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From the archives: As hard as it is to see, letting Jon Lester go is not a mistake
Not bothering to replace him is, though
Unlocked and republished for all to read is the Jon Lester part of a post from January 25, 2021 where we looked back at his great Cubs career and lamented that it was fine for the Cubs to move on from him, but not if they weren’t going to bother to replace him in the rotation. They hadn’t…and they didn’t.
The Cubs bold plan to field less and less talent on the field while hoping to convince us to pay them more and more money for the fabulous opportunity to watch it is an interesting approach. The Yu Darvish trade made no sense, and their continued openness to listening to offers on Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras also make no sense, but I hate to say it, letting Jon Lester go pitch for the Nationals did kind of make sense.
And, this is coming from me, someone who feels (with apologies to Marian Hossa) that the 2014 Winter Meetings signing of Jon Lester was the greatest free agent signing in Chicago history. (After all, Jon never became allergic to his pants.) You can also make a very strong argument for Andre Dawson, but the absurdity of a future Hall of Famer like Hawk having to send a blank contract to the Cubs due to eventually proven collusion taints that deal forever. The Cubs got much more out of Jon Lester than they imagined they would, and I’m pretty sure they imagined a lot.
His run through the 2016 postseason is what we always dreamt someday a Cubs’ ace would do. He blanked the Giants for eight innings while Johnny Cueto was matching him pitch for pitch in the NLDS. He held the Dodgers to two runs in two starts in the NLCS. The three runs he gave up in game one of the World Series were the most he’d give up in his last eight playoff starts for the Cubs.
And then, there was game five.
With the Cubs season teetering on the edge of a razor and their margin for error spent, Jon Lester kicked off the most amazing stretch of World Series baseball we’ll ever see by striking out the side to start the game. Set the tone Big Fella.
And he was far from done. In game seven something happened that we’ve seen in some huge moments in postseason history. The bullpen door swung open and out came the team’s ace. We’d jealously seen Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez and Madison Bumgarner trot out and save the day in an unfamiliar role. And here it was happening to us. Jon Lester making the fourth relief appearance of his life (three of them in the playoffs—he’d add another the next season against his new team) was being handed the ball and all of our hopes and dreams.
And it was a disaster. Until it wasn’t. A weak little eight foot “single” by Jason Kipnis coupled with an inexplicable throwing error by David Ross, and then a wild pitch off of Ross’ mask that somehow scored two runs.
Lester and Ross had entered the game with a 5-1 lead and a runner on, and now it was 5-3 and they hadn’t gotten anybody out yet.
But the Indians didn’t score again in the fifth.
And the Indians didn’t score in the sixth.
And the Indians didn’t score in the seventh.
And Lester got the first two outs in the eighth before a weak single by Jose Ramirez ended his night. A whole lot of shit that you will never forget happened after that, and in the end, incredibly, it all turned out just fine, but it can never be lost on any of us that Jon Lester got ten outs on two days rest in the most important game the Cubs have ever played.
There’s a great moment on the World Series video, too. As he leaves the mound and Maddon and Ross are waiting for Chapman to saunter in from the bullpen Joe says about Lester, “That guy’s a good fucking player.”
Through the magic of time travel, the Interwebs and intrepid reader @tpstoner1 here’s that moment.
There’s some weird symmetry between Lester’s nine years in Boston and his six in Chicago. He’s a World Series hero in both and an all-time favorite player for two distinct sets of fanbases with different off-putting accents. He posted a 3.64 ERA in both cities and a .636 winning percentage in both.
He forgot how to throw to first base in Chicago and learned how to hit there.
Actually, he’d stopped throwing to first a season and a half before he came to the Cubs, and the only team that seemed to have noticed were the Kansas City Royals who ran on him mercilessly in his lone Oakland playoff appearance, and the only bad postseason game he ever pitched. (OK, he had one other, he lost to Joe Maddon’s Rays 9-1 in game three of the 2008 NLCS but pitched much better against them in game seven.)
Teams talked really big about how they were going to bunt and steal all over Jonny, and it just never happened. Lester and the Cubs just figured it out. Baserunners took big leads and somehow got super uncomfortable being “too far” from first and rarely took advantage of it.
Remember the time he picked Tommy Pham off right after Tim McCarver confidently said, “He’s not gonna throw to first base,”?
Lester went from a guy who was hitless in his first 73 career at bats, (yes, SEVENTY-THREE) to a guy who hit three homers and drove in 27 runs from 2016 until the DH Covid season.
That includes this:
Lester brought more than a durable left arm and huge balls to the team. He was a leader in every sense of the word, and remember the time he got hammered and then did postgame interviews after the Cubs eliminated his new team in the 2017 NLDS?
But as the great man just said, “It’s not all gonna be peaches and roses or however the saying goes.”
Lester is 37 years old. He’s thrown 2,600 innings and faced 10,860 hitters in the regular season and 154 more innings against 617 more hitters in the postseason. He was pretty bad last season.
He went 3-3 with a 5.16 ERA in 12 starts, gave up 11 homers, struck out only 42 in 61 innings and his 5.16 FIP was by the far the worst of his career. And he posted those numbers after starting 2-0 in his first three starts with only seven hits allowed in 17 innings and a 1.06 ERA.
His ERA was nearly seven and opposing hitters slashed .310/.359/.543/.902 against him the rest of the way.
In 2019, he led the National League in hits allowed with 205 in just 171 innings. (Here’s where I have to fight the urge to mount a you actually have to be pretty good to lead the league in hits allowed defense. But you know, you do. Oh, never mind.)
There is zero doubt that Jon Lester’s contract was worth every goddamned penny, even the one billion pennies that the garbage family that owns the team will pay him to not pitch for them this season. And, I hope Jon has a good year for the Nationals. But not bringing him back wasn’t a bad decision by Jed Hoyer. Not replacing him with anybody is. The Cubs wrung as much good out of Jon as possible, and we are all the better for getting to watch it.
We’re gonna miss him. But we got to watch him at his best. And as the great man also once said:
“How about this shit?”