The Tigers traded for one of the best left-handed pitchers in the American League already in 2014, acquiring David Price at the non-waiver trade deadline. Hours before that deal was finalized, the Oakland Athletics struck a deal for another excellent lefty, Jon Lester. With Max Scherzer likely to depart this offseason, could the Tigers bring in Lester to maintain their ace-heavy rotation?
*2015 Steamer projection
Who is he?
Lester had a nondescript rookie year in 2007, but got plenty of publicity when he tossed 5 2/3 scoreless innings in the decisive game of the World Series against the Colorado Rockies that season. He followed that up with a stellar campaign in 2008, winning 16 games while allowing a 3.21 ERA and 3.64 FIP. He was worth 5.0 WAR that season, his first full year in the big leagues. Since then, Lester has consistently been one of the very best pitchers in baseball. He has topped the 5 WAR plateau four times in his career and has been worth at least 3.2 WAR every year. He has just one season with an ERA above 3.75 and one with fewer than 200 innings pitched (he was 8 1/3 frames shy).
Why should we care?
While things didn't look quite as rosy heading into 2014 -- he was coming off back-to-back subpar seasons despite decent WAR totals -- he silenced any and all doubters with a dominant campaign. Lester held opponents to a 2.46 ERA and 2.80 FIP in 219 2/3 innings, all career bests. He struck out a batter per inning for the first time since 2010 and cut his walk rate substantially, resulting in the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career. He was also one of the reasons why the Oakland A's were able to sneak into the playoffs. While the A's were just 7-4 in games that he started after being traded, he held opponents to a 2.35 ERA and .632 OPS in 76 2/3 innings.
Since we bashed James Shields for his supposed lack of playoff guile yesterday -- which proved to be somewhat prophetic -- it is only fair that we laud Lester for his postseason accomplishments. The southpaw has been excellent in the playoffs during his career, allowing a 2.57 ERA in 84 innings over 14 outings. He was nearly untouchable with the Red Sox, sporting a 1.97 ERA and 3.15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 11 playoff starts. His outing in this year's AL Wild Card game didn't go so hot, but this pales in comparison to how dominant he has been in past postseasons. If you want a free agent pitcher that can go out and win a game for you in October, Lester is your guy.
Another advantage of signing Lester over Shields or another big-name pitcher is draft pick compensation. Or, in Lester's case, the lack of draft pick compensation attached to his name. Since Lester was traded mid-season this year, neither the A's nor the Red Sox are allowed to extend him a qualifying offer. Whichever team signs Lester will not have to give up any future draft picks, which will help drive up his price relative to Scherzer's or Shields' (though the pick likely won't be much of a deterrent in either case).
Why should we stay away?
It wouldn't make much sense for the Tigers to balk at paying Max Scherzer an exorbitant amount of money only to turn and give that cash to Lester. Sure, you get an extra draft pick out of it when Scherzer leaves, but the Tigers' right-hander has been the better pitcher over the past few years. Scherzer has been worth nearly 3 WAR more than Lester since the start of 2012 while his 3.24 ERA is nearly a half run better than Lester's 3.65. Scherzer's 2.94 FIP during that stretch is far better than Lester's and ranks fifth in all of baseball among qualified pitchers. Will Lester's contract be significantly smaller than Scherzer's, either in length or dollar amount? I don't think so. If you're going to pony up for an ace, might as well keep Scherzer.
Lester turned things around in 2014 after a couple of rough years, but a regression to being the 3-4 WAR pitcher we saw in 2012 and 2013 is a risky proposition for the kind of contract Lester will command. He had a Justin Verlander-esque season in 2012, allowing a 4.82 ERA and 4.11 FIP in 205 1/3 innings. His peripheral numbers were decent, but even if you believe his 3.82 xFIP was closer to his actual performance, that's not the kind of guy you want to give $150 million to. Lester has only had one 5 WAR season since 2010, and it remains to be seen if his not-insignificant drop in walk rate -- he dipped from 7.4 percent in 2013 to 5.4 percent this year -- is a legitimate improvement. Lester will also be 31 years old on Opening Day 2015, calling into question what his performance will look like four or five years into a potential contract.
As I alluded to above, I have a hard time seeing the Tigers letting Scherzer walk only to turn around and sign Lester. The southpaw should have plenty of suitors and will likely draw more than $150 million on the free market. The bigger question in Lester's case may be whether he goes back to the Boston Red Sox after being traded at the deadline, or if he opts to take the biggest contract on the table. Odds are that offer won't come from the Tigers.