Jon Lester has a chip in his throwing elbow and it’s not getting better and, hopefully, it’s not getting worse. This was recently discussed in the new book by Jeff Passan, “The Arm.”
Arm issues for Jon Lester seem to be a recurring matter that have occurred around this same time the last two years. If you recall, last year Jon missed a Cactus League start due to a presumed “dead-arm” issue. That issue turned out to be just a scare and Lester went on to have a great year, pitching 205 total innings with a 3.34 ERA, 9.1 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9. So no worries, right?
Prior to his free agency in 2014, Jon had a personal MRI (players often do this so they know ahead of time if there are going to be issues and so they can manage them accordingly and in an effort to head the issue(s) off before a team finds out). It was this MRI that first turned up the bone chip in Lester’s left elbow. While Jon mentioned, in an article by the Chicago Sun-Times, that it “was kind of a surprise” when he found out about the chip after his personal MRI, he also says it has been a “non-issue” for much of his career.
What isn’t clear is how long the chip has been there. Surely, it was there before the 2014 MRI, particularly since trainers have suggested to him for years that he may have something going on in his elbow. What’s a bit disconcerting is that Lester decided to hold back information about the chip throughout the free agency process, even though he had received reassurances from medical experts that he likely could continue to pitch without any issues.
Of course, the Cubs front office conducted a very thorough MRI themselves prior to signing Lester, where they discovered the bone chip. According to Theo Epstein, “We did a very thorough exam including imaging of the shoulder and elbow and we were really quite pleased with the results, as Jon compared very favorably with most of the free agent pitchers we have examined and MRI’d over many years.
“Virtually all pitchers have some wear and tear on their shoulders and elbows, and Jon’s imperfections were very manageable. He remains very consistent, as we hoped, throwing 200-plus quality innings yet again last season.”
There are other examples where pitchers with arm issues that appeared similar to this haven’t worked out. Grant Balfour was a top closer for Oakland prior to hitting the free agent market in 2013. Baltimore originally came to terms with Balfour but, upon a physical examination, decided not to sign him. This created quite an up-roar and was originally framed by Balfour’s agent, Seth Levinson, as the Orioles just changing their mind at the last-minute and not related to Balfour’s health.
Fast-forward to today and Balfour is out of baseball, having opted-out of a minor league contract that Tampa Bay extended to him after they released him from his major league deal earlier in the 2015 season. What happened is that Balfour, after signing a two-year deal in January 2014 with the Rays, pitched 66 2/3 innings posting a 5.0 ERA which included 7.7 K/9 and 6.1 BB/9.
I’m not, in any way, suggesting that Jon Lester will have a similar future. It’s clear that Jon had an incredible year with the Cubs last year and the expectations are that he will continue to be a top-tier pitcher for the foreseeable future. But with a bone chip that is, as Passan puts it, “a little grenade floated near his ligament, and at some point it would warrant surgery,” there is reason to be concerned if something does go wrong during the season that requires Jon to take time off. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen…ever.