Free Agent Profile: Jon Lester

 Jon Lester can really pitch. He’s never won a Cy Young and has finished in the top 5 just twice. Heck, he’s made just three All-Star teams in eight years despite high-level consistency across the board, but he’s shown ace-like abilities and is among the top lefties in baseball.

Now the former Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics ace is a free agent looking to cash in on a 6.1 fWAR campaign.

Throws: Left
Age: 31 on January 7
Service: 8.075
Agent: ACES
Qualifying Offer: N/A

Scouting Report
Lester has one of the better sinker-cutter-curveball combinations in baseball and he’s worked very hard to perfect a delivery that might be the undoing for most starting pitchers. He sat 90-92 witht he sinker with the occasional 94-95 with a four-seamer. The slider has been replaced by a cutter he commands well in on right-handed batters. He’ll steal a strike versus a lefty with it and can throw any pitch in any count.

Lester posted perhaps his best command-and-control season of his career, issuing fewer than two walks per nine innings and the second-best HR/FB rate. He remains occasionally susceptible to the stolen base, but has been above average in that regard the past three seasons.

He’s pitched in pennant races and is postseason tested, including two terrific outings in the 2013 World Series. He’s a nightmare for lefties but has been better versus right-handed bats the past couple of seasons.

The Upside
The 30-year-old is bonafide No. 1 starter with no signs of slowing down. The raw stuff can carry a team for weeks and the veteran command he’s developed bodes well for his immediate future.

Any contending rotation that adds Lester to the mix automatically jumps a full level and greatly improves its chances to get to and succeed in October.

The Downside
Lester turned down a four-year contract extension in April, reported Ken Rosenthal.
He’s 31 in January and six-year deals for any pitcher generally do not work out well for the club. Considering Lester’s only free-agent competition in terms of top flight starters is right-hander Max Scherzer, the player has great leverage this offseason.

There are some high-ranking scouts that wondered early in Lester’s career whether or not his arm slot and somewhat unorthodox mechanics might contribute to a shorter career or some injury concerns. Those concerns went away years ago when he began compiling 200-inning seasons one right after the other. As he ages, however, those thoughts may return.

Cost & Conclusion: Mariners Perspective
It would shock most in the industry if Lester signed for less than five years, with six years a good possibility. Something in the $20 million range also figures to be a certainty with the lone question being the exact AAV. All be told, Lester could end up with $125-$150 million over 5-7 years.

Many have linked Lester to the Seattle Mariners based on Lester having grown up in Puyallup and attending Tacoma’s Bellarmine Prep. The connection isn’t strong, however, as the pitcher entrenched himself in the Boston community and with the Red Sox, having spent 12 years with the organization.

The good bet is the lefty seeks out the best combination of contract and a chance to win right away. If the bidding gets well beyond the $20 million range, it’s difficult to imagine such a number fits in with what the Mariners are trying to do over the next few years. His addition could free up a Taijuan Walker for GM Jack Zduriencik to acquire a cleanup hitter, but Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano already are eating up nearly $50 million per season.

The club is flush with cash; the RSN deal kicked in this year, which reportedly is worth around $2 billion over 17 years ($115-120 million in revenues per season through 2030) and with local interest growing the general revenues are growing, too. But the chances the M’s start splurging huge dollars for multiple player per offseason are slim, and if they do choose that route the chance a starting pitcher is among them is even slimmer.

The Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Angels and Los Angeles Dodgers appear to be the most likely to opt to make the big offer to Lester, and the Kansas City Royals are among the clubs that have checked in on him this month. The Baltimore Orioles could certainly use Lester, as could the Texas Rangers.

One recent report by Nick Cafardo makes one think, however. Cafardo wrote Sunday that the Mariners have fielded calls from clubs inquiring about right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma. Iwakuma now is under contract for 2015 at $7 million. Cafardo added that Boston has at least had “internal conversations” about the M’s No. 2 starter and that Seattle would want an impact hitter, such as Yoenis Cespedes, in return.

It’s an intriguing thought — Iwakuma-for-Cespedes — but the Mariners do not have a starting pitching surplus by any stretch. As I wrote last week, the Mariners’ rotation was solid in 2014, but not great, and relying on kids such as James Paxton, Walker, Roenis Elias, to step up their game, remain healthy and provide impact innings in Iwakuma’s absence is a poor plan and one I don’t believe Seattle will risk.

If they spent money on a free agent starting pitcher or two, however, Iwakuma could become available in the manner in which I previously mentioned Walker. But it would take a significant starter — like Lester — to make the right-hander an expendable commodity.

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Jason A. Churchill

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