It took until the last week of November, but the first truly head-spinning Red Sox rumor of the hot stove season bubbled up on Monday night. The Kansas City Star reported (and WEEI.com’s Rob Bradford confirmed) that the Red Sox have discussed the possibility of trading left-hander Jon Lester to the Royals as part of a package that would net outfield megaprospect Wil Myers in return, one of the foremost position playing prospects in all of baseball, and someone who is viewed as big league ready for 2013.
It is a deal that is breathtaking in its conception, and that raises considerable, fundamental questions about the Red Sox and the state of baseball. Could the Sox shed their Opening Day starter and contend? Is a player who hasn’t spent a day in the majors -- and who thus would remain under team control for at least six years -- more valuable than an established two-time All-Star (albeit one coming off a down year) who is theoretically in his career prime but who has just two years before reaching free agency? Is a potential top-of-the-rotation starter more or less valuable than a potential middle-of-the-lineup force?
The lines of inquiry are fascinating but, for now, theoretical. As Bradford points out, there’s no indication at this time that anything is close to getting done between the two teams. Nonetheless, the questions are sufficiently interesting that it’s worth a more detailed examination.
WHY WOULD THE RED SOX WANT TO TRADE LESTER FOR MYERS?
That 2012 Thing
Rewind back to before the 2012 season. Lester had been one of the most consistent starters in the majors, a pitcher who’d compiled four straight years of 190-plus innings with ERAs below 3.50, at least 31 starts in each of those seasons and a minimum of 15 wins in those campaigns. Only Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia could claim such consistent results from 2008-11.
But then . . .
The 2012 season was a disaster for Lester, the worst of his career. He went 9-14 (the first losing record he’s absorbed in the major leagues) with a career-worst 4.82 ERA, a career-high in homers allowed (25), his lowest strikeout rate (7.3 per nine innings) in four years and lost his mechanics for considerable stretches of the year. Few were the times when he featured the lethal four-pitch mix that made him one of the best pitchers in the majors during the previous years.
For now, in many ways, it’s easy to view 2012 as an outlier that simply underscored how exceptional his previous run was, particularly given that Lester is just 28 years old (he turns 29 in January). Despite his poor 2012 season, Lester has no known physical issues and made all of his starts, compiling over 200 innings.
He’s also signed for what amounts to a relative bargain for a pitcher of his caliber -- yes, even given his struggles of 2012 -- with the Sox on the hook for $11.625 million in 2013 and in possession of a $13 million option for 2014.
Still, there’s at least a chance that the 2012 season represented the continuation of a pattern rather than an isolated year. After all, Lester’s strikeouts per nine innings have declined in each of the last three seasons, from his career high of 10.0 in 2009 to 9.7 to 8.5 to 7.3 in 2012. His four-seam fastball velocity, in data compiled by BrooksBaseball.net, has also declined in each of the last three years, from a peak of 95.01 mph in 2009 to 94.33 to 93.69 to 93.57.
Those represent ominous trends. Certainly, Lester wouldn’t be the first pitcher with a sizable career workload (1,000-plus innings) to reach a point where his stuff had started to decline by his late-20s. Moreover, the idea of exploring his trade value doesn’t suggest that the Sox are dismissing him as a bounce back candidate -- indeed, voices throughout the organization (including Lester himself) are virtually unanimous that 2012 represented a one-year hiccup -- but there’s at least one season’s worth of data to raise legitimate questions about whether Lester will be one of the league’s best starters going forward.
Lester may be on borrowed time in Boston
There’s a reasonable chance that, regardless of whether he’s dealt or not, the Sox won’t retain Lester beyond 2014. If he returns to top-of-the-rotation form, he’ll want (quite reasonably) top-of-the-rotation money. With Cole Hamels having set the bar at six years, $144 million for a contract extension for a player who remains under contract, two strong years would position Lester for a similar long-term, nine-figure contract in his 30s.
But the Sox insist that they’ve learned some hard-earned lessons in recent years, notably with deals like those conferred upon Josh Beckett (a four-year, $68 million extension for his age 31-34 seasons) and John Lackey (a five-year, $82.5 million deal for his age 32-36 campaigns). Investing long-term in pitchers in their 30s is tantamount to a game of Russian roulette. Even if the bullet chamber is empty when the trigger is pulled, there’s still an understanding that the behavior was suicidal.
Make no mistake: The Sox are well aware that the A’s have produced a long line of young, outstanding starters whom they’ve traded before they’ve reached free agency (and usually, a bit before their run of dominance expires), relying on young, up-and-coming prospects to replenish rotations that have perennially been among the best in the majors. Both the A’s and Rays have excelled at building homegrown rotations and then taking a sell-high approach to their twentysomething starters. Certainly, the Sox could do worse than to follow that approach.
So, while the Sox are assured of only two more years of control with Lester, the team could move him to acquire a player in Myers who would be not only under team control through at least 2018 (potentially longer if his service time clock was delayed slightly by a season-opening stint in the minors) but who would also be incredibly inexpensive for at least a few seasons before arriving at arbitration eligibility. That, in turn, would leave the Sox in an even more striking position of financial freedom when considering roster moves.
It might be harder to find a middle-of-the-order bat than a top-of-the-rotation starter
A few years ago, the whole ‘never have too much pitching’ thing was almost indisputable. Few have forgotten the consequences of the Sox’ decision in 2006 to part with a serviceable starter (Bronson Arroyo) in exchange for a player with immense potential as a slugger but who never delivered on that promise in the big leagues (Wily Mo Pena).
But times change. Over a 10-year span from 2000-09, there was an average of 27 hitters per season that hit at least 30 homers with an OBP of .350 or better and just seven pitchers per year (6.5, to be precise) who posted sub-3.00 ERAs while qualifying for the ERA title.
The last three years have seen roughly half as many 30 homer/.350 OBP hitters (14 per season) along with a massive increase in pitchers with sub-3.00 ERAs (14 per season).
So, a player like Myers -- who projects as a potential 30-plus homer hitter after assaulting opponents in Double-A and Triple-A this year for 37 homers in 134 games, and who posted vastly better numbers as a 19-year-old in the High-A Carolina League in 2010 than top Sox prospect Xander Bogaerts put up in that league in 2012 -- represents an extremely rare commodity. According to Baseball America, Myers had more homers in 2012 than any 21-year-old in the minors since 1963. He’s anything but a sure thing given that he has yet to spend a day in the majors and that he struck out 140 times last year, but he’s still viewed as one of the best bets in the minors.
Meanwhile, the idea of replacing Lester -- once almost unfathomable -- no longer seems to represent a pie-in-the-sky scenario. Put another way: The Sox have far more pitchers with the ceiling of a No. 2 or 3 starter (Matt Barnes, Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, Henry Owens, to name a few) than they do elite power-hitting prospects (Bogaerts, perhaps Bryce Brentz).
So, even if one goes on the assumption that Lester can be for the next two years what he’d been prior to 2012, that sort of pitcher (the 2012 Red Sox notwithstanding) is becoming increasingly common. Myers, meanwhile, represents scarcity.
There are alternatives
There are many shopping aisles in this year’s free-agent pitching class. Though there appears little likelihood that the Sox are involved in the Zack Greinke sweepstakes, perhaps the team would be more open to a long-term deal with a pitcher like Anibal Sanchez (who turns 29 in February, thus meaning that his long-term deal will feature an unusual amount of time in his 20s).
Ditto hard-throwing Edwin Jackson, a pitcher with a track record of durability and adequacy who doesn’t require the sacrifice of a draft pick. Or, the team could move aggressively on shorter-term deals for players who are coming off of injuries such as Dan Haren, Shaun Marcum (who comes with the all-important “battle-tested in the AL East label”) or 29-year-old Brandon McCarthy.
The dive into free-agent pitching waters is, of course, precarious, but there are viable alternatives on the market, at a time when the Sox have plenty of financial flexibility.
WHY WOULDN’T THE RED SOX WANT TO TRADE LESTER FOR MYERS?
That 2012 Thing
Um, did you see what happened to the Sox last season?
Red Sox starters had a 5.19 ERA, a mark that ranked 12th in the American League -- and, incidentally, a mark that was worse than the Royals. Not one Red Sox starter posted an ERA of league-average or better. The need to fix the rotation is front and center in the team’s hopes of restoring itself to dignity.
Already, the Sox have a need to acquire one starter (whether through a trade or free agency) this offseason. The idea of adding to that considerable task by parting with a pitcher whose track record suggests he should be in line for a rebound -- particularly given that he’s now being matched up anew with John Farrell, under whom Lester enjoyed his best seasons -- is daunting.
It’s also worth pointing out that the Red Sox, as constituted, likely have a very good offense, even with some spots (first base, corner outfielder) awaiting resolution. A top of the order with Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Will Middlebrooks -- particularly given what appear to be promising complementary offensive parts like David Ross and Jonny Gomes -- will score runs.
The giant looming question mark remains whether the team can reposition its rotation to compete in the American League East. After all, the team has defined its struggles dating to September 2011 as being foremost an issue of egregious starting pitching. Taking away a pitcher who has been good for 200 innings a year and who has shown the capability as recently as two seasons ago of performing at an All-Star level might represent a step backwards in terms of the team’s most significant shortcoming.
Fear of free agency
The Sox haven’t fared terribly well in recent years when dipping their toes into the free-agent market for starting pitchers. Lackey, Aaron Cook, Brad Penny, John Smoltz, Bartolo Colon, Matt Clement . . .
It’s a long list of failures. The Sox have a pitcher who represents a known quantity in Lester. Given the wildly imperfect science of predicting pitching performances, the Sox would have to submit themselves to an uncomfortable state of uncertainty in order to acquire a top prospect in Myers.
As immense as Myers’ potential is, he’s still just a prospect
Remember Andy Marte?
After the 2005 season, the Red Sox traded Edgar Renteria to the Braves in exchange for third baseman Marte, who was hailed as an up-and-coming 21-year-old stud and one of the top power-hitting prospects in the game. He never played a game for the Sox, instead serving as the centerpiece of a deal with the Indians that netted Boston Coco Crisp.
Marte flopped in Cleveland. In parts of five seasons with the Indians, he hit .218/.277/.358/.635. He signed a minor league free agent deal with the Pirates in 2011, hitting .202/.278/.328/.606 as a 27-year-old in Triple-A. He didn’t play in affiliated baseball last year.
Prospects remain gambles. Myers could turn into the next Giancarlo Stanton. Or he could turn into the next Marte. Until he’s tested in the big leagues, uncertainty about his future exists.
The symbol and the Monster
The Red Sox’ streak of sellouts is in unquestioned jeopardy this offseason coming off the 69-93 disaster of last year. Questions about the team’s ability to contend in 2013 are not just reasonable but unavoidable. The anxiety level has been amplified this offseason by the fact that the Blue Jays already have made delivered some haymakers, moving prospects for shortstop Jose Reyes and starters Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle while also signing outfielder Melky Cabrera.
The idea of sending Lester to the Royals as part of a package for Myers might well make tremendous baseball sense. But for the Sox to move a longtime roster centerpiece for a prospect -- no matter how heralded -- might prove a tough PR sell for a team that’s trying to sell tickets and re-establish its brand, particularly given the landmark trade to shed Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford in August and the Torontonian provocation this month.
Again, for now, the discussion of a Lester-for-Myers framework remains purely theoretical. Even so, it's a fascinating, dizzying exercise that would have been almost unimaginable a year ago.