So what makes a pitcher "elite" and does Lester fit into that category?
Of course, going as deep into games as the aforementioned guys do isn't sufficient for being an elite pitcher, but is it necessary? Is having a BB% lower than league average necessary? Is perennially reaching 210, or 220, or 230 innings necessary? What are the necessary qualities of an elite pitcher?
Here's how he stacks up against the the best of the last four years in the AL (with some NL years sprinkled in there for Lee, Grienke, and Sabathia):
There's no question than Lester has been a top-seven pitcher in the AL over the last four years. Ostensibly, this makes him "top tier" and "elite," but is he in the same class as guys like Verlander, Sabathia, and Felix? Are these the only "elite" pitchers in the AL?
He's pitched the least number of innings, doesn't go as deep, and has a higher WHIP and BB/9 than the rest (although Felix isn't far behind in the last category). Obviously, his higher BB rate is likely the reason for his lower IP/start. His OPS against isn't as low as those of Lee, Felix, Verlander, and Sabathia. His bWAR compares favorably to the rest, but his fWAR takes a hit because of his higher BB%. Same with his OPS against.
In terms of preventing runs, though, Lester is right up there with Sabathia, Verlander, and Felix. CC and Lee are a step above the rest in terms of pitching better in close games, but Lester has been better than Felix and Verlander in this regard.
Obviously, being "elite" is a context-dependent classification. In order to be considered elite, a pitcher needs to be superior to all but a few of his peers, but he does NOT need to meet a set of ideal standards set by fans. One can make the argument that Lester is kept of out the elite status of Sabathia, Felix, and Verlander (especially this year) because of his BB rate, which has increased in 2010 and 2011. Perhaps your criteria for "elite-ness" depends more on control and its attendant consequences than results. It's egregious to state that Lester hasn't been a top-five pitcher in the AL over the last four years--and thus, a top-tier pitcher--but I've seen the argument that he isn't in the same league as the "elite" pitchers in the league.
So, in your view, is Lester an elite pitcher?