On Friday, my colleague Ryan Hathaway wrote that Jon Lester is too expensive for the Red Sox and why the team should pull away from negotiations if the price reaches 6 years and $150M. However, while there’s obviously a price at which signing Lester would simply not be a good deal, there are reasons that acquiring Lester with a 6 year/$150M contract could be a great deal for both the present and future of the Red Sox.
The first of those reasons is that there aren’t a whole lot of viable alternatives. Max Scherzer is the only available pitcher that one could even argue is definitively better than Lester, and even with Scherzer there is some debate. For instance, while Scherzer is a year younger than Lester, he is also likely to cost more than Lester despite posting a higher ERA (3.15 to Lester’s 2.46) and lower K/BB (4.00 to Lester’s 4.58) than Lester in 2014.
Aside from Scherzer, however, there are few other options than could offer even close to Lester’s level of performance. James Shields is a decent option but he’s two years older than Lester, not as good, and he won’t come cheap either. On the trade market, there are a number of solid top-rotation pitchers, but aside from Cole Hamels (who is expensive and will cost a major haul of prospects), the majority of the big names– Jeff Samardzija, Johnny Cueto, Hisashi Iwakuma— hit free agency after the season and would require a large contract of their own to keep them in Boston.
$150M is a lot of money but, at the current rate of inflation in baseball, $25M per year might not be such a huge contract in six years. If the Red Sox are forced to offer more money than that to sign Lester, walking away and allocating their resources to other available pitchers is the right move. However, the Red Sox have the money and president Larry Lucchino has indicated that the Red Sox may be willing to surpass the luxury tax threshold this offseason.
In addition, Lester has the ability to keep pitching well as he ages more than any of the previously-listed pitchers. His repeatable mechanics, excellent command (he posted a career-best 2.0 BB/9 in 2014), and recent success despite diminished velocity and the lack of the razor-sharp cutter he had in his youth are all indicators that Lester could be a front-line starter for the next several years.
Plus, there’s always the fan favorite factor. Before his midseason trade to Oakland, Lester had been in the Red Sox organization ever since they drafted him in 2002 and there’s certainly a comfort level for Lester in Boston. He is beloved by Red Sox fans and appears to return his love of Beantown, even suggesting that he’d be willing to take a hometown discount to remain with the Red Sox last offseason.
2014 might wind up being the best season of Lester’s career, but he doesn’t need to post a 2.46 ERA to live up to his contract, even if it reaches that 6 year/$150M mark. If Lester is able to serve as the Red Sox’ ace for the first two or three years of his contract, then regress to a #2 or #3 starter over the final half of the deal, then this contract will be well worth it. With the lineup that the front office has assembled, the Red Sox don’t need an elite pitching staff to win, but they do need at least one elite pitcher and Jon Lester is that guy.