Red Sox' ace Jon Lester is in the final year of his contract with Boston. Should the Red Sox trade him to continue the rebuilding process or re-sign Lester to a long-term extension as the foundation of the pitching staff for the next five to seven years? It all depends on how competitive the Sox will be over the next few years.
What’s mind-boggling in all of this Jon Lester he-said, she-said contract talk is just how and why the Red Sox have let it get this far.
Lester rejecting a five-year, $70-million offer from Boston in April three months after claiming he’d take a hometown discount to remain with the Red Sox “until they rip this jersey off my back” should’ve been the first sign that this was going to be a problem that would more than likely resurface at the worst possible time.
Leaving $25 – maybe $30 – million on the table to stay with the team that drafted you and raised you into one of the game’s premier left-handed pitchers is a hometown discount. Perhaps Lester thought that meant asking for Cole Hamels money (six years, $144 million) instead of demanding Clayton Kershaw-type dollars (seven years, $215 million), as if that’s somehow easy on Boston’s payroll.
Lester should know better, and so should Boston. Hamels was 28 when he signed that extension with Philadelphia, and that deal only got done after Hamels rejected offers worth $80 and $100 million, forcing the Phillies to up the ante in fear of losing him at the end of the season. Kershaw signed his record-setting extension at the age of 26. Lester is 30, and while the Boston ace has already pointed out that turning 30 doesn’t necessarily mean “you’re basically dead,” history doesn’t lie. Turning 30 isn’t kind to pitchers, unless you’re a Hall of Fame-caliber ace such as Roger Clemens or Randy Johnson, a crafty, soft-tosser like Jamie Moyer or knuckleballer Phil Niekro, or a reliever who doesn’t have a thousand innings on his arm by the time he hits 30, such as Jesse Orosco or Rick Honeycutt.
Lester doesn’t fall under any of those categories. It’s fastball and slider with Lester, and that’s the way it’s been since he broke into the majors with Boston in 2007, except for the past few years where he’s tried to feature his slider on a more consistent basis. Velocity has never been an issue, though it’s worth noting his fastball peaked at an average of 93- to 94-miles per hour midway through his career in 2009 and 2010 whereas now his average fastball tops out at around 91.
That’ll only get worse as he gets older, unless he’s under the assistance of the same performance-enhancing aids Clemens pocketed at Jose Canseco’s annual summer cookout. Assuming Lester suffers the same inevitable decline all pitchers suffer in their early- to mid-30s, the Red Sox need to think long and hard about their immediate future at every position on the field, both at the major- and minor-league levels, before they even consider biting the bullet on an extension longer and richer than the one they already offered.
Entering Tuesday’s game against the Cubs, Boston ranked 26th out of 30 teams in runs scored and sat seven games below .500 trailing the first-place Blue Jays by 6 ½ games in the AL East. Both Toronto and the second-place Orioles have far-better run differentials, which lends credence to more long-term success in August and September, and the Yankees are still hanging around in third place despite an equally-inept offense and depleted pitching staff.
What’s worse, some of the prospects rushed to the majors to fill gaping holes have underperformed, exposing a farm system considered unilaterally to be one of the best in baseball. Either they’re not that good, or they’re just not ready. Either way, it appears the Red Sox are even further from sustained success with the youth movement than we originally thought. Turning over the entire roster from the 2013 World Series championship team and not missing a beat in 2015 and 2016 following this year’s current disaster will be impossible unless the Red Sox hit the market and open their wallets to plug other holes. Even that seems unrealistic given some of the lackluster players expected to hit free agency in the next year or two.
Unless something drastic happens, 2014 will be second time in three years the Red Sox miss the playoffs. It’s become increasingly evident last year’s title was more of a fluke than a forecast for long-term success. The same players who succeeded in 2013 have underperformed vastly this year, and that includes homegrown veterans such as David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, not just last year’s add-ons like Shane Victorino and Jake Peavy.
Lester’s one of the few who have exceeded expectations, but what good is his sub-3.00 ERA, efficient WHIP and terrific strikeout-to-walk ratio on a dull, uninteresting team rebuilding its roster for the next two to three years? Unless they have a winter like the 2009 Yankees, the Red Sox aren’t going to improve drastically within the next three years, meaning Lester would only waste his last remaining bullets at a ridiculous salary with no significant innings on his worksheet. By the time the Red Sox have a shot at being a complete team again – that means not having a run differential of minus-35 – Lester will be 33, maybe 34, with declining velocity and more wear and tear on his arm. At that point, he’ll be a ace in theory only.
Think C.C. Sabathia, whose fastball dipped and whose ERA skyrocketed to 4.78 at the age of 32 after signing a long-term extension with the Yankees. They’re responsible for paying him until he’s 35 with a vesting option worth $25 million for the 2017 season. Imagine Lester at 33 and beyond.
The idea that all pitchers with declining velocity can just learn to live on the outer half of the plate in the latter stage of their careers and pitch effectively until they’re 40 is both preposterous and an insult to Glavine. Lester’s no Glavine. Neither is Sabathia. They’re no Mike Mussina either, who won 20 games in his final season with the Yankees at the age of 39 with an average fastball velocity of 87.
If it were that easy to just adjust your mechanics and forget everything you learned about pitching from the moment you first picked up a baseball, the average numbers for pitchers in their 30s wouldn’t be so discouraging. Of all pitchers in Major League Baseball who pitched 180-plus innings with an ERA+ above 110 for six consecutive seasons between the ages of 24 and 29, none of them aged gracefully. Their ERAs went up, they pitched fewer innings per season and they struck out fewer batters per nine innings. Invest at your own risk.
The Red Sox need to do the right thing and deal Lester at this year’s trading deadline while there’s still someone foolish enough to invest in him for more than four or five years. There’s always a fringe contender with multiple prospects that thinks it’s one pitcher away from a world title. Make the swap and rebuild.
The fact the Red Sox are still reportedly engaging in contract talks with Lester is absurd. He’s made it clear what he wants and what he won’t accept, and that kind of deal makes no sense for the Red Sox given the current state of the organization. History for pitchers doesn’t lie. It’s time to move on.
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