It remains to be seen whether Jon Lester will sign an extension, be traded, or depart the club as a free agent after the 2014 season. If he does hit free agency and sign elsewhere, the Red Sox will be without a number one starter.
While the Red Sox have an abundance of pitching prospects who are ready to contribute at the big league level, none of them will be ready to pitch at Lester’s level. While John Lackey will likely be back for 2015 (they’ll restructure that salary for something more than the league minimum to keep the big man happy), he’s at the stage of his career where he’s best suited as a second or third starter. Clay Buchholz can’t be counted on to stay healthy. Rubby DeLaRosa and Brandon Workman will continue to improve, but not enough to be entrusted as staff aces. Long story short, the Sox will have to sign a free agent if they lose Lester.
While Lester is definitely one of the top potential free agent starters, the best one is considered to be Detroit’s Max Scherzer. It’s understandable why Scherzer would be considered the best available free agent starter. He’s having another superb season after winning the Cy Young Award last season. He strikes out over 10 batters per nine innings. His control has improved in recent years as well.
While Scherzer seems like a slam dunk upgrade over Lester and should earn himself a mega deal for 2015 and beyond, the Red Sox should NOT forsake Lester for Scherzer, and here’s why.
The age difference between Lester and Scherzer is not very significant (Lester is six months and 20 days older). It would be odd for the Sox to be unwilling to sign Lester long-term but be willing for a guy who’s not significantly younger.
Speaking of that long-term commitment, Scherzer turned down a six year $144 million extension with Detroit. The Sox would have to match that number at the very least. While it will take a similar number to sign Lester if he hits the market, an extension would likely be for a lesser figure.
While Scherzer is regarded as an ace, he’s only pitched over 200 innings just once in a season, and is likely to exceed it again this season. While his career high is one inning more than Lester’s, Lester has exceeded 200 innings in five of the last six seasons and should also eclipse that number again this season. Scherzer’s inability to go deep into games is evident in his career total of complete games (one). Contrast that to Lester’s total (10).
One can argue that Scherzer’s only improving now that he’s delivered a complete game and can exceed 200 innings in a season. And that argument may be right. But just because he’s a late bloomer, doesn’t mean age won’t catch up to him in the life of the contract (look at Cliff Lee). While Lester looks to be improving his command and finesse, Scherzer looks like a pitcher who’ll continue to try and overpower hitters as he ages. That can’t be good for the UCL as it ages.
I’m also not an advocate of giving such a huge contract to Lester either. I do hope he’s extended before then, however. A five year guarantee $110-115 million and a $20 million club option for a sixth is a fair offer. While I do like the pitching prospects in the organization, I also feel they’re going to be needed for another purpose (trades to upgrade this offense). Extending Lester would keep that avenue open.
But if Lester does hit free agency, and the Sox are uncomfortable with overpaying long-term, they should not pursue Scherzer. Instead they should look at the third best starter on the market: James Shields.
Shields is two years older and has pitched more innings, but he still pitches at a high level. The experience of being an ace in the AL East doesn’t hurt either. He could probably be had for a two or three year pact. That will address the front of the rotation and it doesn’t completely roadblock the prospects. But it also keeps the door open to pursue trading some of that depth for help on offense.