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Jon Lester for Wil Myers: What should have been

Posted by Adam Kaufman  August 9, 2013 06:53 AM

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With the Red Sox in Kansas City for a four-game set with the surging Royals, it’s a wonder what the folks in KC’s upper management are thinking right about now.

The Royals are 59-53, four-and-a-half games out of a Wild Card spot – admittedly with a number of clubs to leapfrog – and chasing not only their first .500 season since 2003 (83-79), but also their first playoff appearance since winning the World Series in 1985.

The opportunity to contend was the point. It’s why the pitching-hungry club was willing to deal prized prospect Wil Myers to the Rays last December on the eve of his 22nd birthday as part of a seven-player deal for pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis.

No matter the Royals’ current success, it’s hard to ignore how good Myers has been since his recall from Triple-A Durham back in June. The rookie outfielder – who has been flawless in right despite concerns over his defensive ability – is batting .335 with 8 home runs, 30 RBI, and a .918 OPS in just 41 games. An average major leaguer’s OPS+ is 100. Myers boasts a 156. All the while, the Rays have gone 27-14. Worth mentioning, he’ll be under Tampa Bay’s control for six seasons.

Oh yeah, and he could have been a member of the Red Sox.

The Kansas City Star reported last November that the Sox and Royals discussed the possibility of a Myers swap for Jon Lester. The talks may not have gotten very far, but the subject appears to have at least been on the table.

So, presuming that to be true, the question is this:

Did the Red Sox screw up in not making the move when, conceivably, they could have?

In a word, yes.

To confess, at the time, I wasn’t among the many in the media stomping my feet for the deal to happen. Sure, the Red Sox were coming off a miserable 69-93 season in which Lester was 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA in 33 starts, but he was also just 28-years-old, a two-time All-Star, and guilty of having the first bad full season of his career. I refused to permanently identify him with Fried-Chicken-and-Beer.

Add to that, we eventually learned that it wasn’t a one-for-one deal. Boston most likely would have had to give up a Davis comparable, perhaps Felix Doubront. On a team hurt more by pitching than anything else over the last two years – off-the-field drama, aside – the cost simply appeared to be too great for the Red Sox. And, if you’ll remember, expectations entering this season were a complete mystery for Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, and Doubront, plus Ryan Dempster wasn’t yet in the fold.

In my mind, Lester’s 2012 season was a frustrating anomaly in an otherwise healthy year, and an impending reunion with former pitching coach and new manager John Farrell would ultimately prove it.

Well, some starts and stretches have gone better than others but, overall, not much has changed.

Lester remains healthy but agonizingly inconsistent at 10-7 with a 4.37 ERA in 24 starts this season spanning a team-best 150-and-a-third innings. An ERA+ (again, with 100 denoting a league average) that once fell anywhere between 124 and 144 over four straight seasons during which he posted a 3.33 ERA now middles at a 92 for the last two years. He’s not overpaid, but he’s no longer a steal, no longer elite. His strikeouts-per-9-innings have decreased since 2009 (10.0 to 7.3 last year, though he’s at 7.7 in 2013) as his velocity has simultaneously dropped and his execution has faltered. The southpaw’s best days, it appears, are behind him.

The sample size has ballooned to 61 starts, basically two full seasons, since that 76-31 mark to begin his career. In that time, Lester is 19-24 with a 4.82 ERA dating back to his team’s unforgettable 2011 collapse. If things don’t improve, the argument over if he will ever again be an ace will aggressively transition to whether the Red Sox should pick up his $13 million option for 2014. Some are even questioning if the lefty should be in the playoff rotation. Amazing, isn’t it?

Wil Myers.jpg

In the meantime, Myers – the can’t-miss prospect with all of the potential and none of the guarantees – has delivered in his introduction to Major League Baseball by tearing up any and all opposing pitchers who get in his way, including lefties (know of a team that could use an impactful righthanded bat?). Fears over whether the 2012 Baseball America Player of the Year with otherworldly minor league numbers would flame out under the bright lights and playoff-chasing pressures seem silly now. Yes, I recognize it is still a small sample (176 plate appearances). So do all the people who are regularly comparing him to Mike Trout and Bryce Harper.

This is the way revisionist history works. Sometimes sticking with the known commodity is the right move, and occasionally the gamble pays off. Of course, based on the scouting reports – those that suggest middle-of-the-order power and MVP talent for years to come – many would argue that Myers wasn’t much of a risk. Either way, I’ll contend, you never really know. Would it be too dated to mention Todd Van Poppel, the “next Nolan Ryan,” or Brien Taylor? Ben Grieve or Shawn Abner if you’d prefer a non-pitcher.

When those guys do live up to the hype, watch out. Myers’ emergence in Tampa gives credence to Boston’s refusal to give up Xander Bogaerts simply in an effort to win now. General manager Ben Cherington’s puzzle is much bigger than the piece represented by 2013.

Still, it’s hard not to wonder what a future outfield of Myers, Jackie Bradley, Jr., and Bryce Brentz would look like in Boston, along with Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks and a grizzled Dustin Pedroia in the infield.

The promising native of North Carolina may have been a perfect centerpiece in a year envisioned as a rebuild. Then again, the hot-hitting outfielder may be the missing component on a championship contender. We’ll never know, unless the Sox do go on to win a title regardless.

Like Cherington, I wouldn’t have made the trade last December and, boy, would that have been wrong. It’s a wonder how he and his baseball operations staff were feeling while watching Myers collect his first career hit and RBI at the Red Sox’ expense.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About this blog

Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.

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