If it weren't already clear that the Red Sox have no intention of re-signing Jon Lester, perhaps it is now.
Partly because the Red Sox still feel they can make a run at a playoff spot, and mostly because they've screwed up the Lester contract negotiations seven ways 'til Tuesday, Boston has been linked as one of the teams interested in acquiring Philadelphia Phillies ace Cole Hamels, who is 3-5 with a 2.93 ERA this season. According to the Globe's Nick Cafardo, "It makes perfect sense for the Red Sox to pursue the Phillies lefthander. They have been scouting him. Why? His contract is precisely the contract the Sox want for a No. 1 pitcher. It has four years remaining at about $90 million."
Well, isn't that diabolical.
You don't exactly have to read between the lines, to understand the Red Sox' reported interest in Hamels is a direct, succinct message to free-agent-to-be Lester.
Is this a joke? If Lester won't agree to the lowball terms the Red Sox presented him with back in spring training (four years, $70 million) then it seems like Larry Lucchino will just go out and get Lester Lite in Hamels - on his own terms. Yes, Hamels is subpar 7-13 with a 4.52 ERA in his career vs. the American League. No matter. Don’t you get it? The main goal here is to stick it to Lester, who has only been a key component in two Boston World Series victories. These are classic Lucchino tactics at play here.
When Lester is pitching elsewhere next season, most likely in the Bronx, the Red Sox will have a lot of explaining to do about why they let get to this point. If you had doubt that Ben Cherington might explore trading his ace prior to the July 31 deadline, you can file that away with whatever other fantasies take up your time. Lester is gone, set to break the bank in free agency, and the Sox have shown zero inclination that they are willing to swim in the deep end of the negotiating pool. Why wouldn't they trade him for something more advanced than the draft pick they’d get after offering him salary arbitration?
According to reports, Lester, who is 9-7 with a 2.65 ERA this season, could make anywhere between $125 and $189 million on the open market come fall. The Red Sox only dole out that kind of cash on image-changing players like Carl Crawford, who can add a new wrinkle to stale TV ratings. Lester gives the Sox stability at the front of the rotation, but he's not exactly a sexy reason to get people to tune back in, is he now? Fair weather viewers want the shiny, new toy to get their attention, and the Red Sox will more often than not oblige.
In Hamels, they have their replacement for Lester, and a lesser one for sure. But at its heart the Red Sox’ interest in the Phillies pitcher comes down to one, simple phrase. "See?"
If the Red Sox are this hell-bent on winning the money battle, it’s going to be a short run for the farm system Cherington helped build. To prove a point, the Red Sox are going to surrender prospects for Hamel in lieu of the power bat that they desperately need?
You just can’t put a price on spite, I suppose.
That's all this is, a way to inject a threat into negotiations that aren't even taking place. Lester said this week that he hasn't heard anything since the Sox offered him half the money they brain farted on Crawford. How is anybody supposed to take the interest that Boston says it has in Lester even remotely seriously?
“Our hope is to retain his services for his career beyond this season," Red Sox CEO and NESN decision-maker Tom Werner told the Globe earlier this week. "We do have private conversations and some things are probably best left private for now. But, yes, our intention is to come up with an offer that would be acceptable to everybody. We understand he could have other options. But also understand that he is a player we want to keep.”
He could have other options? You don't say.
"Any sober baseball executive is aware of the increasing injury time that pitchers are spending on the DL," Werner said. "You don’t have to look too far, the Yankees have, what, four-fifths of their rotation on the DL? You have to take selective risks. Jon Lester has been consistently strong in his career and durable. But with any player over 30, you have to be cognizant of the risks. But again, let me go back and say we love Jon Lester and we love his makeup as well as his pitching talents. He’s been in the organization his whole career and we want that to continue.”
Hey, guess who else is 30. COLE HAMELS.
This isn't about the concern of breaking down, it's about having a player with a contract that the Red Sox like. If Hamels hits the disabled list, hey, he's only $90 million, not the $175 million those foolish Yankees gave to Lester. Crawford put the fear of God in them on that front, but it’s also how they’ll sell Lester’s departure.
It's hard to figure. The Red Sox are just peachy burning almost $20 million on Stephen Drew and A.J. Pierzynski this season, but when it comes to a situation like Lester, they want to give him about as much as they gave John Lackey (five years, $82.5 million) five years ago. Instead of understanding Lester's durability and stellar postseason record, they can only see CC Sabathia breaking down in New York and start to sweat. Are the Red Sox capable of not constantly comparing their own perceived advanced intelligence against the woebegone decisions that the Yankees make? Just once?
What made perfect sense was to lock up Lester for the foreseeable future, a ship that has seemingly now sailed, and now the Red Sox are willing to give up prospects for Hamels, simply because his contract makes their point. What a complete waste of time.
Lester has three more starts before the trading deadline. Whether or not he’s here after that is the biggest unanswered question as we hurdle toward that date.
Whether he’s at Fenway next season – in pinstripes – just seems more an inevitability than ever. But at least the Red Sox will make their point. That’s all that matters.
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