Veteran left-hander Jon Lester will be activated from the injured list and make his 2021 debut (and Nationals debut) tonight against the Marlins, reports Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post. Corresponding roster moves are still being sorted out.
Lester, 37, signed a one-year deal worth $5MM to step into the Nats’ rotation this winter. His trajectory to their active roster has been impeded multiple times, however. The southpaw underwent surgery to remove his thyroid gland early in Spring Training after experiencing abnormal levels of fatigue and having that course of treatment recommended by multiple doctors. He then was one of several Nationals players to land on the Covid-19 list amid the team’s early-season outbreak.
A five-time All-Star and three-time World Series champion, Lester recently wrapped up a six-year, $155MM contract with the Cubs and will now suit up for the fourth team of an exceptional career. Unlike so many big-money free-agent contracts, Lester’s proved to be a worthwhile investment for the Cubs. His production waned in the final years of the deal, particularly in 2020, but he was every bit the ace they hoped he be early on. Lester carried a 3.33 ERA through the contract’s first four years, including a superlative 2.44 mark during 2016’s World Series-winning season. He finished second in NL Cy Young voting that year and was dominant in the playoffs, earning NLCS MVP honors along the way.
The Nationals know they’re not getting the same Lester, but they’ll hope that he can continue to serve as a workhorse rotation stabilizer, throwing competitive innings behind a high-priced and high-profile trio atop the rotation. That trio of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin was expected to be the team’s strength in 2021, but instead their inconsistency has been one of the primary drivers of Washington’s struggles as a team.
Scherzer is sitting on a terrific 3.00 ERA and is still posting elite K/BB numbers, but it’s been an uneven road. He’s mixed in a pair of poor outings with three utterly dominant starts. The end results are solid, though, and he’s easily the least worrisome of the Nats’ top three.
Strasburg has thrown just 10 innings so far in 2021 and is currently on the 10-day injured list with a bout of inflammation in his right shoulder. There’s no clear timeline for his return, but he’s already past the 10-day minimum and a return does not appear to be on the immediate horizon.
Corbin has been the most troublesome of the team’s rotation triumvirate. He was lights-out against the Cardinals back on April 20, but his other three starts have been outright nightmares. The lefty was absolutely torched for 10 runs (nine earned) in two innings by the D-backs on April 15, and he’s yielded a combined 10 runs through 8 1/3 innings in his other two starts. Overall, Corbin is lugging a 10.47 ERA through 16 1/3 frames. His velocity has ticked up about a mile per hour in his two most recent outings, including that excellent start against the Cardinals (six shutout innings), so the Nats can only hope that he’s begun to turn the corner.
Given the ups and downs throughout the Washington rotation at the moment, there’s perhaps a bit more expectation placed on Lester’s shoulders than most would’ve expected heading into the season. Lester is no stranger to weighty expectations, of course, but he’ll be looking for a rebound of his own after logging a career-worst 5.16 ERA in 61 innings last season. He said during Spring Training that the improved energy levels he felt post-thyroidectomy were higher than he’d felt in years, which could be a source of some optimism regarding a bounceback effort in 2021.