BALTIMORE -- Yes, Jon Lester took the loss on Opening Day in the Red Sox' 2-1 defeat, but he looked very much like the pitcher whom the Red Sox want and need him to be. He was powerful over the course of his seven innings, showing an ability to mow through the Orioles lineup (save for Nelson Cruz) on the strength of a meticulously located fastball and cutter, allowing just two runs on six hits (five singles and Cruz's solo homer) while walking one and punching out eight.
This was the sort of performance that a team wants from its Opening Day starter, a pitcher who attacked, did little to beat himself and showed the ability to stifle his opponents.
There was a subtext.
"It's kind of like having the elephant in the room -- we all know the circumstances that are there this year," Lester said Sunday regarding his unresolved contract status. "It's something that's going to be there and there are going to be questions and I'll have to give answers, but it's something we'll deal with along the way."
In this case, though, it's not necessarily Lester who must deal with it -- to date, he's shown an ability to separate his preparation for work on the mound from anything that was or was not transpiring in negotiations -- as much as his team will have to do so. The 30-year-old left-hander made his fourth straight Opening Day start on Monday, and if he does end up parting ways with the team following this season, it's difficult to imagine how the Sox will conjure a pitcher of his stature to replace him.
If Lester goes, it's puzzling to wonder: Who would command the title of the team's Opening Day starter next year?
While there's been debate at times about whether or not Lester is or is not a true No. 1 -- a debate that perhaps should have been surrendered by a fairly decisive argument from the middle of last July to the end of last October -- there is none among members of the Red Sox. Consider the view that the Red Sox' second-game starter, John Lackey, offers of Lester.
"I'd bet on him every day of the week, for sure. He's a guy who puts in the work, does everything between starts you want. He's a leader by example. He was huge in the postseason. Can't ask for anything more than that," Lackey said in spring training. "People who don't think he's an ace are crazy. He's the real deal. Let him get out of here and go to another division, you're going to see some craziness.
"He's a guy who goes about his work the way you want. You want these young kids and prospects, you want them to see him work," Lackey continued. "You want everyone to look towards him. That's how you're supposed to do things."
As good as Lackey was last year, his stuff and performance were more that of a strong No. 3 starter or maybe even a No. 2 than a true ace. Moreover, he'll be 36 years old come the 2015 season, and it remains to be seen for how long he can sustain the excellence he showed last year. (The same, of course, is true of Lester, but the left-hander's steady track record -- save for his 2012 blip -- and year-after-year durability make him a higher probability bet.)
No. 3 starter Felix Doubront is still trying to find a path to consistency; he does not represent an heir apparent to the ace throne. No. 4 starter Jake Peavy was once a true ace, but the 2006 AL Cy Young winner is now more of a No. 3 or 4 starter. Moreover, he'll be eligible for free agency following this season.
Clay Buchholz, of course, has the stuff of an ace, and has shown an ability to produce outrageous performances that few in the game can sustain (2010 when he had a 2.33 ERA in 28 starts; 2013 when he had a 1.74 ERA in 16 starts). But he has yet to show the reliable health of an ace in the big leagues. He doesn't represent the same sort of rotation pillar that Lester has become.
Asked if he could imagine a rotation without Lester -- a teammate for every day he's been in the big leagues -- Buchholz shook his head emphatically.
"Not really. Don't want to," said Buchholz. "So, hopefully we won't have to think about it anytime soon."
In the farm system, the Sox don't have anyone who projects with any likelihood to become what Lester now is. Left-hander Henry Owens comes the closest -- on days when he has his best curveball, he shows three above-average pitches, suggesting the potential for a very good No. 3 or even a No. 2. But his fastball command remains a work in progress, and his typical low-90s velocity with the pitch suggests that, even with the deception and angle he possesses, it's likely to be a less dominant offering than Lester's heater. His changeup, while well above average, is also unlikely to grade out as highly as Lester's cutter.
Right-hander Allen Webster has shown the stuff of a potential front-of-the-rotation starter at times -- a mid- to high-90s fastball, a ground ball-inducing two-seamer, the ability to get swings and misses on his changeup and slider -- but his inability to command his fastball consistently at this stage of his career and questions about his confidence raise significant questions about whether he can ever be a big league starting pitcher, let alone an ace. Ditto Rubby De La Rosa, who showed potential ace stuff with the Dodgers before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2011 but who hasn't been the same pitcher since coming to the Sox organization.
The Sox have a wealth of other potential big league starters in their system -- Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes and Anthony Ranaudo, to name a few -- but the ceiling for Barnes and Ranaudo is generally considered to be that of a No. 3 starter while Workman is viewed as a potential reliable innings-eating No. 4 or 5.
That's not to disparage the Sox system. Far from it. Few teams have the depth of pitching talent and the number of near big league-ready starters that they do in the upper ranks of their minor league system. But there is not a Lester successor who is months or even a year or two away from the big leagues.
The one pitcher with legitimate future ace potential -- left-hander Trey Ball, last year's No. 7 overall pick out of high school in Indiana -- is so far from the big leagues that he won't even be breaking spring training with a full-season affiliate, instead remaining in extended spring training.
So if Lester leaves, where do the Red Sox find their next No. 1 starter? The free agent market seems an unlikely place, given that if the team is unable to re-sign Lester it's because it couldn't stomach the kind of investment sought by a top-of-the-rotation option.
It's hard to imagine the team pursuing Max Scherzer, since the Tigers right-hander rejected a reported six-year, $144 million deal that Lester said he would have accepted. He'll cost more than Lester, and so presumably he'd cost more than the Sox would want to spend.
James Shields will be a free agent, but he's two years older than Lester and likely will seek a contract of comparable duration to the Sox left-hander given how closely their numbers align. (Shields since 2008: 82-66, 3.68 ERA, 224 innings per year. Lester since 2008: 89-54, 3.65, 205 innings per year.)
Former Red Sox pitcher Justin Masterson will be a free agent, though as much as there have been times when the Sox felt his absence since trading him in the package for Victor Martinez in 2009, few evaluators have ever thought he would be a top-of-the-rotation guy in the AL East.
Perhaps a player will emerge as a trade option, but aside from David Price -- whom it's almost impossible to imagine the Rays trading to the Red Sox -- it's difficult to imagine a team willing to part with a young, controllable front-of-the-rotation starter.
And so, there is the elephant in the room. Lester took the mound for his fourth Opening Day on Monday, the first Red Sox left-hander ever to start the team's first game in four straight seasons, and he looked every bit the part of what the team might have wanted, a reliable, powerful, stabilizing presence. And now, with each time he takes the mound, the question will loom about whether the Sox could have a true replacement for the left-hander if he doesn't make a fifth Opening Day start for the team next season.
"[It would be] real tough," Lackey said of the challenge of replacing Lester, surveying the ensemble of Red Sox pitchers in the spring. "I don't know if it's possible in this room right now, to be honest with you. He's that good. He's that important to this room, for sure."