Cubs fans will get to enjoy a nostalgic, was-so-incredible-during-the-peak-years, veteran leader and gamer in the rotation this year. If you were betting on the identity of that guy back in November, though, I’m guessing you would’ve said it was Jon Lester. The Cubs might’ve said it, too. But, as you know, it is instead Jake Arrieta.
I won’t entirely discount that there was also a layer of “we preferred Jake Arrieta’s projections and overall value for 2021 rather than Jon Lester’s,” but according to Cubs President Jed Hoyer, timing was always the issue with outgoing starter Jon Lester.
“Jon wanted to move a little bit quicker,” Hoyer said this week about his signing in mid-January, per The Athletic. “We mentioned a number of times during the course of the offseason — you guys (media) would ask if we had a budget yet — and I would always talk about having a range. At that point, mid-January, we were at the lower end of that range.
“Obviously, the losses that were incurred last year are well-publicized. There was kind of a natural leaning towards a more pessimistic view. As we got more information and learned more through the course of the winter, our view allowed us to move a little bit higher up in that range.”
So, then, by this explanation, when it came time for the Cubs to add another starting pitcher with the funds they now knew they had available, Lester had long since signed. Arrieta was still available, had been chatting with Hoyer periodically, and that deal got done, even though it wound up costing the Cubs more than Lester would have. (Lester reportedly received a one-year, $5 million deal, with $3 million deferred until 2023. Arrieta received a one-year, $6 million deal, with $2 million effectively deferred until after this season.)
For what it’s worth, the various projection systems see the two arms extremely similarly for 2021, posting ERAs and peripherals in the 10 to 15% worse than league average range. Arrieta has a little bit more youth on his side, while Lester has a little better health track record. Maybe, if the timing had been different, the Cubs would’ve called Lester’s lefty arm the tie-breaker?
We’ll never know for sure, and I could probably talk myself into anything after the fact. I loved Jon Lester’s time with the Cubs, and I would’ve been more than fine with his veteran presence returning in 2021. But the Cubs were going to have room for only one pitcher in that mold/price range, and I’m perfectly happy that it wound up being Jake Arrieta, for whatever the precise reasoning. I hope Lester does great things with the Nationals this year, and I hope the Cubs help Arrieta bounce back.