The decision to sign Jon Lester to a six-year, $155 million dollar contract before the 2015 season was inarguably a fantastic one for the Chicago Cubs. More than being a fantastic decision, it was a pivotal one, too.
Not only was Lester crucial in getting the Cubs their first World Series championship in over 100 years (i.e. with his play on the field), but he also played a big role in establishing the credibility of the rebuilding organization in the eyes of other players the Cubs later sought to recruit.
And, of course, you can’t discount his leadership role in the clubhouse, and his playoff presence in the Cubs’ best three-year stretch since winning back-to-back World Series titles in 1907/1908.
But here’s the topic for today: at the time of the deal, I think many of us understood that signing a 31-year-old Jon Lester to the (then) largest contract in team history was more about the first three years of his contract (and his stamp of legitimacy for the North Side) than the final three years – in fact, we said that pretty routinely. But now that we’re actually on the other side of those first three years … what’s next? What do we expect from Jon Lester going forward?
We know that the deal was the right one at the time, and that it’s already paid off (a $/WAR calculation suggests that he’s already been “worth” nearly $100M). But does he have more left to offer? How much more value can he provide the Cubs?
Earlier this offseason, I asked you if you’d be theoretically comfortable giving Lester a three-year/$85M deal in free agency, right now in 2018, given that it’s what is left on Lester’s deal with the Cubs. Here are the results:
If Jon Lester were a free agent right now, would you be comfortable giving him 3 years/$85 million (what's left on his deal)?
— Michael Cerami (@Michael_Cerami) November 7, 2017
Just about two-thirds of you believe Lester will be “worth” his remaining contract, which, again, would represent an enormous win, given that the decision has already been vindicated. But let’s dig deeper.
The individual Cubs ZiPS projections are not out yet, but we can look at Steamer, to see what we might expect out of the Cubs’ big lefty next season:
- 32 Starts, 198.0 IP
- 3.88 ERA, 3.91 FIP, 3.5 WAR
- 22.8 K%, 7.3 BB%
Let me just say this up front, in case it isn’t clear: you would lock-in those results right now if you had the option. Does Lester have a chance to surpass those numbers? Of course he does. He’s an excellent pitcher, with ace-upside. But don’t let a changing offensive environment skew your perspective.
Last season, that ERA would’ve ranked 26th in baseball, one spot behind Yu Darvish, while that FIP would be tied for 25th with Carlos Martinez. And the 15.5% K-BB% would’ve been 23rd in baseball, just slightly better than Jake Arrieta, and slightly behind Gerrit Cole,Carlos Martinez, and Justin Verlander.
To really bring it all home, if Lester’s total package results in 3.5 WAR next season, rest easy knowing that the Cubs will probably boast at least one of the top 15 most valuable starters in all of baseball, because that’s where that mark ranked last season.
Again, even with a conservative $8M/WAR calculation, a 3.5 WAR season should be worth something like $28M, though the Cubs owe Lester just $22.5 (or $25M if you count the $2.5M signing bonus he’s due on New Years Eve). He’d STILL be creating surplus value, according to the projections. If Lester can be doing that in his age 34 season, you’re a happy camper.
And remember, those projections are coming after a somewhat disappointing season, overall. Although, even last season’s struggles (4.33 ERA, 4.10 FIP, 2.7 fWAR) don’t look quite as bad when you really dig in.
Sure, each of Lester’s strikeout and walk rates went in the wrong direction compared to his 2014, 2015, and 2016 seasons, but he was actually striking out more batters versus his career mark and walking almost the exact same amount. But despite that reality, he was dinged with a near-career low 68.7% strand rate (74.8% for his career). On the results side of things, Lester was probably unlucky with his sequencing.
Beyond that, it’s easy to like the type of pitcher Lester was last season in this current juiced ball/fly-ball environment. Last season, Lester’s 46.2% ground ball rate was just slightly below his career average (47.0%), but solidly above the league average overall (44.0%). Moreover, his 32.4% fly ball rate was actually lower than it was in 2016 (32.8%), and right in line with his career numbers (and well below the 2017 league average of 35.3%).
But Lester wasn’t just keeping the ball on the ground, he also did a great job of limiting hard contact (28.1%) and inducing weak contact (21.4%) – both of which were top ten in all of baseball!
Needless to say, it’s easy to be bullish on Lester’s chances for a big season in 2018.
But what about the two years after that?
Well, if Lester’s 2018 season goes according to plan, it kinda doesn’t matter how good he is in 2019 and 2020, at least in terms of the value provided. And because we have a full season between now and then, I won’t try to predict “how good” he might be. What I can say, however, is that he’s very likely to still be pitching – and that has value in its own right.
Sure, Lester is aging, but he has made 32 starts in nine of his last ten seasons, and that one missing season was 31 starts, so … yeah. Basically, Lester has been one of the single most prolific and healthy starters in all of baseball over the past decade, and there’s not a reason to project that’ll just go away.
Starts, IP Leaders 2008-2017:
- Jon Lester: 322 starts (2040.0 IP)
- Justin Verlander: 321 starts (2146.0 IP)
- James Shields: 320 starts (2071.2 IP)
- Cole Hamels: 311 starts (2046.2 IP)
- Zack Greinke: 310 starts (1999.1 IP)
Yep. You’re reading that correctly, no other pitcher has made more starts than Jon Lester in the past DECADE. So where does this all leave us?
Well, it’s the opinion of this author that Jon Lester has already been well worth the contract the Cubs gave him three years ago, but he projects to have another quality season in 2018. And even if, after that, his production falls off the map, he should still be able to give the Cubs 30+ starts/season and nearly 200 IP in his final two years under contract. Even if he’s a true back-of-the-rotation starter by then, that presents value the Cubs will need.