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Athletics 2014 season review: Jon Lester, the ringer who wasn't enough

Did the Lester trade save or ruin the A's? Trick question! They were going to lose either way.
Did the Lester trade save or ruin the A's? Trick question! They were going to lose either way.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The previous player on our list was Jeff Samardzija, one of Billy Beane's big midseason acquisitions. Coincidentally, next is No. 31, Jon Lester, the other blockbuster July addition.

Player profile

Name: Jon Lester, aka Not Cespedes
Position: LHP, starting
Stats: 11 starts, 2.35 ERA (159 ERA+), 76⅔ innings, 71 Ks, 16 BB, 1 shutout
WAR: 1.9 bWAR, 1.6 fWAR
How he got here: Acquired from Boston Red Sox on July 31
2014 Salary: $13 million
2015 Status: Free agent, signed with Chicago Cubs (6yr/$155M)
2015 Salary: $20 million

Season summary

In our review of Samardzija, we detailed the dubiousness of the Oakland Athletics' rotation in early July. The potential land mine was diffused by the acquisition of a couple reliable veterans, but Beane apparently wasn't satisfied.

Jason Hammel was a disaster in July, and through his first four starts he was 0-4 with a 9.53 ERA and an average of around four innings per outing. The A's lineup was shut down in three of those four games, so by the Sour Grapes Principle they probably would have been losses no matter who'd started, but the point was that one of the reinforcements that was supposed to shore up the staff appeared to be defective. Furthermore, on July 28, Jesse Chavez completed a six-start stint in which he had a 5.51 ERA and completed six innings only once -- no one expected him to stay strong all year in his first full season as an MLB starter, and it appeared he might finally be faltering.

On July 30, the A's rotation had three stars, but one of them (Kazmir) was a substantial injury/fatigue risk given his career history, and another (Sonny) was in his first full MLB season. After them, there were two question marks in Hammel and Chavez; Tommy Milone, who had just posted a 6.43 ERA in four starts in Triple-A since his demotion; and Drew Pomeranz, who had just re-joined Sacramento's rotation from the DL but needed time to get back into his groove. Seeing a deep, powerful offense and a rotation that he still didn't trust, Beane elected to draw from his area of depth to strengthen his area of weakness. What resulted has gone down as perhaps the most controversial move of his 16-year tenure: he traded popular All-Star slugger Yoenis Cespedes, the physical freak and national face of the franchise, to the Boston Red Sox for two months of Jon Lester, an elite starting pitcher who had pitched his team to a World Series title the previous season.

At the time, I didn't want Lester. I wanted the A's to win the championship with their guys. If it happened, I wanted Cespedes and the gang to be the ones in the highlight reels, not some ringer whose Oakland career spanned just a couple months. Granted, my acceptance of Shark and Hammel was a bit of a double-standard in that sense, but Shark had another year of team control and Hammel was just a supporting character; Lester was the kind of guy you expected to be a driving force behind an October run. It helped that the familiar beard of Jonny Gomes came back in the deal as well, but it still felt weird to lose a central figure like Cespedes from a contending team.

Nevertheless, I understood the logic behind trade. Cespedes' monumental physical talents never consistently translated to the field, as he was struggling to keep his OBP above .300 for the second straight year and never hit as many home runs as it seemed like he should; his career-high still stands at 26. He's exactly the kind of player you can sell high on. He has enough talent that upside is easy to project, even in his late-20s, and his reputation as an All-Star and Home Run Derby champ and laser-armed defensive ace far exceeded his actual production -- statistically, he was at best the third-best hitter on the team behind Donaldson and Moss. Of course, as a fan, the bells and whistles that Cespedes provided are the kinds of things we pay to see, the things that make us stop whatever we're doing to focus on the TV in the hopes of seeing something amazing, so giving up that kind of exceedingly exciting player is tough to swallow. But if you can swap out your third-best hitter for a Cy Young-caliber starter who slots in as your No. 1, then you've probably made your team better and you've certainly made it more balanced.

It was a difficult situation to process. I love Yo! But Lester is so good. But Yo is the heart and soul of the team! But his stats don't bear that out. But Yo is so fun to watch! But winning is fun too, and Lester probably makes the team better. It was a polarizing move, too, as some praised the logic and ruthless objectivity while others decried the fixing of something that didn't seem broken as well as the emotional blow. Both sides had great points. It didn't help that Lester's first start fell on an ill-timed Cespedes t-shirt night, but it did help that Lester won that game handily (against the Royals, ironically).

For his part, Lester was every bit as good as advertised with the A's, and they absolutely got what they paid for with him. He made 11 regular season starts, and every single one ranked as a quality outing (at least six innings, no more than three earned runs). He threw a shutout against the Twins in his second start, which is more impressive than it sounds given that Minnesota quietly ranked seventh in MLB in scoring last year. Unfortunately he failed in his bid to defeat Felix Hernandez, Oakland's personal white whale, but only for the crime of allowing two runs in eight innings.

Lester averaged seven frames per start, he kept his ERA low (2.35), he struck out nearly a batter per inning, and he kept his walks down. The A's went 7-4 in games he pitched, and they went 22-33 in August and September combined; in other words, his starts accounted for one-third of the all of the team's wins in the final two months. (Note: In two of the wins, the A's scored 11 runs, and in one of the losses they were shut out. Otherwise they generally scored 3-4 runs, with only a couple minor outliers. We can reasonably call Lester "5-3 in games that were ever in question.")

Jon Lester untouchable
Offer not valid in Kansas City after Labor Day.

And then there was the Wild Card game. Lester was acquired to help get the A's to October, yes, but Beane surely had one eye focused on a situation like this: a big, must-win postseason game. Lester was the ace who other teams feared, who they didn't want to see in an elimination matchup. Just as the A's wouldn't want to run into Felix or Justin Verlander, Lester was the buzzsaw who could end your season. He boasted a 2.11 postseason ERA in 13 games (11 starts), and he'd proven his mettle by allowing one run over 21 career innings in the World Series. The A's had paid dearly to give themselves this kind of advantage, and now everything had lined up for them to deploy their fancy new weapon at exactly the right moment.

But of course, the best-laid plans went awry as they so often do. Lester threw seven strong innings and entered the eighth with a 7-3 lead and a pitch count of only 94. He induced ground balls from the first three hitters, and somehow that added up to a runner on second, one out, and one run in. Eric Hosmer drew a seven-pitch walk to knock Lester out of the game, and Luke Gregerson came in and immediately allowed a line drive single and a wild pitch to score both inherited runners. The A's had been six outs away from cruising to a comfortable victory, and instead miracle after miracle fell Kansas City's way and when all was said and done Oakland was left stunned by their unlikely elimination.

It's tough to say that Lester failed in his postseason start. The team held a three-run cushion when he exited, and still clung to a one-run lead after Gregerson was done pooping the bed. He quite literally put them in a position to win, and the only things between him and a quality start were Jed Lowrie's embarrassing defense, Derek Norris' embarrassing arm, and a bit of bad BABIP luck. He even picked off a runner for the first time all year, and all it did was cost him his starting catcher after three innings due to a fluke injury. No, he didn't do enough to win the game all on his own, but he did enough to win. The defense and the bullpen lost that game for the A's, with the help of every ounce of magic and every good hop the Royals could muster.

All told, I honestly still don't know how I feel about the Lester trade. Whereas I'm positive that the A's would have missed the playoffs without the Shark trade, I can't be so sure about this one. I know that Lester was phenomenal during the regular season, that he put his team in a position to win in the postseason, and that he was almost certainly a game or two better than Pomeranz or Milone or Chavez would have been. But it's entirely possible that the lineup would have made up that difference with Cespedes in it.

With everything else falling apart around him, perhaps Cespedes could have teamed with Joshes Donaldson and Reddick and kept the offense afloat, especially given that Gomes turned out to be a total dud in his homecoming. Maybe Cespedes, who batted .269/.296/.423 with only five homers for Boston post-trade, would have chipped in a walk-off hit somewhere along the way that otherwise never came in another helpless loss. The trade didn't single-handedly cause the second-half collapse, because that required injuries to a half dozen key players and slumps by several others, but it objectively made the lineup weaker. I know the Shark trade helped because it was a pure MLB upgrade, and the only question is whether we'll regret the future consequences (like Addison Russell becoming a star for the Cubs). But the Lester trade will always lie under a shroud of what-ifs.

What I do know is that gambling on Lester didn't cost the A's much of anything in terms of future value. The Red Sox, overloaded with outfielders and reportedly fed up with Cespedes' attitude according to Bill Madden of the New York Daily News, dealt him to the Detroit Tigers in December along with a couple of warm bodies for one year of starting pitcher Rick Porcello. While Porcello is good and would certainly have helped the 2015 A's, Lester is undeniably better and it's easy to argue that it was preferable to get the bigger star when we knew the A's were in the thick of competing for a ring rather than the mid-level star in a year when they may or may not have ended up being in the race.

If you're lamenting that Cespedes could have been held last summer and then traded this winter for a host of prospects, well, that probably wasn't ever going to be an option given the way the market has gone the last several months. Granted, one year of Justin Upton brought back four minor leaguers, but he's a much bigger star than Cespedes is and the prospects seem closer to Joe Wendle (that is, interesting but not exciting) than Daniel Robertson (that is, highly touted and potentially high-impact). Ben Zobrist fetched Robertson himself, but let's not pretend Yo approaches Zo's value. One year of Howie Kendrick returned a young pitcher with team control, but Kendrick is a better player too and second base is an in-demand position. More likely, they would have gotten a similarly short-term player in return for Cespedes or simply kept him for 2015, which means that Beane's bold move probably didn't do much of anything to hurt the farm system except maybe cost them the chance at a qualifying offer at year's end and the subsequent draft pick compensation.

Gun to my head, if I had to go back and do it again, I would not make the Lester trade. The A's got the most talented player in the deal as well as the one who performed best after its consummation, but losing Cespedes simply made the rest of the season less fun. Even knowing what I know now, that every single win counted, I would still gamble on Cespedes making up Lester's value on the offensive side and getting the A's to the Wild Card game. I think they would have lost to the Royals either way, though. And now, at the end of it, we could have Porcello in the 2015 rotation (or some other win-now asset, or Cespedes himself filling the hole for a power bat in left field). But I don't think the A's would have done any better in 2014 without the trade, and I don't think any lingering negative effects will be felt after 2015. It just was what it was -- another agonizing moment in a season that wasn't meant to be ours.

2014 season grade, relative to expectations: A- ... I expected an ace, and I got a borderline Cy Young. There's not much room to improve on that. He could have dropped the minus with a 1-2-3 eighth inning in the Wild Card game.

2014 season grade, overall: A ... He was one of the best players in baseball and finished fourth in the AL Cy Young voting. He was worth 4.6 bWAR and 6.1 fWAR overall. This was a case of a great player having his career year, with a personal high in both ERA+ (155) and innings pitched (219⅔), despite having to switch teams and move from one coast to the other midseason.

Video highlights

Lester won his Oakland debut, though his outing was merely solid. This video includes Sam Fuld's famous airborne throw, as well as Lester getting an ovation from the home crowd upon his exit.

He stepped up his game in his next start, tossing a shutout against the Twins. This ranked as the second-best start all year for the A's according to Game Score, after Sonny's April shutout of the Rangers.

Here he is dominating the Angels. He struck out Mike Trout three times in this game. Oh, the ALDS matchup that could have been.

This is the Wild Card game. You don't have to watch this one. No one will judge you if you just skip it. However, if you do watch it, know that it only includes the good times and if it was the only thing you'd ever seen about the game then you'd think the A's won handily.


It's too bad that Lester will go down as a negative part of A's lore, as the guy who cost them their beloved Cespedes but didn't deliver the ring he was brought in to secure. He played fantastic ball from the moment he arrived til the bitter end, and it's not his fault that the team faltered in Kansas City. I wouldn't personally have made the trade for him, but it wasn't what ruined the A's season and there will be no lingering effects after this year. Let's stop dwelling on what could have been, put this chapter to rest and move on with the next edition of A's baseball.