kris Bryant or Jorge Soler into instant stars. All that was always going to take time. And it still will.

But without a day like this, if Maddon had waltzed into the clubhouse on the first day of spring training and talked about contending, that talk would have sounded like the same old spring-training happy talk every manager spews in the middle of every February.

Instead, with Lester sitting in the clubhouse, it isn't just the usual baloney. Not anymore. Instead, Maddon said, "it definitely makes it more believable to everyone else in the room."

And more important, it ought to make it more believable to everyone else in the sport, too.

The addition of Lester affects the rest of baseball in multiple ways, you know. For one thing, just in the short term, it frees the winter meetings from Lester captivity, kick-starts the Max Scherzer/James Shields free-agent watch, topples the trade dominoes and forces the Red Sox, in particular, to reach into their How Do We Build A Rotation If We Don't Sign Lester file and begin wheeling and dealing.

But in the long term, this sport has to grapple with a much bigger question: What should everybody now make of the Cubs?

From the day Epstein and Hoyer walked in the door in 2011, their plan was not to hope they get lucky and win a World Series some day. Their plan was to build something deep and powerful and lasting, a team with a shot to win in October every year.

They didn't know then that the plan would include signing Lester. But because, three years later, they were able to sell what they had already built, the acquisition of a true ace has given them the type of credibility they didn't have a week ago.

And it allowed them to dangle in front of Lester the thought of what it might feel like to be the guy on the mound the day the Cubs win the World Series -- for the first time in more than 100 years. How 'bout that thought?

"You know," Maddon said, when asked if he thought Lester might have been enticed by that dream, "I wouldn't doubt it. I wouldn't doubt that at all. I mean, he's been there before. He understands what it feels like. And I want to believe that he could foresee the same thing happening here."

Well, apparently he could. And now, thanks to the most stunning addition of the 2014-15 offseason, the other 29 teams in baseball just might have to believe it, too.