Why Jon Lester might be Chicago's best free-agent signing ever

ByJesse Rogers ESPN logo
Thursday, May 2, 2019

SEATTLE -- Cubs left-hander Jon Lester is so revered in Chicago these days even social media can't touch him. In the era of hot takes, there's only one concerning Lester that is up for debate: Is he the best free-agent signing in the city's history?

"You write a list of the free agents that have come into the city," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after Lester's latest gem Wednesday, "I don't know if there's a pitcher that's performed nearly as well as he has."

Forget pitcher -- how about any athlete? Perhaps someone can match Lester, but few could surpass what he has meant to the Cubs, the city of Chicago and baseball in general. Remember, he was revered in Boston, where he helped the Red Sox to two World Series championships. He's working toward his second with the Cubs, after pitching seven innings while allowing just one hit and one walk in his team's 11-0 win over the Seattle Mariners on Wednesday, Chicago's fourth consecutive victory. His ERA is a nifty 1.73 after five starts.

"Having the shadows [at T-Mobile Park] helped," Lester said humbly.

Maybe sleeping in his childhood bed Sunday night -- picture that sight for the 6-foot-4-inch veteran -- helped as well. Lester is from nearby Puyallup, Washington, and if you think it could be a distraction for the local kid pitching at home, think again. Not at this point in his career. Just his parents and one cousin were in the stands Wednesday.

"I guess over the years the excitement of coming to the game has worn off," Lester said with a smirk. "We had to start saying no to people [for tickets] so I think everyone got the hint."

Cubs fans undoubtedly do not think the excitement of watching Lester pitch has worn off. Wednesday's start, like his previous one, was supposed to be about him just shaking off the rust after a short stint on the injured list with a strained hamstring. Instead, he's thrown 12 innings in those two games and given up just one run -- against the highest-scoring teams in both leagues. The consistency continues to amaze his teammates.

"That's him," Jason Heyward said of Lester. "That's his career. He goes out there and approaches it the same way every time. He didn't shy away regardless of how it's going."

For example, Seattle's first hitter Wednesday -- Mitch Haniger -- reached on a two-base error by third baseman David Bote. A groundout, a fly out and a strikeout later, the Cubs were back in the dugout and Lester was off and running. The rest of the game was academic, as Chicago scored six times in the second inning while Lester cruised for six more innings.

"The one thing about Jon that's really standing out to me is absolute composure and competitive nature," Maddon said while stating what everyone already knows. "He's really slowing the game down. He competes. He competes on another level. And his self-confidence is at an all-time high right now."

That final thought is part of the evolution of the 35-year-old that has come with age and being comfortable in his surroundings. It took a while in Chicago, but Lester has become the true definition of a quiet leader.

"He's not a vocal leader by any means, but he's a leader," Maddon said. "He's done it in a nonvocal way and gone out there and showed people how to do it."

If ever there was an example for other pitchers, it's Lester. Nothing fazes him and there are no excuses. Competing is more important than what the radar gun says. He's proved that over and over and over again throughout the latter part of his career.

"The stuff is the stuff, but we're talking about him," Maddon reiterated.

There will be a time when Lester's cutter will be lost forever, when his arm has had enough. But the predictive models, based on sabermetrics and anything but watching him pitch, will have to wait until he tells the baseball world he's done.

That's not now, not yet. After all, he still has a year and a half left to live up to a $155 million contract no one can call a waste. That -- along with the love he receives online and at the ballpark -- is truly an accomplishment in this day and age.

"One day he will pass it," Heyward said of the proverbial torch Lester will hand off to his younger teammates. "He's doing everyone here a great service, just how he goes about it all."

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