Cubs welcome return of popular Lieber
Veteran won 20 games for club in 2001, signs one-year deal
CHICAGO -- Jon Lieber is back with the Cubs.
The free agent pitcher, who was the last member of the Cubs to win 20 games, signed a one-year, $3.5 million contract on Wednesday with the team. The deal includes incentives based on games started and innings pitched.
"We're trying to get as much volume as we can, depth-wise, in the rotation to make it more competitive in camp," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said Wednesday in announcing the deal. "We're trying to accumulate as many quality pitchers as we can. We think he adds a lot still to our club."
Lieber, 37, last pitched for the Cubs in 1999-2002, and was 20-6 with a 3.80 ERA in 2001, finishing fourth in the National League Cy Young voting that year. He compiled a 48-36 record in 121 starts for Chicago, and has a career 29-18 record at Wrigley Field.
He has missed time the last two seasons with Philadelphia because of non-arm related injuries, and appeared in 14 games in 2007. The right-hander is healthy and ready to go.
"We thought it made sense, plus, as we all know, he's a tremendous teammate, and great with the young pitchers ... and he still can give you innings," Hendry said.
Lieber ruptured a tendon on the bottom of his right foot in an Interleague game June 20 against Cleveland. He had gone to back up behind home plate, and felt a pop. The official diagnosis was an avulsion to the peroneus longus.
Lieber said he actually began having foot problems during the first week of March in 2007, but it didn't tear until the freak misstep. He underwent surgery, and finished his rehab in early October. Now, he said, everything is fine, and Lieber is back on his normal offseason routine.
He will join the Cubs' list of starting candidates that includes Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Rich Hill, Jason Marquis, Ryan Dempster, Sean Marshall, Sean Gallagher and Kevin Hart. Last season, the Cubs felt they had enough arms, but Mark Prior never made a start, Wade Miller and Angel Guzman were able to make three each, and Marshall wasn't ready at the beginning of the season. They added veteran Steve Trachsel at the end.
"You try to get as many arms as you can," Hendry said. "As proven in the past, the good years or bad, when you think you have enough, you never do."
Hart, who impressed Cubs manager Lou Piniella last season, may be used in long relief to ease him into the big leagues. Although Hendry says he likes having depth, the Cubs also may use some of the pitchers as bargaining chips. He hinted that the team isn't finished upgrading the roster.
"It's one of those years where there's still a lot to do, we hope," Hendry said. "We'd still like to make some moves to get better before we got to camp."
Could that mean trading for Baltimore second baseman Brian Roberts? Hendry won't comment on other team's players.
"We're going to try to be real aggressive the next three, four weeks before camp and try to come up with somebody else before we get there," he said.
Lieber isn't assuming he has a spot locked up in the Cubs rotation. He was the Phillies' Opening Day starter two years in a row, but last season, was told he'd be used out of the bullpen because of the logjam of pitchers. His first two games were relief appearances, and then he made 12 starts before his foot injury.
"I'll do whatever it takes to help the Chicago Cubs win," Lieber said Wednesday. "I'm more prepared [if needed to pitch in relief] this year. The Cubs do have five quality starters and I just want to be a part of this organization and help them win as many ballgames as they can."
Lieber did listen to offers from other teams, but was eager to return to Chicago.
"There were some teams out there that were pursuing very hard," Lieber said. "The way I look at it is Chicago has always been special to me, even going through the arm surgery and not being able to get a deal done to come back. It was always in the back of my mind that if I could ever get a chance to be a part of the organization again, I was going to try my best to make it happen."
Lieber is one of the more likable players in the game, and Hill was looking forward to having the right-hander as a teammate.
"I've met Jon a couple times, and I know he'll bring a lot of experience to the clubhouse," Hill said. "You can't teach experience, so to have a veteran guy like him around who's a leader -- and whether he's a vocal leader or leads by example, either way -- it's great. It's great to see a guy who has been a Chicago Cub and has succeeded here in Chicago, to have somebody like that you can go to is a great asset. That's awesome."
Hendry, who has known Lieber since the right-hander pitched in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in junior college, said he began talks about three or four weeks ago.
"He's a winner, he's a strike thrower," Hendry said. "He's got a great winning percentage at Wrigley Field, he throws a lot of ground balls, he gets right-hand hitters out, and he's a first-class teammate. I think he'll be a positive influence between the lines and in the clubhouse."
Lieber was surprised to hear he was the Cubs' last 20-game winner.
"I look at Carlos, and he's going to win 20 and I really believe it'll be more than once or twice," Lieber said. "It's just a matter of time. It definitely does take a lot of things to win 20 -- you can't do it yourself. With this ballclub, I think Zambrano has the best chance."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.