The Nationals reportedly signed veteran left-hander Jon Lester to a one-year deal Monday, replacing Aníbal Sánchez to solidify the back-end of their rotation. Lester joins Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin to form an imposing group with plenty of postseason success on its resume.
Lester, 37, figures to be one of the most accomplished No. 4 starters in baseball. The three-time World Series champion has a 2.51 postseason ERA that stands as the lowest in MLB history (min. 150 playoff innings). He’s made five All-Star teams and ranks third among active pitchers with 193 regular-season wins behind only Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke.
Yet Lester’s age has begun to show, as evidenced by the reported $4-5 million salary he’ll receive in Washington after earning $20+ million each of the last six seasons. He’s striking out fewer batters, giving up more hits and proving more susceptible to home runs than his career averages. He led the NL with 205 hits allowed in 2019 and has just a 4.64 ERA to his name since that season began.
The one area the Nationals will benefit from with the addition of Lester? Innings. Before the coronavirus pandemic forced MLB to shorten the 2020 campaign, Lester was riding a league-best streak of 12 straight seasons with at least 30 starts. He’s landed on the Injured List only three times in the last decade while reaching the 200-inning threshold in eight different seasons throughout his career.
That’s going to be important for a Washington rotation that dealt with varying degrees of injuries and ineffectiveness in 2020.
Strasburg managed to throw just five innings before being shut down and forced to undergo carpal tunnel surgery. Corbin’s uncharacteristic struggles led to a 4.66 ERA and 1.569 WHIP over 11 starts. Even Scherzer took a step back from his Cy Young contender status while battling a strained hamstring early on. Behind the big three, neither Austin Voth nor Erick Fedde gave the Nationals much reason to stick with them once Joe Ross returns from opting out.
The Nationals are already paying Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin nearly $94 million in 2021 between the three of them. As nice as it would’ve been to play the Corey Kluber lottery or open up the checkbook for Trevor Bauer, the team has already invested in superstar pitchers. But those players, while still capable of taking over games, are no safe bet to do so. The Nationals needed stability in case Strasburg requires more time to recover or time catches up to Scherzer or Corbin can’t regain his form.
“With those three guys up at the top there and Joe [Ross] and like I said Fedde and you’ve got Voth and who knows who we may end up getting somewhere down the line, I think we have a really good opportunity to repeat what we did in 2019,” manager Davey Martinez said in December.
In Lester, they’re getting a pitcher who can be depended on to take the ball every fifth day and give his team a chance to win. He won’t be the Cy Young contender he used to be. He will, however, fill valuable innings while the rest of the Nationals’ rotation sorts itself out.
Washington is facing an important season in 2021. If the Nationals can’t keep pace in the hyper-competitive NL East, there are going to be questions about their core and its future in D.C. Lester won’t vault them into World Series favorites. The Nationals hope he’ll only be the fourth-best starter on their team if all things break right. But he gives them reliability in an era where 30-start pitchers are difficult to find. Who knows, maybe that playoff pedigree will come in handy at some point, too.