The next steps are, of course, inevitable. The Red Sox will blame Jon Lester for not re-signing with them, despite hinting a year ago that he might be willing to do so at a discount, and foolishly preach about the need for a market correction in Major League Baseball.
If the Red Sox truly wanted to keep Lester in a Boston uniform for the foreseeable future, they wouldn’t have offered him an embarrassing four years and $70 million in March, when the minimum of Lester’s demands probably stood in area of the five-year, $97.5 million range that Adam Wainwright’s team-friendly deal with the St. Louis Cardinals last January.
If that was intended to be Boston’s starting point, things ended right there.
Lester is gone for good now, signing a reported six-year, $155 million contract with the Chicago Cubs, news that came to light in the wee hours of a New England morning on Wednesday. The deal includes a vesting option for a seventh season that could bring the deal to $170 million. The Red Sox were never going that far. The point is, they never had to. In the end, Theo Epstein has bested Larry Lucchino, who botched the Lester negotiations from the beginning.
“It’s not often you get to win the lottery,” new Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “We won the baseball lottery so far this year, but now it’s up to us to put it into effect. It’s all theory right now. We’ve got to make it real, but you need pieces like this to make it real.”
The Red Sox never had a chance, falling short with an offer that was reported to be $135 million over six years. Please. Anybody in any baseball circle knew this was going to take a $150 million commitment from a team heading into the offseason. The Red Sox went up from $70 to $120, then to $135 million, a place where had they started last spring, we wouldn’t have had to undergone this tedious process.
It all raises the question, were the Red Sox simply making a public relations push in regards to signing Lester, or did they truly bungle these negotiations to a level of epic proportions?
It’s not like this franchise hasn’t made contract offers in the past simply to remain in the good graces of the fan base. Back in 2007, the team had no intention of re-signing third baseman Mike Lowell, until he won the World Series MVP, following a year in which he hit 21 home runs and drove in 120 runs with an .879 OPS. That winter, the Red Sox offered him a three-year, $38 million deal, figuring the 33-year-old would find more elsewhere. Lowell did, but surprised the team by deciding to accept their numbers.
But somewhere along the way, the Red Sox decided they were serious about Lester. Red Sox principal owner John Henry made a point to visit Lester at his Georgia home last Friday to make a last-minute plea with his team’s former ace. Too late after too little.
Think of what a joke this whole process truly was. The Red Sox started with $70 million while the Detroit Tigers began with a $144 million offer to fellow free agent Max Scherzer. Neither accepted, of course, but at least Detroit was in the right ballpark. The Red Sox never showed a true desire to keep Lester by giving him what he would demand on the free agent market. Even when he was on the market, they didn’t burst out of the gate with a competitive offer.
His Red Sox career officially ends with 110 wins, ninth in franchise history. Lester is fourth on the all-time franchise strikeout list with 1,386, trailing only Pedro Martinez, Tim Wakefield, and Roger Clemens. He pitched 1,519 1/3 innings in a Red Sox uniform, 11th-most in franchise history.
Oh, right. He won two World Series too, with an ERA of 0.43.
Lester may not have always displayed “ace” material in Boston over the bulk of his nine years here, but think of his timing. Clemens dominated as the franchise’s greatest pitcher for 13 seasons, only to be followed by one of the game’s most electric starters in Martinez, who arrived one year after Clemens departed, and amazed Boston fans over the course of seven years. That’s 20 of 21 years that Red Sox fans were accustomed to a dominant, once-in-a-lifetime force at the top of their rotation.
Lester isn’t that, but he’s an ace. Just one that happened to follow an unprecedented stretch in Boston.
Based on the ascension among his predecessors, he also leaves as one of the best pitchers this franchise has ever seen.
And the Red Sox let him get away because…why? They wanted to try and lowball him after he helped deliver them another World Series trophy five months earlier?
Kudos to the Red Sox for coming to a late realization of what Lester means for their club, but it’s ridiculous that it even came to that. When general manager Ben Cherington traded him to the Oakland A’s last summer at the deadline, we always had the sneaking suspicion that the team would pursue Lester in free agency, if only because it would mean that the people in charge on Yawkey Way aren’t throughly inept. It’s just their perception of the market that is.
So now the Red Sox find themselves in a position where they need to trade prospects to the Phillies for Cole Hamels, a soft lefty who hasn’t proven he can thrive whatsoever in the AL East. But hey, his contract ($116 including the option) is a lot more in line with what they want to pay, so everybody get happy.
What an embarrassment.
If this is a sign that Henry is firm in his insistence not to sign pitchers over 30 to long-term deals, well then it’s going to a rotating door of potential and trial by error for pitchers in their 20’s making their ways through the rotation. But Henry seemed to think the opposite of Lester, with good reason. The lefty was a durable dependability for the Red Sox, making 30-plus starts in each of his full seasons in Boston. Maybe the man simply realized that he dumped nearly $200 million in an overweight third baseman and an oft-injured shortstop that his GM is turning into a left fielder and simply decided, “How much $%#@&^ worse can it be?” Also, as of now, Clay Buchholz is still this team’s Opening Day starter, and no, it can’t get much $%#@&^ worse than that.
The Red Sox screwed up with one of the most popular players in team history, a kid drafted and developed by the organization, a young man they stood by as he underwent treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was theirs, and he was special. Now he has a new professional challenge; lead the Cubs to the World Series that has eluded them for more than 100 years. How hard do you think Epstein sold the possibility of being the guy who won in both Boston and Chicago?
But it’s over now in Boston. Let Luchhino’s smear campaign commence.