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Prospect Retro: Jon Lester

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Jon Lester was drafted by the Red Sox in the second round of the 2002 draft, out of high school in Puyallup, Washington. He was considered a first-round talent, but he had a scholarship to Arizona State and that scared a lot of teams off. The Red Sox didn't have a first-round pick that year, so they found the money to sign Lester, although he signed late and pitched in just one rookie ball game. He was considered a classic projectable lefty, throwing anywhere from 86 to 93 in high school but with a good chance to make that velocity more consistent with maturity. HIs breaking stuff was also promising but erratic. I gave him a Grade C+ in the 2003 book, noting that he could turn into Mark Mulder but could also turn into Dan Serafini.

Lester spent 2003 in the Sally League, going 6-9, 3.65 with a 71/44 K/BB in 106 innings. His component ratios were mediocre. He boosted his velocity consistency a tad to 88-92, and showed a better changeup. HIs breaking balls were still considered very erratic. I gave him a Grade C+ again, noting his long-term promise but pointing out the mediocre (at that time) component marks.

2004 was a mixed season. On the good side, he boosted his velocity again, to 89-93, high 95. His curve improved. He went 7-6, 4.28 with a 97/37 K/BB in 90 innings for Sarasota in the Florida State League, showing better components. He also missed three weeks of pitching with a sore shoulder. I moved him up to Grade B in the 2005 book, worried some about the shoulder but liking the better velocity and stronger K/IP ratio. I wrote that he could be a number one starter, potentially, if his command sharpened a bit more and if he stayed healthy.

Lester stayed healthy in 2005, going 11-6, 2.61 with a 163/57 K/BB in 148 innings in Double-A, making a very successful transition. His secondary pitches continued to improve, his velocity continued to bump up gradually, and he was dominant at times in the Eastern League. I gave him a Grade B+ and wrote that "there is every reason to think that Lester will be a successful major league pitcher."

You know the story from here. Lester split 2006 between Triple-A and the majors, pitching brilliantly at times. Then he had the bout with cancer, came back in 2007 and continued to flash strong ability, and has obviously had success this season (though he still needs to get the walks down).

Lester is 14-4, 4.28 with a 152/105 K/BB in 210 major league innings. The W/L has a lot to do with his teammates, of course, and like I said, he needs to get the walks down. The cancer is no longer of great concern. What about his elbow and shoulder?

It seems like he's been around a long time, but he's still just 24. If he had gone to Arizona State, he would have been drafted in 2005, definitely as a first-round pick, so keep that in mind when thinking about his place on the age curve. Pre-2008 PECOTA comps for Lester are all over the place, ranging from Arthur Rhodes to Dave LaPoint to Allen Watson to Dan Serafini (hmmm) to Pete Falcone to Ken Holtzman.  

Overall I really like Lester but the command is still a worry for me, and he's got to improve that if he wants to move into the elite range of pitcher. In prospect terms, he's a perfect example of a projectable high school lefty who gains velocity as he fills out physically and moves up.