Jon Lieber: 2004's Big Surprise?

Jon Lieber, a man that the Yankees signed last winter as a plan for the future, in the midst of his recovery from "Tommy John" surgery has been brought into a world that he could never have imagined nearly two years ago. After playing four seasons with the Cubs, he became the leader of the staff and a good veteran presence for a struggling team. However, he was dealt a crushing blow when doctors informed him that he needed arm surgery.

At that point it seemed that all was lost for Lieber but little did he know then, when he went down late in the 2002 season that two seasons later he would be playing a major part in another storied organization but this time with the New York Yankees.

On January 22, 2003 the Yankees signed former Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lieber to a two year deal worth $3.5 million. At the time, the deal was questioned by many baseball people that asked why the Yankees would go out and sign a pitcher that wouldn't pitch until 2004 and was coming off major arm surgery. However, the Yankees took the gamble with Lieber and hoped that they would get the same pitcher that one 20 games for the Cubs back in 2001. Cub fans knew all very well what the Yankees were getting. They were getting a "warrior". Their "warrior." Jon Lieber was the workhorse of their staff when the Cub fans didn't have much to cheer about for their struggling team. He was the man that threw a combined 483.1 innings pitched for them in 2001 and 2002. This was when Lieber led the staff to allow the Cub organization to groom young pitchers such as Kerry Wood. The Cub organization and the Cub fans know what they gave up, and say that they will always respect Jon Lieber as a person and as a leader of their team.

Lieber started his career in the Kansas City Royals organization but was was dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates at the trade deadline in 1993. Less than a year later the 24 year old made his major league debut in 1994 for the Pirates. Lieber had a solid beginning in his first five seasons with Pittsburgh but was victimized by playing on a less than great team. However, he was still quite impressive as a very young man in his first few seasons, not putting up up glamorous statistics but as a mainstay in the staff that would pitch pitch deep into ballgames and for the most part, keeping his team in the game. The winter after the 1998 season, Lieber was a hot commodity on the trade market as any solid young pitcher would be and was acquired by the Chicago Cubs for Brant Brown. After the trade was made, Pittsburgh GM Cam Bonifay took great criticism for it and a couple years later it was even considered the worst GM decision that Bonifay had ever made. Understanding that they had gotten away with armed robbery, Chicago had high hopes for their newly acquired 28 year old righthander and it became a golden opportuntiy for Lieber to prove himself not as just a solid pitcher but as a top end of the rotation caliber starter.

1999 was only the start of what would become a well respected Cub career for Jon Lieber as he lived up to his reputataion and was a horse for their staff. He put up a decent 4.07 ERA in a solid 203.3 innings pitched but only managed a 10-11 record in 31 games started. This statistic was easily brushed off by many in the organization, understanding that pitching and winning on a team that had a dismal season with an overall record of 67-95 was not an easy task. So the same trend of playing on bad teams continued to plague Lieber even in his first year with Cubs who had been a playoff team only a season before. 2000, was yet another terrible season for the Chicago Cubs as they duplicated their previous 65-97, but on the other hand it was the year of Jon Lieber's solidification of the ace of the staff while the Cubs continued to groom their young stud Kerry Wood. Lieber was their mainstay at the top of the staff and was a guiding force for the club during yet another losing season. He went 12-11 in a whopping 251 innings pitched while doubling his '99 total of 3 complete games as he tossed 6 of them in 2000. More and more, he was not only just being considered as the Cubs ace but also as one of the top pitchers in the National League. Jon also led the National League in innings pitched (251), batters faced, and in games started (35) as he proved himself as one of the best innings eaters in the majors. People figured that there was nothing more that Lieber could do statistically with a team like the Cubs to follow up his spectacular 2000 season but when the 2001 season began to take shape they began to notice that they couldn't have been more wrong.

To follow up such an amazing 2000 season, what would Jon Lieber do for an encore? If Cub fans only knew what they were in for in 2001. Lieber was primed to have the season of his life, and hoping to lead a Cubs drive to the playoffs. This season was very different than any other season that Lieber had ever had. He had a very good team playing behind him that had a legitimate shot at being a contender that believed that hey could make the playoffs. The Cubbies were in it right until the end in 2001, but couldn't quite pull of a trip to the playoffs. However, their failure to appear in the playoffs was in no way way attributed to the performance of Jon Lieber. He went an amazing 20-6 with 3.80 ERA while tossing a hefty 232.3 innings pitched. There was no doubt in this season (1st All-Star appearance) that Jon Lieber had become an absolute star.

After such an amazing, joy ride of a season in 2001, Lieber didn't have nearly the 2002 season that he would have hoped for. However, it wasn't as a result of poor performance but an injury that shattered his 2002 hopes. Lieber got off to a great start in 2002 and posting a carer best 3.70 ERA and pitching 5 plus innings in every game he pitched until he went down with elbow trouble in early August. Doctors informed Lieber that he must undergo major elbow surgery more commonly know as "Tommy John" surgery when the season ended. Many say that the fact that he was forced to carry the Chicago pitching staff and take on an abnormal workload may have driven him to his injury.

In the winter after the 2002 season the Chicago Cubs organization was forced to make an incredibly difficult decision about their veteran leader. They had to decide if they wanted to retain their ace righthander and wait for him to recover or if they were going to let him go. The decision was made and the fan favorite, and the Cubs respected leader was gone. Fans were devestated, along with Chicago's young pitching staff. Lieber had been a mentor to young pitchers such as Mark Prior, Kerry Wood along with Carlos Zambrano and his wisdom would be greatly missed.

On a lighter note for Jon Lieber, the New York Yankees were showing a lot of interest in him after the 2002 season and eventually signed him to a two year deal. The Yankees had faith that they were going to get a healthy Lieber not for 2003 but most likely for the 2004 season and that if he came back as even half of the player that pitched for the Cubs in 2001 that they had a solid veteran added to their staff. Lieber has gone through a vigoorous rehab program in order to be big league ready by opening day 2004 and it appears likely that he will easily meet that schedule.

Jon Lieber is expected to have a lock on the Yankees number 5 slot in the rotation for the 2004 season if he remains healthy and all signs are pointing to that it is his job to lose.
J. Lieber
Lieber: Is 86-83 with a 4.19 ERA in his 9-year Major League career.
The Yankees only motivation in signing Jon Lieber was not just to pick up another pitcher but to also pick up a solid veteran that could provide leadership in the Yankee clubhouse that could also provide some extra stability in an already steady rotation.

Many Yankee fans continue to ask the same question in regards to Jon Lieber. "What can I expect out of Jon Lieber in 2004"? Well, the answer might be clearer than many Yankee fans may think. If you talk to any Cubs fan, they will tell you generally the same thing by saying that the Yankees have gotten a great man, a great leader, and an outstanding pitcher to top it off.

What can you expect from Lieber? Well first of all, you can expect him to go out there every single day and give 100% plus a little more. However, if you expect him to be the Jon Lieber of 2001, you are probably dreaming but he will certainly give this club more than they ever expected with a season win total that could be in 13-16 win range. Some people may find that to be an insane proposition but Jon Lieber defines the word "pro" and he will find a way. Lieber will not have staggering statistics in any category by any means, but with the Yankee offense and his natural workhorse mentality he could easily pitch 185 innings plus with an ERA just a shade under four.

Jon Lieber fits the perfect Yankee mold of old, with his veteran approach, will to win, and the overall professional touch he adds to the game and in the clubhouse as well. He is the perfect Yankee that will shock the baseabll world, and what you can expect of him is that he will perform in the Yankee way. There will be flashes of the Yankees that came before him, and he will continue to pitch with the heart of a "warrior."

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