Transaction Scripts: Jon Lester to the Cubs

Jon Lester is reunited with Theo at Wrigley but are Cubs fans and fantasy owners expecting too much?
Jon Lester is reunited with Theo at Wrigley but are Cubs fans and fantasy owners expecting too much?

Not only were prospective free agent pitchers awaiting for Jon Lester to decide where to sign, so were the fan bases of Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Lester is not only the first real domino for starting pitchers, but it should be the first of many dominoes to fall as the market has been set. It has been said repeatedly in fantasy not to pay for a career year, but did the Cubs do just that? After the Oakland A’s went all in on pitching to try and win a World Series it seems forgotten that Jon Lester was not able to preserve a 7-3 lead on the road in Kansas City while giving up six earned runs in the Wild Card play-in game. The ripple effect of being traded by Boston had to have some affect upon his decision to leave Fenway:

Whether Boston blew a chance to sign Lester last is a moot point now, but for fantasy purposes, what does this do for Jon Lester moving forward? Not only was 2014 one of Lester’s most successful years as a pitcher, it had some noticeable peaks. He posted career highs in swinging strike percentage (SwStr%: 9.9), a career low in HR/FB (7.2), had his best K:BB (4.58) and had his lowest WHIP (1.1). Although Lester’s repertoire has not really changed, his percentages year to year have fluctuated.

In 2014, Lester primarily used his 93 MPH fastball (42%), his 89 MPH cutter (31%) and his 76 MPH curve (16%) while mixing in his sinker and change. His curveball generated a 40.8 whiff/swing rate according to and limited hitters to a batting average against of .155 for the season. Since his 3 main pitches all produce groundball per balls in play above 48% (FB-76%, Curve 52.5%, Cutter-48.1%) it is reasonable to say that Lester can keep the ball in the park at Wrigley. But Chicago is a better ballpark for hitters than Boston or Oakland was so that career low in HR/FB may not return. What will ultimately determine Jon Lester’s fantasy value going forward will be how many wins can he get with the Cubs and whether he can maintain the career low in WHIP.

First, here are Jon Lester’s career interleague numbers:

Jon Lester career interleague stats: 15 W, 29 G, 188.1 IP, 170/51 K:BB, 3.06 ERA, 1.26 WHIP

Those are solid numbers, but not dominant by any means. What is interesting is that even though Lester is only 1 year older than Jeff Samardzija and throws with less velocity, their 3-year averages may prove worrisome in regards to Lester’s win totals:

Lester 3-year average: 13 W, 212.2 IP, 188/61 K:BB, 3.65 ERA, 1.26 WHIP
Samardzija 3-year average:
8 W, 202.2 IP, 199/59 K:BB, 3.70 ERA, 1.27 WHIP

Not only that, but Samardzija has a better K/9 (8.8) than Lester (7.9) during that span. Because the Cubs were willing to deal Samardzija for another top middle infield prospect, I do not think they are done tinkering with their roster. Other than Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant, another Minor Leaguer or 2 may be on the move for another pitcher to slot in behind Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta. On the Samardzija front, he has to be ecstatic to see what a pitcher with similar stats was able to get in free agency, especially if he pitches well in Chicago. Also, pitchers like David Price and Johnny Cueto must be motivated to hit the free agent market after 2015. Not only is Jon Lester a huge signing for the Cubs, but now Chicago may be a top draw for other free agents to follow suit in 2016.

As for Lester’s 2015 fantasy value, I think his numbers will come back down to earth some. Fangraphs Steamer projections are a good start:

Jon Lester 2015 Steamer: 13 W, 192 IP, 185/51 K:BB, 3.28 ERA, 1.17 WHIP

I agree with the bump in WHIP, especially when you consider his career number is 1.28. If Lester can use his pitches effectively and keep the ball on the ground, the WHIP should not balloon past 1.20 in the National League. His interleague K/9 is 8.1 which is in line with his career 8.2 clip, so Lester may again break the 200-strikeout barrier. I am comfortable investing in 12 wins, 220 IP, 210/60 K:BB with an ERA between 3.30-3.50. The Cubs had to pay Lester to get him, but fantasy owners do not have to overpay to have him on their staff. Welcome to Chicago Jon Lester, it will be fun to see what the next chip that Theo plays is.

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Greg Jewett is The Sports Script’s senior fantasy baseball writer. Follow him on Twitter @gjewett9!

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