Hot Stove season is here, and NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at free agents who could fit the Cubs’ needs — and budget. Next up is Cubs starting pitcher Jon Lester.
Jon Lester deserves a proper send-off from the Wrigley Field faithful.
After six seasons on the North Side, Lester hit the open market late last month, when the club bought out his 2021 option for $10 million. But that shouldn’t be the end of his distinguished Cubs tenure, following an abbreviated 60-game season where fans weren’t allowed at the Friendly Confines.
The veteran lefty was emotional after his final 2020 home start, a Sept. 16 matchup against Cleveland in which he pitched five innings of two-run ball. He recalled that night how he didn’t get a proper farewell from the Red Sox, where he pitched for nine seasons before Boston traded him at the 2014 trade deadline.
Six years later, in what could have been his final home start as a Cub, Wrigley was empty and quiet — outside of the dugouts and artificial crowd noise — with 40,000 seats vacant due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"That's the most frustrating part for me," he said. "Going back to ‘14, I didn't get to walk off the field like I wanted to at Fenway. Having an empty stadium [is] not really how I envisioned possibly my last start here."
It doesn’t have to be.
As things stand, the Cubs’ projected Opening Day rotation for next season includes Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay. An obvious option to fill out the group is the greatest free agent signing in Cubs history, even as they look to add some starting pitching depth this winter. The two sides have mutual interest in a reunion.
The Cubs are coming off a season of revenue losses and are looking to trim their payroll, Meaning, they’ll be in the market for free agents on reasonable deals, and unlike when they signed Lester to a six-year deal worth $155 million in 2014, a low-cost, incentive-laden contract makes sense this time around.
Lester has been up-and-down past two seasons, sporting a 4.64 ERA and 1.453 WHIP in 43 starts. But even with those numbers, we saw him in 2020 make the adjustments necessary to bounce back from a bad outing. And, heck, if you take out his two starts against the lefty-mashing White Sox, his 2020 ERA (5.16) doesn’t look nearly as bad (3.35).
Lester is still a capable starter, a fierce competitor who elevates his game in October. He’s a leader on and off the field, a guy the Cubs will want in their clubhouse for Mills and Alzolay, entering their first full seasons in a big league rotation, to learn from — with top prospect Brailyn Marquez maybe not far behind.
The Cubs are in a period of transition as Jed Hoyer takes over as team president. Four core hitters are entering their final year under club control, some of which may not be back in 2021 as they look to retool with an eye on remaining competitive. Under those circumstances, along with the financial situation, bringing back Lester for 2021 makes a lot of sense.
And whether that would then be his last season as a Cub, it wouldn’t be right if his final time walking off the Wrigley mound wasn’t accompanied by a standing ovation from thousands of fans, those he played an integral role in bringing a championship to at long last.