Wednesday, May 29, 2024
MLBNational LeagueNewsNL EastWashington Nationals

Jon Lester Is Headed to Washington

I feel like the Nats heard me when I mentioned how they still needed to add a fourth starter in my piece covering the signing of Kyle Schwarber. The 37-year-old lefty Jon Lester has just signed with the D.C. team, as confirmed by Jeff Passan himself. It’s worth noting that the contract does not include any options for any side and is just a straight one-year deal.

The Nationals’ strength, the thing that truly carried them to an unlikely World Series ring in 2019, was their starting rotation, and Lester is likely to be the number four behind their Big Three in 2021, fulfilling a similar role to what Aníbal Sánchez did in previous years and providing some stability to the back end of their staff. But will he? And does he still got something left in the tank? Let’s figure this out.

Fallin’?

Right off the bat, let’s get one thing out of the way: unless Lester has one of the craziest late-career surges in MLB history, the Nats are not getting prime Red Sox ace Jon Lester. They’re not getting the guy who was capable of 220 innings and 5+ WAR seasons. He’s 37, of course, and his velocity has been trending the way you would expect it to in the last few years. In 2020, his average fastball velocity dipped below 90 MPH for the first time in his long career.

Source: Baseball Savant

Now, a velocity drop alone is no reason to think Lester will be useless, far from it. He was a perfectly capable league average starter in 2018-19 and his trademark cutter still cuts as well as ever. Interestingly enough, he also threw quite a few sinkers last season, and there’s a clear path for his three distinct fastballs (four-seamer, cutter, sinker) to remain effective when paired with an increased changeup and curveball usage. There are clear examples of pitchers losing velocity and remaining effective after reinventing themselves, CC Sabathia being the clear example. Lester is in that same boat, although his transformation has been made a lot more smoothly than Sabathia’s. In other words, Lester is deep into the “crafty left-hander” phase of his career, and that’s okay when you can control your pitches and move them around, which Lester is good at. Here’s him striking out his now-teammate Josh Bell with a big curve:

Source: Baseball Savant

Assuming he gets that number four starter job, signing Lester likely means one of Joe Ross or Austin Voth will end up in the bullpen, which also makes the battle for the final spot in the rotation interesting. Keep in mind that none of the Nats’ truly good pitching prospects are MLB ready yet, so look for the Nats to make another signing of this style again next offseason as they try to bridge the gap. As a general rule, there are no bad one-year contracts in baseball, because they won’t hurt you long-term, so I don’t mind this move for the Nats. It’s an okay addition for extra depth in the back end of a rotation that’s going to need to carry the team again this upcoming season if they’re going anywhere. Lester should still have at least one or two seasons of 150+ innings and a 4.50-ish ERA baseball in him, which is all the Nats are looking for here.