Lester, 37, is coming off six seasons with the Chicago Cubs that included a World Series title in 2016. In Washington, he’ll reunite with Manager Dave Martinez and pitching coach Jim Hickey, whom the Nationals hired in October. Martinez was the Cubs’ bench coach for three of Lester’s seasons in Chicago, and Hickey was the Cubs’ pitching coach in 2018. That familiarity factored into the Nationals pursuing Lester to slot in behind Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. The agreement was first reported by ESPN.
The Nationals have needed a fourth starter since Aníbal Sánchez became a free agent in November. A slow market has included a handful of short-term deals for back-of-the-rotation arms, making Lester one of a few logical fits for Washington. He was durable in 2020 — starting 12 times in a 60-game season — but had a career-worst 5.16 ERA in 61 innings. The Nationals had to sift through whether that was related to his age or the pandemic-altered schedule. His strikeout rate sagged, if only marginally, and his fastball velocity was just a tick lower than usual.
Lester is a five-time all-star, most recently in 2018, who also won a pair of titles with the Boston Red Sox, in 2007 and 2013, before joining the Cubs. He has a 2.51 ERA in 154 career postseason innings. That doesn’t necessarily mean he is the best way for the Nationals to check this box. But he does provide two of the club’s biggest wishes for an additional starter: durability and length.
The lefty has made at least 31 starts in every full season since 2008. He averaged five innings per start last year and was just over that mark the season before. Sánchez, by contrast, averaged around 4.8 innings per start in 2020 and had way too many short outings. Erick Fedde and Austin Voth presented a similar issue at the back of the rotation. The bullpen was regularly taxed.
Both financially and strategically, the Nationals are built around Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin. Strasburg missed most of 2020 once he underwent surgery for carpal tunnel neuritis in his right hand. Scherzer and Corbin didn’t meet their high standards. Corbin led the majors in hits allowed and was all too hittable when pitching in the strike zone.
Now, as they look to rebound from a 26-34 record, the Nationals need more from their entire staff. They will bring back Joe Ross, who opted out of playing last season because of coronavirus concerns. They’re about to plug Lester’s 16 years of experience into their rotation and clubhouse. Then, as they seem to do every spring, they will have Ross, Fedde and Voth compete for the fifth-starter spot.
This is the fourth move General Manager Mike Rizzo has made in an odd offseason. The next items to check off are a second catcher, a backup first baseman and perhaps a reliever to fill out the bullpen. So far, the Nationals have brought in left-handed reliever Sam Clay at around the MLB minimum. They traded for first baseman Josh Bell and signed outfielder Kyle Schwarber — Lester’s old teammate in Chicago — to a one-year, $10 million deal. They are a month from reporting to spring training, and the roster is taking shape.
But none of these additions are a sure thing. Clay has never pitched in the majors. Bell and Schwarber are coming off down seasons at the plate. And Lester, as noted, had a bloated ERA in 2020 and allowed a lot of hits. Rizzo often talks about reading the back of a player’s baseball card when discussing value. The implication is that, if you take a wide survey, the outliers are weeded out.
In Lester’s case, then, that shows a lot of years of throwing a lot of pitches across a whole lot of innings. For these Nationals, that will work.