Talking about aging athletes is an abnormal experience.
For instance, both Jon Lester and Cole Hamels are 35. That is objectively -- in baseball terms -- old. Of course, 35 is not actually old, because as I approach 30 I'm realizing that it's the new 20 and that's what I'll say about that.
This discussion, however, does take place within the realm of baseball terms. So for now, we'll say 35 is old. Sorry, Jon. Sorry, Cole.
The saying goes that Father Time is undefeated, and unless you go to Germany for magic knee surgery or Massachusetts for weird Alex Guerrero massages, it's held pretty firm. Most of the Cubs' starting rotation has bigger immediate concerns (like Joey Votto or Paul Goldschmidt or Christian Yellich or Yasiel Puig), but they're also pitching against Father Time. If that sounds overly dramatic it's because hell yeah, baseball *is* overly dramatic. The Cubs need Lester and Hamels to be good this year - there's no path to an NL Central pennant without them. With each nearing the wrong side of 30, is there enough left in the tank?
At this point in his career, Lester's value lies in his durability. He's pitched at least 180 innings in each of the last 11 seasons, while breaching 200 innings in eight of those. That's 2282.2 innings over the last decade +, and only five other qualified starters have logged more in that time.
You don't need to look too hard to see Lester's decline. Since coming to Chicago, his K/9 has dropped almost two full batters while his BB/9 has risen proportionally. A 5-win player at the peak of his career, Lester's at best a 2-3 win player now. Homers are starting to be an issue, as 2 of the 4 seasons in which he's averaged more than one home run per nine innings have come in the last two years. The amount of hard contact he allows grows each season, though it should be noted that even Lester's "bad" contact numbers are still mostly better than league average; they're just trending in the wrong direction.
Lester's decline is not news, nor should it be. Throwing a baseball over and over and over again is taxing, and Lester has done a whole lot of that over the last decade. The Cubs aren't paying Lester $22.5 million this year for the pitcher he was - they're paying him that because he has a 2.51 ERA in 154 playoff innings. He was masterful in the Cubs' season-ending loss vs. Colorado, striking out 9 over six innings of one-run ball. He's one of this generation's premier postseason pitchers, and that alone is worth twenty-two million dollars. He's earned his Opening Day start, and with the injury woes surrounding others within the Cubs' rotation, getting 6+ innings from Lester more often than not is infinitely valuable.
So, turns out that Hamels and Lester have basically had the same career:
Hamels (13 years): 2553 IPs, 3.40 ERA, 3.66 FIP, 23.0 K%, 6.8 BB%, 1.17 WHIP
Lester (13 years): 2366 IPs, 3.50 ERA, 3.61 FIP, 22.3 K%, 7.8 BB%, 1.25 WHIP
Hamels time in Texas was quite ugly, so it was a pleasant surprise to see him turn it around once he was traded to the Cubs. Some reasons for concern remain, though: he stranded runners on base at a clip (82%) that he hadn't since his time with the Phillies in 2014. That's likely to regress back closer towards his career norm, which sits at 76%. His Cubs' ERA was almost a full-run lower than his Cubs' FIP, another sign that he had a nice run of luck. At this stage in his career, he's most likely not a sub-3 ERA pitcher, like he was during his 76.1 Cubs innings last season.
The optimist would point out that Hamels has talked at length about how a lingering oblique injury messed with his mechanics and left him searching for answers for the better part of two seasons. They'd say that getting out of Texas, where he was allowing almost 2 home runs per 9 innings, will do him wonders. They'd have a point; as he continues to distance himself from that disaster of a 2017 season, it's looking more and more like an aberration than a sign of things to come. His velocity was back up, and the renewed confidence in his four-seamer, along with a tinkered approach to right-handed hitters, did wonders.
At this point in their window, the Cubs are relying more on veteran experience than they are raw talent - and that's fine. Not every team has the luxury of having four World Series titles between two starters. They may not be Cy Young candidates, but that's what Yu Darvish is for anyways!