Touching All the Bases

Red Sox Should Sign Jon Lester Long-Term Before the Price Goes Up Even More

I believe the Red Sox should sign Jon Lester. Better, I believe the Red Sox will sign Jon Lester.

His words have told us with unwavering sincerity that this is where he wants to be — early in the process he even used the phrase “hometown discount,” which is always guaranteed to make an agent shiver and clutch his wallet.

His actions as one of the bright lights on this dull team have reminded us that he should remain a core player for the foreseeable future.

It’s simple, really: The Red Sox can afford to pay him. They cannot afford to lose him, for they are all but assured of paying more for a supposed replacement who will have to accomplish some amazing feats to prove himself in this market the way Lester has.
What I can’t believe is how the Red Sox apparently initiated the formal process of negotiating with Lester and his agents, the Levinson brothers.
The reported offer in the spring of four years and $70 million dollars was supposed to accomplish … well, what exactly? There’s no way he was going to sign that. None. The only purpose it could serve is a detrimental one — alienating the player, who knows that if he had his typical season in ’14 he’d get at least $40 million more on the free agent market.
The Red Sox are lucky Lester is a grounded guy who isn’t easily offended. That so-called starting point is not a hometown discount. It’s trying to get him at a liquidation sale.
I thought this spring that the Red Sox should have offered Lester five years and $100 million-$115 million. At the least, it would have been a good-faith offer, with a reasonable chance he would have said, “Deal.”
Instead, we’re reminded of Mo Vaughn’s words from 1998, his Red Sox walk year: “The price goes up every day.”
Mo did walk. That Lester didn’t express frustration with the initial offer suggests he will not — especially since circumstances have changed in his favor. After another sparkling postseason performance en route to the World Series title last October — he owns a 2.11 ERA in 13 career playoff games — he’s been excellent through the first half of this season.
Lester is 9-7 with a 2.92 ERA, which over a full season would be the lowest of his career. He’s striking out over a batter an inning (115 Ks in 114 IPs) for the first time since 2010. His walk rate (2.3 per nine innings) is a career low, and his K/BB ratio (3.97) is far and away the best of his career. The improved command certainly seems like an indication that he will continue to be a fine pitcher even as his velocity diminishes into his mid-30s.
And do not underestimate the value of his durability. In a season in which we’ve had to pay our respects to the ulnar collateral ligaments of so many promising pitchers, Lester is on pace to surpass 200 innings for the sixth time in his career. His low single-season innings count since becoming a rotation anchor in 2008 is 191.2, set it 2011. That would be a career high for Clay Buchholz. You probably knew that.
I do think the Red Sox get this done, because little else makes sense. They know him. They need him. The Red Sox have a rotation’s worth of promising arms in the high minors, but there isn’t one who is assured of providing all that Lester has — especially in terms of durability. I can’t see them forsaking Lester for a run at Max Scherzer, who turned down $140-ish million from Detroit.
Even though they are going to end up paying him a hell of a lot more than $70 million — and giving him a year or two longer on the deal than they’d seem to prefer — there really isn’t a close alternative, especially since the price of pitching keeps going up. Consider the salaries of some of Lester’s similar peers and statistical comps:
Cole Hamels: Signed a six-year, $144-million extension with the Phillies in July 2012 after turning down offers in the $80 million-$100 million range in the spring.
Zack Greinke: Signed a six-year, $147-million deal with the Dodgers in December 2012.


Adam Wainwright: Signed a five-year, $97.5 million extension with the Cardinals in May 2013. A relative bargain, but remember, Wainwright has had two Tommy John surgeries. And that’s a year and $27.5 million more than the Sox offered Lester, who beat Wainwright twice last October.
Matt Cain: Signed a five-year, $112.5 million extension with the Giants in April 2012.
Then there are the massive deals recently signed by pitchers who are a notch or two above Lester. Clayton Kershaw, who is accomplishing Pedro/Koufax-level stuff these days, signed a seven-year, $215 million deal with the Dodgers in January. And Felix Hernandez, who almost at Kershaw’s stratospheric level, got seven years and $175 million from the Mariners in April 2013.
Back to you, Mo: “The price goes up every day.”
I do believe that the Red Sox recognize the folly of their spring offer and will get something done with Lester before the summer is over. Sure, he denied Buster Olney’s report Sunday that the sides were talking, saying:

“There has been no offer, there have been no new talks. I’ve been talking to [general manager] Ben [Cherington] all along, but that’s nothing new. There is no new offer. … I don’t think they’ve started anything. I know there’s been conversation throughout the season, just different topics. … Nothing about contract, numbers, anything like that.”

But I suspect he has plausible deniability here. He wants to stay, but he doesn’t want the distraction of negotiations during the season. I’ll bet you he’s told his agents to talk to the Sox but keep him out of the loop until there’s something viable to discuss. Hopefully, that viability turns to an agreement, and then a press conference sometime in the next couple of weeks.
Maybe you don’t consider Lester a true ace. I get that — there are only a few who are truly elite. He’s not as dynamic as the likes of Kershaw, King Felix, or Yu Darvish, that’s for sure. But a 30-year-old lefthander who is built like the trucks he endorses, habitually delivers in big games, and gives your team 200-plus high-quality innings year after year, every fifth day after every fifth day? That is a pitcher you pay, and when you do, you feel as good about it as you would paying for any pitcher.
There’s risk. There always is. But Jon Lester is an easy risk to take — and one the Red Sox must take.

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