What to make of Jon Lester's 2019 struggles and how he should be viewed in 2020

What to make of Jon Lester's 2019 struggles and how he should be viewed in 2020

In the grand scope of everything, how should Jon Lester's 2019 season be viewed? 

And subsequently, how does that impact how the Cubs view their starting rotation going into the 2019-20 offseason?

The three-time World Series champion is entering the final guaranteed year of his deal with the Cubs (he has a $25 million option for 2021 that vests if he hits 200 innings in 2020) coming off one of the worst seasons of his career.

For the first time since he was a 23-year-old still trying to make it in the big leagues with the 2007 Red Sox, Lester failed to eclipse 180 innings in a season. He still made 31 starts, but managed only 171.2 innings — an average of a little over 5 innings per outing. 

For the second straight season, Lester did not throw a single pitch in the eighth inning or later of a game. In his first three years with the Cubs, he pitched into the eighth inning 14 times, including 4 complete games. 

Baseball has certainly changed over the last few years and bullpens now cover more innings than ever before. But for the most part, a lot of it was related to performance in Lester's case. Even with the low innings total, he still gave up a league-leading 205 hits, good for a 10.7 H/9 ratio that was way above any previous season (9.5 H/9 was his only other mark even close to it in his career). 

All those hits led to a 1.50 WHIP and 4.46 ERA, which ranked last and third-to-last, respectively, among the 34 qualified National League starters in 2019.

So it's easy to just point at Lester's age (he'll be 36 in January) and career workload (2,691.2 big-league innings, including postseason) and conclude that he's finished or close to it right? 

Not so fast.

Lester did see a dip in fastball velocity in 2019 — down to 90.9 mph, the lowest mark of his career and well below the 93.1 mph he averaged in 2016 — but he also made adjustments and is now throwing his fastball less often than ever before. As a result, he's ramped up his cutter usage (34.4 percent), and that velocity is roughly the same as it was a year ago and not far below where it clocked on the radar gun in his first couple years with the Cubs:

(Cutter velocity)
2019 - 88.1 mph
2018 - 88.4 mph
2017 - 87.9 mph
2016 - 89.4 mph 
2015 - 88.7 mph

The problem is that his cutter — like the rest of his arsenal — took a dive in pitch value this season, by FanGraph's metric. Pretty much across the board, Lester's "stuff" has declined, but that's to be expected with an aging pitcher with that much mileage on his arm. 

However, compared to his 2018 season when he put up a 3.32 ERA and won 18 games, Lester actually saw a nice jump in strikeout rate (21.6 percent, 8.7 K.9 compared to 19.6 percent, 7.4 K/9 in 2018) and lowered his walk rate (6.8 percent, way down from his 8.4 percent in 2018). 

He also felt like he found some things he liked later in the season, as he summed up after his final start in Pittsburgh:

"[My year was] not great," he said. "Made some adjustments here late that I feel like put me in a lot better positions with my pitches. Looking back on it, I don't want to say it was an easy fix — nothing's ever an easy fix — but I just think sometimes when you get into the position I'm at in my career, you start kinda buying into having to change. And I don't think I had to change.

"I think change sometimes can be bad and I think it put me in a bad position for most of the season. And a couple adjustments that we made here lately that I wish we would've gone back and kinda found those and talked about them a little bit sooner.

"...Sometimes you buy into what other people say about you as far as changing and adapting and you really don't have to do an overhaul. You just have to pick your spots to change and it put me in bad positions this year."

Lester didn't elaborate on those changes, but he's admitted several times over the last couple seasons that he's a different pitcher now than he was even in 2016, so he knows some adjustments to his overall profile are necessary.

Throughout the year, there were more than a few instances where Lester said he felt like he actually had good stuff and made good pitches, but watched as the opposing lineup still found holes in the defense. Take the Aug. 23 outing against the Nationals at Wrigley Field when his final line (4.1 IP, 9 H, 6 ER) looks bad, but 8 of the 9 hits were singles and many of those were infield hits (including a bunt by pitcher Anibal Sanchez) and groundballs that either went through the shift or rolled just past Cubs defenders.

That's baseball. It's exactly what people around the game mean when they talk about "baseball luck." 

Lester had bad baseball luck that day in late-August and in general, had some bad baseball luck in 2019 (.347 BABIP — 49 points above the MLB average of .298) but generally had some good baseball luck in 2018. 

No, Lester is not the pitcher he was in 2016 when he finished second in NL Cy Young voting. That guy is gone and probably not coming back.

But it's also maybe a bit premature to say he's washed up. 

"I've been written off before," he said. "I think I've done alright for myself. I don't care about that. I care about winning. At the end of the day, you can say I'm done. That's fine. I want to win. I don't care. Winning's winning and that's what I show up for. 

"The season sucked personally for me, but it also sucked for the team and that's what matters most."

When the Cubs handed Lester the $155 million deal before the 2015 season, they knew he would have an impact not only on the mound when he takes the ball every fifth day, but also in the clubhouse in between that time. He's done that and more over the last half-decade, serving as a respected veteran voice in the clubhouse and helping build the winning culture and show the young players what it truly means to be a professional.

Even though the team is now at a crossroads, don't expect Lester to change that mindset.

"I put my name on that dotted line. I'm not walking away from anything. I'm not a quitter by any means. I'll be here next year if they want. If they suggest for me to stay home, then we'll have that conversation," Lester joked. "I signed that line with the intention of playing six years and when the option comes up, we'll discuss that."

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Be ready for anything: Cubs open to all trade avenues this winter

Be ready for anything: Cubs open to all trade avenues this winter

While Cubs fans sit on the edge of their seats waiting to see if Theo Epstein's front office trades away a core player — and which guy that might be — the question has really become more of a when

Both because it seems likely Epstein shakes up this Cubs roster this winter and because there's natural curiosity about the timing of such a move. 

If the Cubs don't get the type of return they're seeking for players like Willson Contreras and Kris Bryant, they are not going to trade just for trade's sake. But it's clear the roster needs a change and the front office has also shifted a good amount of focus on the long-term future of the organization — beyond 2021, when most of the core players are set to hit free agency.

As for when a major trade may come down, there's really no indication on that front. The MLB Hot Stove season has taken longer and longer to get going in recent winters and that very much appears to be the case again this 2019-20 offseason as many teams — including the Cubs — have just recently finalized their coaching staff and key front office hires.

At the GM Meetings last week, the Cubs said they were in the early stages of any offseason moves and had just started to exchange names with other teams about who is and isn't available.

They're not pigeonholing themselves into any one avenue for how the winter will play out.

"Sometimes you get a feel for the marketplace or kernels of ideas and they end up coming true and you look back and you're like, 'ah, that feel we had really matched the whole tenor of the offseason with certain teams,'" Epstein said. "Other times, you can go through a whole Russian novel's worth of twists and turns in an offseason depending on one or two player moves or clubs changing course or being able to execute things or not execute things. 

"We'll see. I think the important thing is to keep a really open mind and be prepared for all different permutations of how things can work out."

As for what shape the trades may come in, be ready for anything. 

The Cubs have said they still have no issues trading within the division, so even in a year where they're planning on competing in the wide-open NL Central, they're more concerned with improving their organization in the long run than worrying about potentially making a rival better.

Epstein also said they're not afraid of acquiring a player with only one year of team control left, as long as it makes sense. But there's no reason right now for the Cubs to mortgage the future to go all-in on 2020.

"It just depends on the player and the fit and the acquisition cost, and everything else," Epstein said. "I think we're like every team — to one extent or another, we're trying to balance an immediate future vs. a longer-term future. We knew that as we got closer to the end of the period of club control with some of our best players, we had to be increasingly mindful of if you put the longer-term future rather than just the short-term. 

"It's a bit of a transition for us, but it doesn't mean you rule anything out, even if it's something short-term. But you try to strike that right balance."

The Cubs also insist they're not locked into adding any one specific position or type of player. For example, they're not only looking to trade for centerfielders or leadoff guys — even if both are clear areas of need in the short-term.

Anything is on the table, which makes sense considering trading a core guy would also open up a hole elsewhere on the roster. If Contreras is dealt, the Cubs could feel pretty confident about Victor Caratini sliding into a larger role, but they would obviously need more catching depth both in the short- and long-term.

"I still think we have a lot of pieces that can move around the board a bit," Jed Hoyer said. "As we think about what we're gonna do [and] have conversations the whole winter, there's a big picture element to it where I think we're not gonna be entirely married to this position or that position — making moves that make sense both long-term and short-term. 

"We do have pieces that you can move around that makes us able to do that. We don't have particular holes that we feel like we have to spend the whole winter trying to fill, but rather we can make some moves maybe a little bit more strategically."

So the Cubs are saying all the right things, but what does that mean? 

For starters, it doesn't appear any major move is approaching on the horizon and regardless of what the first trade or free agent signing is, it will be just one piece to a larger puzzle. This is shaping up to be a crucial offseason in every aspect of the organization, so the final judgement of the winter will be the most important one.

But as the Cubs try to put that puzzle together and make their big-picture plans a reality, they're not going to get sidetracked by the incessant rumors and aim to continue trying to shield their players from a similar fate.

"We can't chase down every rumor," Hoyer said. "People are gonna put stuff out there about our guys and there's definitely some clickbait opportunity about our guys. We have a lot of guys who have been All-Stars and you can put a story out pretty easily that gets clicks. 

"One of the things about our players in general is we're in a big market, they're used to having their name in trade rumors, they're used to having their names out there. I think they have a sense of what's real and what's not real. But we can't chase down every rumor. We can't deny every rumor because we know that's going to happen. We have to live with that. We're not gonna add fuel to that fire, that's for sure." 

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Kris Bryant's big winter continues with baby announcement


Kris Bryant's big winter continues with baby announcement

Kris Bryant is in the midst of a potentially career-altering grievance case while trade rumors and contract extension talks continue to swirl around him.

Oh yeah, and he's about to be a father in April.

Talk about a life-changing winter for Bryant. 

Jess Bryant dropped a video on social media Tuesday morning showing pictures and videos of her and Kris throughout their relationship (including what looked to be a couple prom photos with a teenage "KB") and the minute-long video ended with a sonogram photo and the announcement that a baby boy is due April 2020:

Baby Bryant will be born a little over three years after Kris and Jess tied the knot.

That will be right as the regular season heats up for Bryant, who will be looking to build on a resurgent 2019 campaign that saw him hit 31 homers and post a .903 OPS while being named to the National League All-Star team and playing through persistent knee inflammation.

Bryant's long-term future with the Cubs is still in doubt but his agent, Scott Boras, confirmed they're open to listening on a contract extension and also shed some light on how unlikely it is that the Cubs would be able to recoup enough value in a deal to make trading the superstar worthwhile.

In the meantime, should we pencil Baby Bryant into the 2040 MLB top prospects list now or is that getting too far ahead of ourselves?