Jon Lester’s six-year contract with the Chicago Cubs was up, and I don’t think anyone – speaking honestly – would have told you back in November that he was definitely going to return in 2021. Lester was about to turn 37, we knew the Cubs were looking to make big changes, we knew there wasn’t going to be a lot of spending, we also knew that Lester’s performance was in decline. So I don’t want to set this up like I’m saying that Lester signing with the Nationals last night was some shocking, earth-shifting, line-in-the-sand-drawing moment for the offseason. It wasn’t.
But it sure feels like it was to a lot of people, especially given how important Lester has been to the organization and how much he wanted to return to the Cubs in 2021. We’ve talked about this concept before: sometimes there are things that trump the ultimate question of “does this move incrementally help us win a fraction of an additional game?” Sometimes, you just have to evaluate what a move is worth to the fan base, to future players, to relationships you hope to maintain, and to the things that you purport to stand for as an organization. Again, I’m not saying that stuff all means the Cubs absolutely should’ve re-signed Lester without question, but (1) I can understand why it does land there for some people, and (2) it’s all fair to be considered, even if you decide the baseball aspect pushes you in the other direction.
Also? It’s not like Lester got some monster contract that would’ve been indefensible for the Cubs.
Jon Lester’s deal with the Nationals is right in the range you would’ve expected for him, with the Nationals doing what they always do (DEFERRRRRRR), which makes the present-day value about $4.75 million:
Well, starter Jon Lester's hopes for a final season to the #Cubs certainly couldn't wasn't about the money. He signed a one-year, $5 million contract with the #Nats that will pay him just $2 million this year. He also receives a deferred $3 million signing bonus payable in 2023.
— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) January 19, 2021
Is $4.75 million too much for Lester in this market for the baseball value he provides the Cubs? Maybe so. Maybe they know him best and believe he’s a bad bet to be a serviceable 4/5 this year. Maybe that even outweighs the clubhouse and leadership value he provides (which, by the way, is also baseball value, because it can impact other players in ways you cannot fully project). But again, it’s not like it was so much money that anyone who criticizes the Cubs’ decision here is just wrong out of hand.
Moreover, Lester reportedly would’ve taken less from the Cubs – Dave Kaplan and Gordon Wittenmyer indicate Lester would’ve accepted a $4 million deal (or less) from the Cubs earlier in the offseason.
Wittenmyer went even further in his write-up of the non-move, absolutely lighting into the Cubs:
— Cubs Talk (@NBCSCubs) January 19, 2021
Similarly, Patrick Mooney sees the bigger picture decline of the Cubs organization:
It’s hard to see how the Cubs are a better organization without Jon Lester, Theo Epstein, Kyle Schwarber, Yu Darvish and the 100-plus employees who were laid off in 2020, writes @PJ_Mooney:https://t.co/lZRBiBbUIQ
— The Athletic Chicago (@TheAthleticCHI) January 19, 2021
As a fan, I wish this had played out differently. I wish there was a real chance there for Lester to return to the Cubs, to get more of a send off, to retire with the Cubs if he wanted. And most of all, I wish I didn’t feel like this whole thing wasn’t just another reflection of a baseball front office that has been told it cannot spend a dime. They apparently did make an offer to Lester, but it was “not close” to the Nationals’ offer. The money to bring back a Cubs legend just isn’t there.
All that said, I do have to offer the other side of this thing, because sometimes you DO decide it’s time to move on, regardless of the money. In the Cubs’ case, what that argument would look like is this: we don’t know how strong we’re going to be in 2021, but we’d like to have innings available to give our younger we-don’t-quite-know-what-they-could-be starting pitchers a look (you can only evaluate them if you actually have innings to give). We also would like a chance, the argument would go, to give innings to younger buy-low, bounce-back types that might offer higher risk but more upside in 2021 (at a lower cost), and a chance to contribute in 2022 and beyond, too. And with the few million in savings there, we could also add a left fielder. Or whatever.
That’d be the argument.
It’s … not terrible. I’m trying to divorce myself from the individual player fandom for a moment, and look ahead to 2022+. If the Cubs are going to have a quick reboot, it will not only require moves that bring in longer-term acquisitions, but it will also require surprising breakouts this year to know what you have next offseason (when, if you’re actually trying for a quick turnaround, you’ll spend some gd money again). So, then, you have only one season to play with in order to get a better understanding of what you have internally – how guys developed during the shutdown year, and how their stuff will actually play against big league hitters. The group we’re talking about (Tyson Miller, Cory Abbott, Keegan Thompson, Justin Steele, etc.) are not tip-top prospects. The buy-low, bounce-back types we’re talking about (Shelby Miller and maybe some slightly-more-certain than that, but not much) are not great bets to succeed. But if this year is gonna be a slog anyway, you might as well get some valuable information out of it.
So, anyway. It stings to hear that Lester wanted to return to the Cubs, and probably would’ve done it for even less than the modest sum he got from the Nationals. That also says a lot of unsavory things about the state of the organization. All good points, and I credit them. I feel them, to some extent, too. But I also do see the value – it might be small, but it exists – in opting to give big league innings in 2021 to pitchers other than Jon Lester.