Chicago Cubs: Jon Lester doesn’t need to be an ace anymore

MIAMI, FL - MARCH 29: Jon Lester
MIAMI, FL - MARCH 29: Jon Lester /

The Chicago Cubs nabbed an Opening Day victory on Thursday, despite a rough outing from veteran Jon Lester. What should the team expect from him moving forward?

The Chicago Cubs slugged their way to an 8-4 victory over the Miami Marlins on Opening Day, shellacking starting pitcher Jose Urena in the early going. But opposing pitcher Jon Lester left quite a bit to be desired, too.

The big left-hander was only able to make it through 3 1/3 innings of work, giving up three earned runs on seven hits and three walks in the process. Not exactly the kind of start he was likely hoping for.

Now, don’t read too much into this. Lester is obviously going to have much better starts in the future. But you should probably keep your expectations in check from this point on. Not because of his last start, but because he’s 34 years old and has some serious mileage on his arm.

Temper your expectations for Lester

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A former second-round draft pick, Lester made his MLB debut with the Boston Red Sox in 2006 when he was just 22 years old. Since then, he’s been one of the most dominant arms in baseball. And his resume proves it.

He’s a four-time all-star, three-time World Series champion and even has a no-hitter under his belt. His overall numbers might not be good enough to get him in the Hall of Fame, but there’s a case to be made that he should at least be in the discussion.

Plenty of work on that arm

Over 2,100 innings later, he’s starting to show signs that he might be wearing down. Last season he went 13-8 with a 4.33 ERA, 4.10 FIP and 1.323 WHIP over 180 2/3 innings pitched.

It was a far cry from the stellar season he had in 2016. If you head over to FanGraphs, you’ll see that Lester’s average fastball velocity dropped nearly two miles per hour from 2016 to 2017. This is entirely typical of starting pitchers in their mid-30s. But it’s not at all a death sentence for their career.

It simply means a pitcher like Lester might need to re-invent himself a bit. Expect fewer strikeouts and more groundballs. If anyone can shift their focus like that, it’s Lester. He’s never relied too heavily on velocity anyway. As he and countless others have proven, command is the most important thing for a pitcher.

If you can place the ball anywhere you want in the strike zone, you’re golden. Look at Greg Maddux. His fastball didn’t have much heat to it at all, but he enjoyed a 23-year career because he had elite control. Look at Kyle Hendricks, for that matter. He rarely throws harder than 90 MPH, but he’s pitched to the tune of a career 2.94 ERA.

Lester doesn’t have to be an ace

The simple truth is this: Chicago doesn’t need Jon Lester to be an ace-caliber starting pitcher anymore. Could we still see that version of Lester from time to time? Absolutely. After all, he’s only two year’s removed from one of the best years of his career. But even in that short span, things have changed.

The Cubs’ rotation is solid from top to bottom. On paper, their bullpen looks better than it has been in years. The core lineup is still young, and mostly the same as it was when they won the World Series, only now, those guys are more experienced.

The point is, this team is well-equipped to pick up the slack from any starter. When the Cubs arrived earlier than expected in 2015, they needed Lester to pitch like an ace if they were going to make a run. This season is a different story. He doesn’t need to be excellent for the Cubs do something significant. He just needs to be good.

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This isn’t an overreaction. It’s reality. Most starting pitchers decline in their mid-30s. It doesn’t mean Lester will keep pitching the way he did on Thursday, though. He’ll get things figured out one way or another. Just don’t expect too much from him. The Cubs wouldn’t have signed a pitcher like Yu Darvish if they were counting on getting peak Jon Lester.