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Jon Lester: Lauded Lefty or Letdown?

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What to make of the Nationals’ rotation addition, veteran left-hander Jon Lester...

Chicago Cubs v Chicago White Sox Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images

When the Washington Nationals signed veteran relief pitcher Jon Lester, it made headlines in the baseball world. Lester, a cancer survivor, World Series champion, and all around professional, is in the twilight of his career, now at the age of 37. His one-year deal with the Nationals might not be his final major league chapter, but it’s evident the closing sign will be turned on soon enough. As far as Lester and the Nationals go, will they be getting the “lauded lefty” or the “letdown,” which I teased in the title?

Firstly, this question isn’t meant to sound snarky, though in a written medium, it probably comes across as such. When aging pitchers sign one year deals, particularly pitchers who commanded an ERA- over 100 each of the last two years, in addition to a 5.14 FIP (5.16 ERA) in 2020, it’s natural to wonder what type of production we’ll see out of them. Secondly, the answer to the original question is contingent on the expectations put on the pitcher.

The Nationals already had a strong rotation. With Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin leading the way, there was no shortage of excellent options to start games. With that said, Corbin was the only lefty, and while teams don’t need to have a stockpile of lefties, it doesn’t hurt. Lester could prove valuable because he balances out the arms, resulting in three right-handers and two left-handers.

As for the expectations surrounding Lester, they are presumably not sky high. I don’t think anybody expects him to reach his peak Cubs days (he reached 5.4 fWAR in 2014 before amassing 4.9 and 4.2 fWAR in his first two full seasons in Chicago), but he at least needs to be serviceable. Gone are the days where Lester could lead – or be near the top – of a competitive team’s rotation.

Last year, Erick Fedde started eight games and produced a 94 ERA-, 6.15 FIP, and 4.29 ERA.

Austin Voth started 11 games and produced a dismal 139 ERA-, 6.41 FIP, and 6.34 ERA.

To match some of Fedde’s numbers would be an improvement, but if he continues to slide and dips into Voth territory, then the signing might’ve been for naught.

But I’ve seen this signing considered a low risk, high reward deal. At worst, Lester’s on the books for the 2021 season. At best, he returns to some semblance of what he’s been throughout his career and provides a very strong fourth starter to a rotation that’s already loaded with talent.

To answer my original question: If you’re expecting the “lauded lefty,” then you’re likely due for a bit of a letdown; conversely, if you’re expecting a “letdown,” then you’re likely to get something a bit closer to the lauded lefty. Confusing, right? In short: Lester will be an excellent option to work through innings while sporting an ERA somewhere in the neighborhood for 4.50, which, when paired in conjunction with the other starters, puts Washington on track to have one of the better rotations in baseball.