A day after the Cardinals made a bold move to strengthen their lineup and defense by trading for Jason Heyward, the surprising news came that they could be involved in the bidding for free agent Jon Lester's services.
The rumor was completely unexpected, and there are a number of possibilities here. First, they could simply be kicking the tires to get a feel for the market. Second, as many in the comments section here suggested last night, they could be trying to get the Cubs nervous enough about losing their target that they overpay Lester. And third, they could genuinely be interested in trying to sign the guy.
I'll come right out and say that I don't think it's very likely the Cardinals sign Jon Lester, but I think the third option above, that they genuinely have at least some interest in signing him, is more likely than the first two. It's difficult to see any utility in their expressing interest unless they actually have some. The deep-pocketed Red Sox are already involved in discussions, and according to Peter Gammons, the Lester camp has said they plan on waiting at least until winter meetings start to try to get the Yankees involved. There is a lot of demand for Lester (the previous link mentions six teams), and the Cardinals adding their names to the list is unlikely to do anything to the market unless they happen to make the highest bid. As far as feeling out the market for Lester, with the Cubs and Red Sox already certainly involved, this isn't going to be some sneaky undervalued signing worth exploring.
Given who the Cardinals had to give up to acquire Jason Heyward, they are probably going to attempt to sign him to an extension. Doing so would eat up a large portion of the payroll flexibility the Cardinals are set to have going forward as several big contracts expire over the next few years (revisit Derrick Goold's article about the Birds' financial muscle here). However, I don't think it should be assumed that the team could not afford a hefty extension for Heyward and also sign a big free agent like Lester. It might mean Lance Lynn doesn't get an extension, but it's hardly a given that he would be interested in that in the first place.
A look at the Cardinals' payroll obligations (here, from Cot's) reveals how much is shed every year going forward, and even if Heyward and Lester combine for $45 million in 2016, the crunch would be only for a year or two if the Cardinals want to keep their payroll around $120 million.
I can't find an original source here, but it's all over the internet that Lester is looking for a long deal, up to 7 years, and will likely get $20-$25 million per. Given the contracts given out to aces over the last few years, this range seems likely to be reached. Cliff Lee's 5/$120m deal he got as a 32 year-old in 2010 seems like the low-end, and Zack Greinke's 6/$147m in 2012 is probably toward the top of what Lester might receive.
Which brings us to what Lester's worth. Lester has three things working for him.
First, since overcoming Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in 2007, he's been incredibly healthy. The lefty averaged over 200 innings pitched per since season since 2008, and other than a brief stint on the DL in 2011 for a strained lat, he's had zero arm troubles.
Second, Lester has a long track record of being a good pitcher in a very tough division. His ERA and FIP are a matching 3.58, which is nothing to sneeze at with so many years in the AL East. That's the same career ERA as Max Scherzer's, and better than James Shields'.
Miller & Jenkins for Heyward & Walden Trade Analysis
Third, he was absolutely brilliant in 2014. Splitting time between Boston and then Oakland after being traded by the Red Sox, Lester put together an all-time great contract year performance. He threw 219 innings with a 2.46 ERA and his outstanding peripherals gave him a 2.80 FIP. He struck out 24.9% of batters he faced and walked just 5.4% of them. His BABIP against wasn't particularly low, and his HR/FB% was good, but nothing out of the ordinary. Lester simply threw the ball great, and he was worth 6.1 fWAR in 2014, bested only by baseball's two Cy Young winners and Felix Hernandez.
Without getting into too much detail, the career year seems to be the result of two things. First, his walk-rate, which has trended down every year since 2010, reached elite levels. He seems to have mastered command. Second, his curveball was devastating in 2014. Lester throws his four-seam and nasty cutter around 70% of the time combined, and his sinker another 10%. His fastball and cutter have long been strong pitches, but his slow pitch, a sweeping curve, wasn't anything special the last few years. In 2014 it was one of best curves in baseball.
The following is from the ever essential Brooksbaseball.net: Lester threw the curve 16% of the time in 2014, and it was one of his primary out pitches. Here's the breakthrough. In 2011-2013, hitters swung at around 33% of Lester's curves and whiffed on around 30% of those swings. Cumulatively, they slugged around .340 on the pitch. In 2014, hitters swung at 46% of his curves and whiffed on 41% of them, and they slugged just .203 against it.
Recent baseball history is littered with horrible big money pitcher contracts. The names Hampton, Santana, and Zito are dire warnings, and it's probably not too soon to add Verlander to that list, which is hardly exhaustive. Furthermore, the Cardinals are deep in pitching, and this type of signing doesn't have much precedent in the John Mozeliak era. Nevertheless, Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha have some health questions going forward, Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzales are unproven, and there is money available to make a big move.
It would certainly be a surprise if the Cardinals did sign Jon Lester, but we probably shouldn't entirely discount the notion that the Cardinals have some genuine interest. Paying a pitcher big money is risky, especially one who will turn 31 before he throws a pitch in 2015. But with a strong track record of health, excellent command, and a suddenly great curveball, Lester probably has as good a shot at being worth a big contract, at least for a few years, as a pitcher of his age and pedigree possibly could. Don't take this as an argument that the Cardinals should try to sign Jon Lester, but at the very least, can the Cubs please not get him?