Let me start out by saying, before I get pounced on in the comments, that the Red Sox could just keep going in the Jon Lester sweepstakes. But they shouldn’t.
Alex Speier and Rob Bradford broke the latest report in the Jon Lester bidding war, perhaps unmasking the mystery team that will turn this bidding war on its head. To almost no one’s surprise, the Los Angeles Dodgers are becoming involved with one of the free agent market’s top available options. And now, the newly appointed Andrew Friedman is joining in the race for an ace alongside Theo Epstein and the Cubs, Brian Cashman and the Yankees, and of course Ben Cherington and the Red Sox.
And it is at this point that Cherington and the Sox should fold their hand and turn their attention elsewhere. Nick Cafardo speculated that with this new dynamic competitor that “Lester is likely going to exceed $25 million a year.” And that friends is where I officially would drop the curtain on what has been a heckuva half season with Lester leaving, and then maybe coming back, and then it returning to the likelihood that the Red Sox would have to turn to (or find) a plan B.
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Full disclosure: I have never been quite as much in the sign Lester camp as others. I still have recurring nightmares about 2012 Lester, and even in 2013, where his mediocre (at times downright bad) performances were forgiven because of his dominance in the postseason. But with the inflation of contracts around baseball, particularly to starting pitchers of the left handed variety, even I got caught up in #SignLester. Because with our new look lineup, if Lester could come close to repeating his 2014 success then this team would be in the thick of the World Series conversation. At that point, you can overlook $23 million even over 6 years.
But on a fundamental level, Lester is not a $23 million a year player. That number could be at least forgiven. An average annual value of $23 million would slot Lester right behind Cliff Lee and right ahead of Masahiro Tanaka. Lester is not the pitcher Lee was when he got his contract, but as I said, inflation must be considered. As for Tanaka, he was a $22.5 million dollar gamble that just happens to look like a smart investment. If he hit the market with his current established MLB numbers, he would likely be due for a sizable pay bump.
An average annual value of $25 million would put Lester on a level playing field with perennial Cy Young contender Felix Hernandez, and behind only Justin Verlander (who already looks like a bad contract) and Clayton Kershaw, the reigning NL MVP. Hernandez and Kershaw are earning their money, continuing to lead the Cy Young discussion year in and year out. Their career stats show this… Verlander’s career stats are not at this level despite his similar pay grade, and neither are Lester’s.
Lets play the anonymous comparison game:
[table id=14 /]
Can you tell which two are Lester and Verlander? Their numbers are remarkably similar, with Verlander just barely edging out Lester. It should also be noted that with a notoriously shoddy Tigers defense behind him, Verlander can even point to an FIP that is better than his ERA as a justification for his team’s investment in him. This past year, the last before Verlander’s at the time record breaking extension kicks in, the 31 year old turned in the worst season of his big league career. Verlander was paid that money because he had an outstanding 2 seasons after being a great pitcher for his career.
Lester has been a great pitcher for his career (except 2012), and had an outstanding postseason, coupled with an outstanding contract year and now he will break the bank. So why should Cherington believe that Lester will be different than Verlander? Desperation has replaced logic. With a rotation currently being headed by the polarizing Clay Buchholz, overpaying Jon Lester would be the instant gratification fix to the Red Sox’s problems, while simultaneously appeasing a fanbase that has developed a mob mentality after two last place finishes in the last three years.
Lester is the easy answer to 2015’s rotation problem, but for all the concern about the Hanley Ramirez or Pablo Sandoval signings, it is Lester who would be the new Carl Crawford. The Dodgers, Cubs, and Yankees will be more than willing to drive up the price for us, and the former two likely have very real interest. Cherington has to continue looking for creative solutions to his problems, rather than simply making them go away for a short period of time. Jon Lester very likely won’t pitch up to his numbers this year, but he will be paid as if he was for the next six.
It all comes down to risk/reward, return on investment, etc. The Red Sox are supposed to be one of the most business savvy teams in baseball but they are thinking with their hearts on this one. Lester could very well revert right back to his 2012 form next year, or in the next few, but even if he doesn’t he will still in all likelihood be a pitcher with an ERA between 3.40 and 3.75… does anyone believe that is a $25 million man?