Is Jon Lester Really $115 Million Better Than Francisco Liriano?

The Pittsburgh Pirates just re-signed their ace pitcher for a fraction of what it will cost some team to sign Lester.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have been doing it right.

That's not a sentence you used to hear uttered in baseball circles. Until two years ago, the Pirates hadn't made the postseason for 21 straight years but have now played October baseball for two straight seasons with more likely forthcoming.

They have a brilliant manager in Clint Hurdle. They have one of the five best players in the game in Andrew McCutchen. They have a number of young position players surrounding him, a beautiful ballpark, and a pitching staff that has relied on some young arms as well as veterans on pretty successful reclamation projects.

And it's worked.

So, the Pirates decided not to fix what wasn't broken and re-signed their ace, left-hander Francisco Liriano, to a team-friendly three-year, $39 million deal on Tuesday. Liriano has been one of the best left-handers in all of baseball over the last two years, going 23-18 with a 3.20 ERA, 1.262 WHIP and a 9.4 K/9. Last year, his nERD was 1.61, meaning if Liriano pitched a 27-out game, he would give up 1.61 runs a game less than a league average pitcher.

The Liriano deal is especially interesting when you consider the other big-name left-hander that is currently has virtually the entire sport on hold.

Liriano has reportedly agreed to a six-year, $155 million deal with the Chicago Cubs, although the team has not confirmed the deal as of this writing. Meanwhile, Liriano is set to earn $39 million for the next three years.

Which, of course, begs this question.

The reported $155 million deal with Chicago would make it a $115 million difference, but let's not split hairs. Anyway, let's find out.

Francisco Liriano1.611.53.383.599.74.491.3
Jon Lester2.054.62.462.891.971.1

Obviously, in 2014, Lester was the superior pitcher. Both are about the same age. (Liriano is a few months older and both will pitch at 31 years old next year.) Lester has been the more durable starter during his career. He also bested Liriano in all the major categories last year, including nERD, Baseball Reference's Wins Above Replacement (bWAR), ERA, Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), strikeouts per nine (K/9), walks per nine (BB/9), and walks plus hits per inning pitched (WHIP).

There is no doubt that Lester should have gotten a bigger deal than Liriano did. He's in a totally different tier. But is he approximately $115 million better?

There are those who believe a free agent is worth about $7 million per win above replacement. At that number, Liriano would be worth about $10.5 million a season and Lester would be worth over $32 million a season.

If you believe in that metric, then yes, Lester probably is worth at least $115 million more than Liriano - and maybe even more (although if you're going to pay a professional athlete $32 million a season they better also be able to fly the team jet and make everyone pancakes every morning).

It's difficult, however, to quantify the monetary difference between the two accurately. Needless to say, for a small market team like Pittsburgh, a team who has no shot at a pitcher like Lester, Liriano makes all the sense in the world. He's been worth 4.5 bWAR over the last two seasons and has become one of the most effective left-handed starters in the game once again.

The Pirates rotation now appears to be set, with Liriano at the top, followed by Gerrit Cole, the recently-signed A.J. Burnett, Vance Worley, and Jeff Locke. Pittsburgh is depending on Cole to develop and stay healthy after making 22 starts last year, on Burnett to be fully recovered from hernia surgery, on Worley to continue to keep hitters off-balance, and on Locke to be a dependable number-five starter.

As for the Liriano-Lester comparison, Lester is by far the more accomplished pitcher and is deserving of big bucks. But it's hard to argue with the value Pittsburgh received by retaining one of their own, who also happens to be a darn fine left-handed starting pitcher.