If Jon Lester has started his last game at Wrigley Field for the Cubs — something that’s not written in stone — he leaves a rich legacy.
When Sun-Times Cubs reporter Russell Dorsey suggested Lester might be the best free-agent signing in Chicago sports history, it was with cause. Signed to anchor a pitching staff when the Cubs’ crew of up-and-comers were all position players, Lester was a huge part of three NLCS appearances and a World Series championship in his first three seasons with the team.
Who else could contend as best free agent? This isn’t hockey by the numbers, so let’s give a passing nod to the Blackhawks’ Marian Hossa before glancing at numbers for four baseball contenders.
By traditional numbers, Lester is 76-43 with a 3.61 ERA since 2015. The wins rank fifth in MLB, nine behind Zack Greinke.
Lester’s 16.9 Fangraphs WAR as a Cub ranks 17th among MLB starting pitchers for 2015-2020. In 2016, he was 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA but might have pitched better with less luck on balls in play in 2015, when he went 11-12 with a 3.34 ERA but had a 4.9 FIP-based fWAR vs. 4.2 in ’16.
He was second to Max Scherzer in Cy Young voting when the Cubs won it all in 2016, then ninth in 2018, when he went 18-6 with a 3.32 ERA.
Dawson’s six Cubs seasons starting in 1987 included an NL East title in 1989.
He opened his Cubs career with a .287 BA, .896 OPS, 49 home runs, 137 RBI and an NL MVP award. For his Cubs career, Dawson slashed .285/.327/.507 with an .834 OPS, 174 homers and 587 RBI.
His 122 work+ meant Dawson was 22% more productive than the average hitter, and his 17.2 Cubs fWAR is part of the 59.5 he took to the Hall of Fame.
Joining the White Sox in 1981 and staying through 1993, Fisk slashed .257/.329/.438 for a .766 OPS. Of 376 career home runs, 214 came with the White Sox, fourth on the South Siders’ career list. In his third Chicago season, the Sox won the AL West for their first postseason berth since 1959.
A Hall of Fame catcher, Fisk’s 108 wRC+ signifies a good offensive player, but much of his value was on defense. Fangraphs lists him with 51 offensive runs, 56.2 defensive runs and 0.6 on the bases, contributing to his 30.2 White Sox career fWAR.
International free agent Abreu is in his seventh season with career numbers of .295/.351/.521 with an .872 OPS, 197 homers and 664 RBI through Sunday. That includes a .335 BA with a 1.032 OPS this season. With a 134 wRC+, he has hit at a level above Dawson.
Fangraphs shows Abreu at 149.7 offensive runs but -90.8 defensive runs and -17.9 baserunning runs. That figures into a 20.7 fWAR in 4,137 plate appearances. Pro-rated, that’s a similar level to Dawson’s 17.2 in 3,520 Cubs PAs.
In team postseason success, Lester has a big edge. Strictly based on individual performance, it’s tight, and Abreu is pushing hard.