How do you make the best team in Major League Baseball better? You add Jon Lester.
The Oakland Athletics, who already owned the distinction of baseball’s best team in 2014, solidified themselves as World Series favorites Thursday by acquiring Lester and outfielder Jonny Gomes from the Boston Red Sox in exchange for outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. The A’s now feature a lights-out rotation spearheaded by a battle-tested ace with a proven track record of thriving when the lights shine brightest.
Lester’s postseason resume is impeccable. The left-hander cemented himself as a big-game pitcher last October by going 4-1 with a 1.56 ERA in five postseason starts. His most impressive accomplishment, of course, was twice outdueling St. Louis Cardinals ace — and 2014 National League Cy Young candidate — Adam Wainwright in the World Series en route to his second title with Boston. For a team with aspirations of playing well into October, it’s hard to envision a more impactful pickup.
The scary reality for the rest of the league is that the A’s already looked like the team to beat. Oakland entered Thursday with an MLB-best 66-41 record (.617) and an astonishing plus-162 run differential. The A’s rank first in the league in runs scored (535) and fourth in ERA (3.19), offering a small glimpse of how the club is capable of winning either with offense or with pitching on any given night.
Simply put, the A’s are dynamic, dangerous and deep. And with Lester anchoring a rotation already featuring Jeff Samardzija, Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir and Jason Hammel, it’s hard to imagine any other squad representing the American League in this year’s Fall Classic.
Lester is having his best season yet. He currently owns career-best marks in ERA (2.52), WHIP (1.12), strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.66), ERA+ (155) and FIP (2.62). The 30-year-old now goes from Fenway Park, which is considered a hitter-friendly environment, to O.co Coliseum, which is a pitcher’s paradise. Anything less than continued dominance would be a shocking development.
Sure, the A’s were forced to surrender one of their most potent bats in Cespedes. But the 28-year-old slugger has struggled of late and owns a .318 on-base percentage this season. Oakland is deep enough offensively to weather the loss of its hits leader, especially with Jonny Gomes joining the fray.
No, Gomes, who was a platoon player in Boston, won’t completely mitigate the loss of Cespedes. But the slugger feasts on left-handed pitching, boasting a career .875 OPS versus southpaws. And guess what? The Los Angeles Angles — Oakland’s biggest competition out West — have three lefty starters (Tyler Skaggs, Hector Santiago and C.J. Wilson) factoring into their plans.
Despite Oakland’s offensive prowess, it’s clear that general manager Billy Beane’s focus was on building a juggernaut from a pitching standpoint. And while Lester, a free agent-to-be, might only amount to a two-month rental, there isn’t a rotation in the AL capable of matching up with Oakland’s staff in that ballpark.
Beane, known for his “Moneyball” tactics and turning other teams’ trash into Oakland’s treasures, certainly didn’t go trash-picking before Thursday’s trade deadline. He found himself a gem and could wind up with a ring to show for it.