Chicago Cubs: A return-to-form for Jon Lester is key for the rotation

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

After finishing second in the NL Cy Young voting in 2016, veteran Jon Lester  struggled this year and represents a key piece for next year’s staff.

When the Chicago Cubs made their pitch to Jon Lester, they put together a video showing the team winning the World Series – thanks to Lester. Last year, that situation came into being – with Lester turning in one of the best seasons of his career.

The gritty southpaw won 19 games, putting up a career-best 2.44 earned run average in 202 2/3 innings of regular-season work. His 1.016 WHIP also marked the best performance he’s ever put up. Then, in October, he raised it to another level, winning co-NLCS MVP with Javier Baez and posting a sub-2.00 ERA in the Fall Classic.

Imagine that.

A lot of struggles for the veteran left-hander

This season, with thoughts of repeating filling the air throughout Wrigleyville, we saw the first signs of a less-than-dominant Lester. Granted, he’s never been Clayton Kershaw-esque, but he’s consistently performed as one of the best starters in the game. That wasn’t the case – at least not consistently – in 2017.

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His earned run average spiked by nearly two runs from year-to-year. He allowed roughly two more hits per nine and walked three batters per nine for the first time since 2012. The regular season starts that no-doubt loom in the memories of anxious Cubs fans are probably the big run totals put up by multiple opponents.

On seven separate instances, clubs put up at least five runs against the Cubs ace. In his final first-half start, he lasted just two-thirds of an inning as the Pirates hung 10 runs on him before the first drew to a close.

In just one month, Lester managed a sub-3.50 earned run average. Despite winning five games over the season’s final month, his 1.79 strikeout-to-walk ratio was more than a little concerning. Simply put, it wasn’t what we’ve come to expect from the three-time World Series champion.

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Lester will deliver when it counts

Jon Lester is still one of the most valuable members of this team. He’ll remain so throughout the remainder of his contract. But with Jake Arrieta and John Lackey (likely) headed elsewhere this winter, his importance and consistency becomes critical for the team’s success.

If we know Lester, we can count on one thing. He’s going to put in his work to get back and control the controllable. This has made him a dominant leader for over a decade. If I were a betting man, I’d expect more of the same come 2018.