Cubs 2020 roster outlook: Now is not the time to write off Jon Lester


Each day in March, NBC Sports Chicago is previewing one player from the Cubs’ expected 2020 Opening Day roster. Next up is starting pitcher Jon Lester.

2019 recap

Without sugarcoating it, 2019 was one of the worst seasons of Lester’s career. The veteran lefty posted a 4.46 ERA and 1.50 WHIP, surrendering a National League-high 205 hits. He made 30+ starts for the 12th straight season but tossed 171 2/3 innings — his lowest total since 2007 (63).

Lester’s four-seam fastball velocity fell to 90.8 mph on average — the lowest of his career. That’s to be expected from a guy with nearly 3,000 big league innings on his arm, including the postseason. A greater issue is the 38.6 percent hard contact rate he surrendered, which inflated his BABIP to .347 — a career-high.

Expectations for this seasons’ role

With Yu Darvish’s second half ascension last season and Kyle Hendricks’ steadiness, Lester profiles as the Cubs No. 3 starter. You’re probably thinking “A No. 3 after last season? Look at the numbers!”

Hey, that’s fair, but the Cubs aren’t writing off Lester, who's entering the final year of his contract. Here’s why:

2020 outlook

Let’s compare Lester’s 2018 and 2019 seasons.

2018: 32 starts, 3.32 ERA, 4.39 FIP, 19.6 K%, 8.4 BB%
2019: 31 starts, 4.46 ERA, 4.26 FIP, 21.6 K%, 6.8 BB%

(FIP measures what a pitcher’s ERA would be with league average results for balls in play. It accounts for what a pitcher can control directly: strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches and home runs.)

What do we make of this?

Even with a below average walk rate, Lester avoided a lot more damage in 2018. He kept his hard contact rate (31.9 percent) around league average, leading to a solid .290 BABIP. Even though he improved his walk and strikeout rates last season, opponents squared him up too frequently.

Following his final start of 2019, Lester said he made some adjustments late in the season. He didn’t elaborate on those changes, only noting he felt they put him in a better position to succeed.

“Looking back on it,” Lester said on Sept. 25, “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.”

Had Lester found those adjustments sooner, perhaps we’d look back on his 2019 more kindly.

The Cubs need Lester to remain durable and the consistently competitive pitcher he’s been his entire career. Even though his days as their No. 1 starter are behind us, the Cubs' rotation will be in some trouble if Lester regresses further in 2020.

The complete roster outlook series:

1. Cubs hoping Kris Bryant stabilizes leadoff spot in 2020
2. Kyle Hendricks is a steady force in the Cubs' rotation
3. Kyle Schwarber is primed for a breakout 2020 season
4. Tyler Chatwood has chance to rewrite the script in 2020
5. David Bote searching for more offensive consistency in 2020
6. One pitch could hold key to Jose Quintana's 2020 success
7. Albert Almora Jr. looking to rebound behind new swing, refreshed mental state
8. Cubs counting on bounce back season from Craig Kimbrel
9. Javier Báez is indispensable, and the best is yet to come
10. New pitch key to Rowan Wick staving off regression
11. New MLB rule gives Victor Caratini chance for bigger role
12. Daniel Descalso can only improve from last season
13. Ian Happ poised to claim starting center field job
14. Jeremy Jeffress can bounce back in Chicago
15. Lineup adjustment could be key to Jason Heyward's success
16. Anthony Rizzo remains an all-around rock for Chicago
17. Kyle Ryan's versatility key in uncertain bullpen

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