Jon Lester delivering greatest free-agent season for pitcher in more than 15 years

Jeff PassanMLB columnist
Jon Lester delivering greatest free-agent season for pitcher in more than 15 years
Jon Lester delivering greatest free-agent season for pitcher in more than 15 years

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Every start is worth another million, maybe more. Jon Lester doesn't think this way, because his parents, and the reality of beating cancer at 22 years old, taught him to savor the moment he's living and not the ones ahead. And yet baseball operates in a universe parallel to the one playing out in the standings column. It is forever stealing glances at crystal balls.

If the Oakland A's maximize their rotation – and they didn't trade for Lester to baby him down the stretch – he's got 10 regular-season starts left, 10 he hopes fare as well as his first 24 this season, 10 in which the goal is to lead the A's to the American League West crown. Ten, perhaps most important, for his arm to stay healthy like it has for all of his 30 years.

Because it's been a long, long time since a starting pitcher's fortunes have broken good in a walk year like Jon Lester's. He turned in his typical ho-hum performance Tuesday night, snapping the eight-game winning streak of baseball's hottest team, the Kansas City Royals, while striking out nine over six innings. Just another outing to add to a tableau that grows prettier by the start and places him not in elite company but atop it.

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The Los Angeles Dodgers lavished $147 million on Zack Greinke after a season in which he put up a 3.48 ERA. Lester's is nearly a run lower. The Phillies gave Cliff Lee a $24 million-a-year deal when his Fielding Independent Pitching – a metric that predicts future performance as well as any using strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed – led the league. Lester's this year is even better. His ERA and FIP top CC Sabathia's in the wake of his remarkable stretch run with Milwaukee in 2008, destroy those of Barry Zito before his $126 million contract and best all the second-tier pitchers who got paid: Anibal Sanchez and John Lackey and A.J. Burnett and C.J. Wilson. Even the pitcher expected to fetch more in free agency than Lester, Detroit ace and reigning Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, trails Lester in ERA and FIP.

Jon Lester struck out nine Royals hitters. (AP)
Jon Lester struck out nine Royals hitters. (AP)

To find a starting pitcher better than Lester heading into free agency takes a trip one generation into the way-back machine. In 1998, Kevin Brown booked a 2.38 ERA and a 2.23 FIP, and while Randy Johnson's were both higher than Lester's, he threw 244 1/3 innings – Lester is on pace for 233 1/3 – struck out 329, dominated after a deadline deal to Houston and ended up signing a four-year deal with Arizona during which he won the Cy Young all four seasons.

Lester finds himself in unique company because of a bet he made. In this baseball world of elbow injuries and uncertainty and inconsistency, Lester chose himself. He scoffed at the Boston Red Sox's spring training offer of a four-year, $70 million deal and believed his arm would hold up for another 34 starts, another ace's workload that chased 248 taxing innings during Boston's World Series run last season. Next to no pitchers make that gamble, not even the best. The three biggest pitching contracts ever – Clayton Kershaw for $215 million, Justin Verlander for $180 million, Felix Hernandez for $175 million, all spread over seven years – were extensions.

"He's in a really unique situation as far as what could possibly be coming his way," said Jonny Gomes, the outfielder who came to Oakland with Lester in the July 31 deal for slugger Yoenis Cespedes. "I don't know that it's a gamble, but look at history. King Felix has never gone to free agency. Verlander has never gone to free agency. Kershaw has never gone to free agency. So, yeah. It's a gamble."

If any situation parallels Lester's, it's Sabathia. While he reached free agency at 28 years old – Lester will be 31 in January – he did so with 1,684 1/3 innings between the regular season and postseason. Currently, Lester is at 1,617 2/3, and he figures to end up somewhere around the 1,700-inning mark should the A's barrel into, and perhaps through, the postseason.

The juggernaut with the best record in baseball and greatest run differential by nearly 100 runs showed up Tuesday night, battering Kansas City and lending Lester far more run support than needed in an 11-3 victory. It stands in stark contract to the situation left behind in Boston, one that isn't nearly as toxic as the 2012 Bobby Valentine massacre but one that could have felt much the same to Lester. The Red Sox's bungling of any potential contract extension left him in a position where the prevailing storylines down the stretch would have focused on him. Lester enjoys such talk about as much as a colonoscopy.

As much as he tried to pawn off a stretch run in an A's uniform as similar to one would have been with Boston – "If they don't make a trade and I stay there," he said, "I'm going to make the best of it" – Lester understands that clawing for a third World Series ring beats playing out the string on a last-place outfit and stomaching the inevitability of his divorce from Boston.

Lester has won all three of his starts since joining the A's. (Getty Images)
Lester has won all three of his starts since joining the A's. (Getty Images)

Not only did the trade save him from that, it thrust him onto a mound bathed in klieg lights, the sorts under which he does his finest work. He clinched the World Series in 2007 less than a year after undergoing treatment for lymphoma. He shut down St. Louis twice in the World Series last year, capping a postseason in which he posted a 1.56 ERA over five starts. And now, when baseball is building toward $9 billion in revenue, when starting pitching is elemental to a team's success, when elite free agent pitchers rarely, if ever, hit the market, Lester is walking fewer hitters than ever, giving up fewer home runs than ever, striking out more than a batter an inning and fulfilling all the promise flashed since his debut.

"Any time you get a guy like that, you're happy," said A's first baseman Brandon Moss, once a teammate of Lester's in Boston. "It cost us a lot in Cespy. …But I think it made us better. We got Jonny. We got Lester. And Lester's pitching speaks for itself."

It was loud, and it was clear, and it was exactly what the A's needed, whether it's for a Game 1 starter in the division series or a one-game starter in the play-in game should the Angels or Mariners surge past them in the standings. A's manager Bob Melvin, not one to exaggerate, said Lester "was just borderline unhittable" before a three-run hiccup in the fifth inning, when Oakland led 6-0.

Such imperfections are allowed. Lester, coming off a 122-pitch game, exited after 99, another start in the books with his arm healthy, another cha-ching emanating from the cash register. The present is all well and good for Lester, not just because of where he is or what he's doing and but because every day it takes him closer to that point in the future where all of this work leads. He bet on himself to get a Cole Hamels-type deal, and now six years and $144 million may be where the bidding starts.

And so the crystal balls for Lester are all green and gold. For the money he's bound to get. For the ring he covets. And for the uniform he'll wear as he pursues both over the next six weeks and beyond.

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