Longtime Cubs ace Jon Lester became a free agent Friday night when the Cubs officially declined his $25 million contract option for 2021, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's going anywhere.
The $10 million buyout was long anticipated by the team and Lester, both of whom said publicly this summer they expect to talk about a return for the $36-year-old left-hander on a lower-cost deal during what's expected to be a frugal, slow-moving winter for player markets as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to roil revenue projections.
"It's been a fun ride, and hopefully the ride's not over," Lester said Friday on ESPN 1000's Waddle & Silvy show. "I'm looking forward to hopefully coming back next year."
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The Cubs have two more contract-option decisions to announce before Sunday's deadline: Infielder Daniel Descalso's $3.5 million option is expected to be declined for the $1 million buyout price, and three-time All-Star Anthony Rizzo is likely to have his final $16.5 million option exercised.
The bigger question with Rizzo is whether he and the Cubs renegotiate that one-year deal into a backloaded extension that provides payroll relief for the Cubs during another economically uncertain season in 2021.
Meanwhile, a Cubs team in cost-cutting mode almost certainly will continue dialogue over the next month with the big-game lefty who became the greatest free agent signing in franchise history after inking a six-year, $155 million deal in December 2014 following a long run of success in Boston (and for two months in Oakland).
"Obviously, I want to finish my career there," Lester said on the radio show Friday. "I've been part of, for an extended period of time, two unbelievable organizations — historic organizations. I don't want to wear another uniform for just a year, maybe two. I'd like to walk off that field in a Cubs uniform, and especially in front of the fans. That's a big thing for me."
Lester got emotional after his final Wrigley Field start of this season in large part, he said, because of the lack of fans due to coronavirus restrictions.
In fact, the five-time All-Star who helped win the historic 2016 championship for the Cubs showed his appreciation for the fans with an offer he tweeted earlier Friday to buy fans a beer on him at any of four Chicago bars now through Sunday.
Lester said he doesn't know what the timing might be on reaching an agreement with the Cubs to return but added, "If we're able to sit down and have some sort of dialogue it shouldn't be that hard."
He said he thinks the biggest issue regarding the timing and other details involves the economic conditions in the country at large, within the industry and the Cubs specifically, which might include whether news of a coronavirus vaccine or treatment changes projections for factors such as attendance.
The Cubs were already in a payroll-conscious posture before the pandemic tanked the game's economy and now face a more urgent mandates to make cuts that could include shedding salaries of core players.
Team president Theo Epstein also talked in that context about trying to "thread the needle" of trying to stay competitive next season with a team that has frontline starters Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks both under contract for the next three seasons.