The Cardinals Add Another Patch to Their Rotation With Jon Lester by Jay Jaffe July 30, 2021 With a 51-51 record and 2.1% playoff odds entering Friday, the Cardinals didn’t have much reason to approach the trade deadline in aggressive fashion, but they did busy themselves with incremental upgrades of their rotation. In a move that Ben Clemens broke down here, they traded righty John Gant and lefty prospect Evan Sisk to the Twins for lefty J.A. Happ, and in a separate move, they got in on the Nationals’ fire sale by adding southpaw Jon Lester in exchange for center fielder Lane Thomas. It would be an understatement to say that the 37-year-old Lester ain’t what he used to be. After pitching to a 5.16 ERA, 5.14 FIP, and 5.85 xERA — the last of which was the majors’ worst among qualifiers — in the final season of his six-year, $155 million deal with the Cubs in 2020, the team quite understandably turned down its end of a $25 million mutual option and sent him on his merry way with a $10 million buyout, all of it deferred. He signed a one-year, $5 million deal with the Nationals, but before he could make his regular season debut, he missed time during spring training to undergo a parathyroidectomy and then tested positive for COVID-19 amid the Nationals’ first outbreak of the season. He finally took the mound for the Nats on April 30, and over the course of 16 starts, posted a 5.02 ERA, 5.41 FIP, and 4.90 xERA in 75.1 innings. The indicators, as you’d imagine, aren’t good. Via Statcast, Lester’s fastball velocity has dropped from an average of 89.4 mph last year to 89.0 this year. Of the 113 pitchers with at least 70 innings as starters, his 14.9% strikeout rate and 6.4% strikeout-walk differential are the fourth-lowest and his 5.41 FIP the sixth-highest. This may not be the end of the line for the five-time All-Star with a pair of World Series rings, but we can probably see it from here. In a case of “yeah, but you should see the other guys,” the Cardinals currently have Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Carlos Martinez, and Miles Mikolas all on the injured list, with Hudson out for the year due to Tommy John surgery and Martinez ineligible to return until early September after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb. Flaherty just made his first rehab start after missing two months due to an oblique strain, but he’ll have to build his pitch count up from 31 in his first outing to at least about 70-75 before he can return. Mikolas is mid-rehab as well after having missed all of 2020 due to surgery to repair a strained flexor tendon then making just one start this season due to shoulder soreness and forearm tightness. That leaves the Cardinals — whose rotation looked thin from the outset of the season — with Adam Wainwright, Kwang Hyun Kim, Happ, Lester, and either Wade LeBlanc or Jake Woodford to round out their rotation until Mikolas and Flaherty return from their rehabs. It doesn’t look like an easy way to make up the 9 1/2 games by which they trail the Brewers, to say the least. In exchange for Lester, the Nationals picked up Thomas, a 25-year-old righty who was a fifth-round pick by the Blue Jays in 2014 and who came to the Cardinals in a swap involving international bonus slot money three years later. Thomas has spent most of his season at Triple-A Memphis, hitting .265/.339/.451 with four homers in 127 PA. In two stints with the Cardinals, he’s played 32 games but has had just 58 plate appearances, hitting an ungodly .104/.259/.125. He struggled similarly in a 40-PA stretch last year after making a strong showing over 44 PA in 2019, leaving his overall line at a grim .172/.289/.336 in 142 PA. If you’re getting the sense that the Cardinals haven’t regarded Thomas as much more than a depth piece, you’d be right, but in his 2020 prospect report, he graded out as a 40+ FV prospect, a plus defender with an above-average arm and speed, and a selective, pull-heavy approach that yielded doubles power. That’s the profile of a second-division regular or a fourth outfielder, and there are worse fates for Thomas than landing with a team that’s just torn down everything, and that has a center fielder (Victor Robles) wheezing along with a 71 wRC+ this year after similarly underperforming last year. Thomas is due for a greener pasture, and in this trade, he may well get one.