Thursday, November 20, 2014

Does Jon Lester Make Sense for the Braves?

The news was a little surprising, especially given the timing of what else transpired this week. Jon Lester, the long-time Red Sox and brief Oakland Athletic, will meet, or depending on when you read this, have met with the Atlanta Braves this week about a possible contract.

Wait, but aren't we rebuilding?

Yeah, I thought so, too, but the Braves have been pretty open that the future is hardly set in stone. They could just as easily reload for 2015 or build for 2017. Signing a pitcher like Lester would appear to satisfy both of those needs, though it's questionable how realistic that is. The Braves have already invested $71.4M into eight players for 2015 with seven players still to deal with in arbitration, though at least three of them are likely to be non-tendered. Using arbitration estimates from MLBTR for the four I could see the Braves bringing back, plus minimum salaries for 10 more players, the Braves are looking at roughly $86-$88M invested out of the possible $110-$114M payroll. Is Lester even financially feasible? We'll get back to that.

Lester does make sense for the Braves and really any team who is seeking improvement, because the lefty is coming off his best season, isn't really that old (2015 will be his age-31 season), and has been remarkably durable (hasn't made fewer than 31 starts in any of his full seasons). Despite this, he won't even cost a team a first-round selection since he was traded in the final year of his contract and wasn't eligible for a qualifying offer. That would appear to be one reason the Braves would have more interest in Lester over the other big two starters on the market, Max Scherzer and James Shields. After all, it would be counter-productive for the new front office team to scream about the lack of minor league depth and lose another first rounder via a free agent signing.

Will the Braves be buying high on a talent that has largely been good, but rarely great? Between 2011-13, Lester ranked 16th in fWAR, but just 60th in FIP. This paints the picture of a durable workhorse not unlike last year's high priced addition, Ervin Santana. But last year, Lester upped his K% to a quarter of all batters, something he hasn't accomplished since 2010. His BB% fell under 7% for the first time in his career to 5.4%. This led to personal lows in WHIP, FIP, and barely missing his lowest xFIP of his career. Can something explain this fluctuation of numbers or did Lester just get it as a 30 year-old? Well, he did basically scrap his change-up, a pitch he used over 10% of the time in 2012-13, and relied much more on his cutter and curveball, which were both strikeout pitches in 2014. It would appear likely that change could be replicated. Lester wasn't lucky last year and so his future success remains rather attainable even if his numbers in his contract year vs. the previous three seasons do give you a momentary pause.

Lester also makes sense because it would immediately turn the Braves pitching staff into one that could compete for a division. The Braves were able to compete until the end last season with Aaron Harang doing his best Houdini impression. Imagine what it could do with Lester and Julio Teheran headlining a staff with the young and electric Alex Wood, new acquisition Shelby Miller, and x-factor Mike Minor.

Having said that, this is where I start looking at why I'm not keen on targeting Lester. Pitching wasn't the problem last season and signing Lester won't lead to a better on-base percentage, more homers, and more runs. Having Jason Heyward would have helped, but something happened there. This is not to say that the Braves shouldn't seek out the services of another pitcher (Justin Masterson has been rumored) because clearly, starting pitching depth is an issue.

So, that gets us back to the financial side. Does signing Lester make sense? Let's look at the contract Lester is expected to seek this winter. While all of this is guesswork, I think it's reasonable to assume Lester is in line to break the bank in the coming weeks. Obviously, Lester won't be touching Clayton Kershaw money (7 years, $215M). Looking at more comparable offers, last winter, Masahiro Tanaka got $175M over seven years and last spring, Scherzer rejected a six year, $144M deal. Between those offers is Zach Greinke's $147M over six years. I'd say somewhere in the neighborhood of six years and $160M is reasonable for the market. Obviously, if Scherzer gets closer to $190M, Lester gets closer to Tanaka's deal. $160M over six years is an average of $26.7M. Sticker shock yet?

But wait, there's more. Since that kind of money would basically take up all of the Braves financial wiggle room for 2015, the Braves would have no room for error and they are still seeking out bench help, a possible stop-gap at second, and would marry themselves to the idea of Evan Gattis in left. On the flipside, Atlanta might look to move a couple of players to save some more cash, but doing so would mean the Braves would have to replace that player so are you really saving much? And what of 2016 when Justin Upton is a free agent and Gattis, Miller, and Wood are hitting arbitration? Granted, Dan Uggla will also be off the books. And when the Braves open the new park in 2017, at least $60M would be devoted to three players. Let's not even get into the mess of backloading a contract of this size.

And then there is Lester's age. If the going rate on free agent pitchers at the top tier of their profession is at least five years and Lester will pitch all of 2015 as a 31 year-old, just how long are you committing money to him and what kind of pitcher will he be at the end of the trade? I realize that you take risks with any long-term deal, but that is a lot of years and money to take a chance on a guy who might be a #3 or #4 by the time the deal is entering its final year.

Like many things, there are both positives and negatives. Who wouldn't want a pitcher of Lester's caliber pairing with Teheran for the rest of the decade? But does it make sense? I'm just not sold on that idea. Beyond the fact that the Heyward deal essentially says we aren't ready to compete and ignoring that the offense has only gotten worse since the end of the regular season, are we really going to invest roughly a quarter of next year's budget to one player? A player who has rarely been great?

Fortunately, this seems like the kind of the thing the Braves simply don't do. Sure, they flirt with the idea, but they ultimately shy away and try to make smaller and smarter signings.

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