MLB Free Agent Profile: Jon Lester

lesterAlong with Max Scherzer, Jon Lester is the biggest prize of this offseason’s free agent market. The 30 year-old left-hander is coming off a career year and is sure to command a big payday. His salary demands will likely price out a lot of teams, but the bidding will be fierce for Lester.

Lester is a workhorse who has made at least 31 starts in every season since 2008. Over that time he’s been one of baseball’s best pitchers. He ranks 6th in fWAR. In the last two years he’s 7th in fWAR, just behind David Price. Furthermore, he’s had a history of dominance in the postseason. His performance last October against the St. Louis Cardinals helped the Boston Red Sox bring home the trophy.

Lester struggled in 2012, and many wondered if his career was on the downturn. He pitched to an ugly 4.82 ERA, and his strikeout rate dropped for the third consecutive season, to 19 percent. However, his secondary statistics indicated that he pitched better than his ERA. The Sox left-hander managed a 3.82 xFIP, and his fastball velocity averaged a steady 92.6 miles per hour.

After struggling early in the year in 2013, Lester ended up putting together an excellent season. His strikeout and walk rates were only marginally better than the prior year, but he allowed far less home runs, and stranded more runners. These factors combined to drop his ERA by more than a full run. With a phenomenal postseason in which he surrendered just six runs in five starts and 34.2 innings, Lester regained his ace status.

Over 32 starts between the Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, Lester authored a 2.46 ERA, which is more than a run lower than his career mark. He boosted his strikeout rate up to 24.9 percent, while dropping his walk rate all the way down to 5.4 percent. Only four pitchers, Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Felix Hernandez and Johnny Cueto, had a better adjusted ERA than Lester.

Lester relied on his cutter more than in previous seasons and it paid off. His swinging strike rate of 9.9 percent was his best since 2010. Despite his fastball velocity dropping down to 91.5 miles per hour, he also got more swings and misses with that pitch as well. Looking to next season and beyond, it’s unlikely that Lester will continue to produce +6 fWAR seasons on the mound, but he nevertheless projects as one of the best ten pitchers in baseball.

The Chicago Cubs will certainly be interested in Lester, as they have cash to spend and pitching spots to fill. Lester’s old team, the Red Sox will also be in the hunt, though they seem leery of committing multiple years to anybody over 30. Of course the New York Yankees will be in talks with Lester’s agent as well. He’ll command at least $20 million per year, and likely 6-7 years.