Over the last few years, a debate that stoked wide-ranging comments circulated around New England and across baseball about Jon Lester. Is he a legitimate ace or a solid yet unspectacular No. 2 starter?
Perhaps Oakland general manager Billy Beane extended the most powerful answer this morning when he traded left fielder Yoenis Cespedes to Boston for Lester and outfielder Jonny Gomes. Beane is taking a monumental risk consdering that Lester is eligible for free agency at season’s end and he will undoubtedly command a contract north of $125 million, and the power-hitting Cespedes is 28 and under team control through 2015.
In Boston, Lester has provided an undeniable answer to the “ace” question.
If you study his post-season numbers – especially in the World Series – the answer points to “ace” status. The 30-year-old left-hander is 6-4 with a 2.11 ERA in 13 appearances, including 11 starts. In the Fall Classic, he is 3-0 with a 0.43 ERA in three starts, including two wins in which he surrendered a total of one run over 15.1 innings against St. Louis last October.
Overall, Lester is 110-63 with a 3.64 ERA over nine Major League seasons, including a 10-7 mark with a 2.52 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP this year. A second round pick of the Red Sox in 2002, Lester is 5-1 with a 1.54 ERA over his last 10 starts.
Though it is unpopular among many Red Sox fans, the trade makes sense for the club. Boston’s ownership group has made it clear that it is unwilling to offer long-term deals to players who will be older than 35 at the end of their contracts. Jacoby Ellsbury is a prime example.
It is not yet known the number of years that Lester wants for his new deal, but chances are it is six or seven, and committing $20 million plus a season to a pitcher who is in his mid-30s is a risky proposition. Lester will be 31 in January. Will he produce his present-day numbers when he is 35? Perhaps. But likely not.
The Red Sox do not want to find themselves in the predicament that the Yankees have with CC Sabathia, who is in decline and now is sidelined for the remainder of the season with a knee injury. Sabathia is 34 and is receiving $23 million this year. He is set to get $23 million in 2015, $25 million in 2016 and there is a vesting option for $25 million in 2017.
Moving forward, the Red Sox must find a legitimate frontline starter if they do not re-sign Lester in the offseason. The club has a plethora of high ceiling starting pitching prospects (Henry Owens, Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes and Brian Johnson) and young arms already in the majors (including Rubby De La Rosa, Brandon Workman and Allen Webster), but a rotation centered around youth does not generate World Series titles.
The Red Sox have the premium prospects that could pry Cole Hamels away from Philadelphia. The 30-year-old Hamels is appealing to Boston general manager Ben Cherington and the ownership group because he is a proven frontline starter and is signed through 2019 (when he will be 35) at $22.5 million per season (and $20 million in 2019 if his vesting option is triggered).
If Lester does not sign a new contract with Boston this offseason, the sting of losing him will be lessened with the presence of Cespedes, who can serve as a middle of the order bat for the long term. Should Lester return to the Red Sox, then the club will have an ace and a middle of the order bat by renting Lester to the A’s in the latter part of a season where the Red Sox were not formidable contenders.
As for the A’s, Beane has seemingly added a piece that could get him his long-desired World Series championship. Lester is a proven winner in October – the type of pitcher who can hoist a team on his back. For that reason, the trade is worthwhile, even if Lester departs when the World Series parade is over.