The Cardinals Add Another Patch to Their Rotation With Jon Lester

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.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

The Cardinals were actually 10 deep in starting pitching options at the beginning of the season. It’s just that most of them have gone sideways for various reasons:

2 of them are still in the rotation and pitching well (Kim & Wainwright); 1 was a decent long reliever and recently moved to the rotation (Woodford); 1 is the closer this season out of health concerns (Reyes); 2 were good but injured (Flaherty & Mikolas); 1 was inconsistent and then injured (Martinez); 1 was lousy and then injured (Ponce de Leon); 1 is walking everyone in sight, which eventually caught up to him and got him demoted to the bullpen, and now he’s traded (Gant); and 1 is just plain lousy (Oviedo).

Seamaholic
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Seamaholic

Well every team is 10 deep if you’re gonna count bad pitchers. The Cards could really use Austin Gomber right about now. He’d be their ace until Flaherty comes back.

Kyle Sharamitaro
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Kyle Sharamitaro

I think they’re happier w Arenado. But yes, they never replaced Gomber on the depth chart, and that hurt them almost immediately

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

They weren’t supposed to need to replace Gomber on the depth chart. They were expected to have a very good rotation of Flaherty, Mikolas, Kim, Wainright, and Martinez and with plenty of quality depth behind them.

shampain
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shampain

All 10 of them were projected to be above replacement-level by pre-season ZIPS, except for Woodford. And of course it’s not just that *some* guys were hurt, it is that the top of the rotation was hurt and the depth was either also hurt or not as good as expected.

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

No, they aren’t! Most teams can only go 7 or 8 at best in Major League ready starting pitching if even that much. There was also no way to know that Martinez. Gant, Ponce de Leon, and Oviedo would decline so badly all at once, not to mention the injury problems.

Also, Gomber would only be the 3rd best starter behind Kim and Wainwright.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Most teams can only go five or six at best, and the Cardinals were no exception. Flaherty, Kim, Mikolas, Wainwight, and Martinez wasn’t a rotation that would scare anyone but they would supposedly all give you professional innings, and Gant was a good enough 6th guy, maybe even a #5. I don’t think any team could have foreseen that both Flaherty and Mikolas (well, maybe they could have predicted Mikolas) would wind up on the shelf and both Martinez and Gant would melt down, and it was undeniably bad luck that all of those things happened. Once they happened the season it was obvious that things were going to get ugly, and they got ugly!

Beyond that, Oviedo was a “not yet” and de Leon was a never-was, and both of those were clear before the season began. de Leon has walked far too many batters to trust regularly, Oviedo was replacement level last year and was projected to be replacement level this year. Again, this is the same as basically every team except the Dodgers, and maybe a few other ones (Padres, Mets). But anyone who was telling you that these two guys were credible 5th starters before the season began…it was really, really obvious that was not the case.

rbemont
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rbemont

The Cardinals were in 1st place when those 2 injuries happened … along with Molina’s heavy regression.

It was a rapid downturn.

carter
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carter

Molina regressing was obvious though. Obviously he wasn’t going to be the best he had ever been in his career.