Chicago Cubs: Jon Lester’s impact an added push for 2018

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

Jon Lester did not have the kind of 2017 season he, and most, are used to. But he can still provide plenty of impact for the Chicago Cubs in 2018.

Every day I keep waiting for the news that Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, and Lance Lynn have signed contracts. I mean, one of these days that’s bound to happen. As the Chicago Cubs have reportedly been linked to most of these aforementioned starters, and I would be shocked if they didn’t add someone. Theo Epstein said the same.

But today, I’m going to talk about the big fish Epstein reeled in already three offseasons ago.

The man, Jon Lester, was one of the first instrumental pieces that signaled the rebuild Cubs were serious about shedding their losing past. Lester became an essential leader for the Cubs ever since.

Let’s look back

On the surface, Lester’s 11-12, 3.34 ERA campaign in 2015 does not look altogether great. He logged more than 200 innings for the fourth-consecutive season, upped his K/9 to 9.09, the highest since 2010, upped his groundball rate, dropped his line drive rate.

In 2016, Lester was the pitcher most expected, a Cy Young candidate, finishing second in the voting. In 2017, he dealt with struggles, getting shelled on two particularly poor showings, once against the Pirates before the All-Star Break, and then in August against the Reds, before bowing out with injury and subsequently being shelved for a few weeks.

Chicago Cubs
Chicago Cubs /

Chicago Cubs

However you want to go about it, 2015 was an adjustment process for Lester — a new league — and the team, as a whole. The 2016 season was the year everything came together. And 2017 was, whether a World Series hangover or whatever you want to call that adversity. Erik Mauro talked more about the latter.

Let’s move forward

So what can we expect in 2018?

Rotation order is arbitrary outside of Opening Day and starting Game 1 of a playoff series. While predefined roles are great, for the Cubs, it does not matter. They could go into the season opener against Miami with Kyle Hendricks. I think Jose Quintana is a potential ace for the club, as soon as 2018.

A Lester rebound is not something that would surprise me, and even an elevation towards his 2016 season could be in the cards. Even if not, that’s okay. Right now, starting things off, he’s a perfect three starter. And presumably, a four, if they bring in Davrish, Arrieta, or the like.

In fact, Bleacher Nation makes a good point about Lester, and particularly the value of his six-year, $155 million contract he signed before the 2015 season. That is, teams are paying for the up-front premium value that a long-term contract provides. The Cubs got everything they bargained for through the first three seasons of Lester’s deal.

A middle-of-the-rotation Lester, perhaps moving forward, is still good depth positioning for Chicago’s rotation.

Adding it up

The positive attributes of Lester’s 2017 season are that a lot of his marks when you get down to it, are in line with his 2016 Cy Young candidacy season. His ground ball to fly ball ratio, ground ball, and line ball rates were nearly identical to the season before. Lester induced more soft contact, nearly a three percent difference from 2016.

He did serve more home runs up, in a season that the topic of juiced baseballs was prominent, but Lester also stranded fewer runners (68.7 percent, down from 84.9 percent in 2016), and suffered an unusually high .310 BABIP. Perhaps more a signal of ‘bad luck’ than outright regression? Sure, regression is possible.

FanGraphs has Lester putting together a 13-win, 3.89 ERA type season in 2018.

I think the Cubs would take that. I also think Lester’s impact will still be of more value than perhaps people are expecting. Especially assuming Hendricks, Quintana, insert presumable pitcher acquisition, and Tyler Chatwood performs as the Cubs expect, and even if Lester does not have to play the role of ace.

Even with the injury in 2017, and some of the attributed struggles, Lester still made at least 30 starts for the 10th-consecutive season. Just missing out on 200 innings, Lester is a workhorse, and going into 2018, has something to prove. His 322 starts between 2008-2017 are the most of any pitcher.

Next: Healthy Addison Russell an X-Factor for Cubs

The Cubs don’t necessarily need more from Lester, and there’s certainly a valuable impact Lester provides that is measured beyond wins and losses.