Adam Kaufman

Jon Lester Forcing Red Sox’ Hand in Contract Talks

Jon Lester 9.jpg

It’s still very early – a mere seven starts into his 2014 season – but it’s hard to imagine Jon Lester doesn’t fall asleep every once in a while thinking about what $150 million could buy.

Though just 3-4, the Red Sox ace is on pace to enjoy the best statistical year of his nine-year career. Yes, it’s barely May, but Lester has thrown an American League leading 48 2/3 innings and he’s been charged with only 14 earned runs for a 2.59 ERA, the best since it stood at 3.21 in his first full season in 2008.

The 30-year-old’s 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings is a personal-high (it was 10.0 in 2009) and the 1.8 walks per nine innings he’s issued is his lowest by a full freebie (previously achieved three times, including last season). In turn, the lefty’s 5.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio is currently shattering his prior record of 3.52, set in 2009.

Not bad for a guy on the cusp of free agency.

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To a certain degree, you could see this coming. Dating back to the second-half of last season, Lester has looked as focused and in control as ever. Since August 8, including the 2013 postseason, the southpaw has made 22 starts. Ignoring his run-deprived 12-10 record, he’s posted a 2.17 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP over 153 1/3 innings. During that World Series championship run, Lester went 4-1 with a 1.56 ERA (0.59 against the Cardinals).

He’s picked up right where he left off, demonstrating great command and efficiency with all of his pitches while working both sides of the plate with relative ease. Along with Jake Peavy, he’s been the club’s most reliable member of the rotation.

Few, if any, of us will ever be in a position to be insulted by a four-year, $70 million contract proposition, but you couldn’t blame Lester if he uses Boston’s embarrassment of an offer back in spring training to fuel him each time he takes the mound.

Both Lester and Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington have spoken of the sides’ amicable decision to hit the pause button on negotiations, but upper management must be getting somewhat uneasy over the direction this will head if the hurler continues to have this level of success.

With each start, Lester is closer to free agency. With each gem, particularly those anything like the eight-inning, 15-strikeout, one-hitter he tossed against the A’s on Saturday (who cares about a poor cutter in the bullpen?), he is a giant leap closer to breaking someone’s piggy bank. And it may not be John Henry’s.

Prior to the season, Lester spoke passionately of his desire to remain in Boston courtesy of a "hometown discount." As the Sox learned from the quick rejection to their first reported offer, there’s hometown and there’s entirely out of the ballpark.

At the time, I wrote that a fair deal for both sides would be something in the neighborhood of five years and $120 million and I believe that still holds true. The years are manageable for the team and the average annual value is good for the player.

In a few months, however, Lester’s date with several suitors with big, open wallets will be on the doorstep if he’s still unsigned, and he’d be a fool not to at least listen. Even if his heart’s on Yawkey Way, he’d be better armed to visit Cherington and Co. with the message of “Team X offered me seven years and $150 million. What are you going to do?”

Already an established playoff stud (2.11 ERA over 11 postseason starts spanning 76 2/3 innings), Lester is maturing before our very eyes. He has shown no sign of letting up in nearly a year, and he’s only getting stronger as the season moves along (which should, by the way, be the goal for both sides anyhow). The Red Sox have to act. Quickly. The price is going up faster than a rising heater.

It’s not as if Boston doesn’t have the money. Aside from being the Red Sox and, thus, able to virtually print money, Major League Baseball’s extra TV dollars would pay for Lester and then some.

This isn’t a financial issue as much as it’s a practical one.

Do you hand a 30-year-old a deal lasting a minimum of five years? Do you give a pitcher that kind of money, when one arm or shoulder injury could ruin a career in an instant? Do you provide that money to a guy who’s been consistently durable throughout his long career, but inconsistently effective in recent seasons? And, do you do it when there’s plenty of talent in the farm system, unproven as it might be?

It’s easy to understand why media, fans, and obviously those inside the offices at Fenway are so divided.

But, in the not too distant future, Lester’s production may force an answer before the Red Sox have one, and the economic question might be much larger.

As David Ortiz said, the Sox should pay him. Before it’s too late.

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