A couple of weeks ago in a midseason Red Sox report card I posed this question:
Taking everything into account -- age, durability, established performance level, postseason history, AL vs. NL, current contract status -- is there a pitcher in baseball you would absolutely trade Jon Lester for?
Think about it. Lester is just entering his prime at 26 years old, has no injury history save for the bout with cancer (credit to how good Lester's been that we don't even think about that anymore), and is already one of the top 10 pitchers in the league, putting up Cy Young kind of numbers while pitching in the AL East. Throw in that he's signed for the next four years at a total of $38 million and you've got someone really close to untradeable status.
Before we run down the list of guys that have a case, I made the decision to eliminate any pitchers over 32 years old (goodbye to Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson, Roy Oswalt and Tatum O'Neal) or making over $100 million (C.C. Sabathia, Johan Santana). Figured six years age difference or $10-15 million more a year in salary was a fair cutoff point.
So here we go. We've got the best of the under-32 and under $100 million crowd. Is there someone out there worth moving Lester for?
(And yes, I know that the Red Sox aren't going to trade Jon Lester. This is just one of those baseball arguments, that's all. Something to discuss between stories about Deanna Favre renewing her gym membership in Minnesota and the future of Chad Qualls. Oh, and 2010 stats are through 7/28)
Having a nice season (12-3, 4.04 ERA), is two and a half years younger than Lester and isn't eligible for free agency until 2014, but he hasn't shown enough to be considered in the class of a Lester. Hasn't had a full season as a starter yet, forget a kind of season that could match up to Lester in 2008 or 2009. And he's slowing down already, with an ERA over 5.00 in both June and July. He could become a legit No. 1 for the Yankees in the next couple of years, but he's not there yet.
The Verdict (or would you trade Lester for him): Not even close.
Weaver was every bit the pitcher John Lackey was over the last half-decade, at least the co-ace of the Angels staff. Now with Lackey gone he's stepped up and turned into a no-doubt No. 1. He leads the AL with 155 K's and his WHIP and ERA are also both in the top six. His career record and ERA match up nicely with Lester's. So why is this an easy "no"? Couple of reasons: One, his home/road splits. His ERA at home in 3.04 in 63 career starts, 4.21 in 69 career road starts. And this is serious small sample size, but his career ERA at Fenway is 7.06 and 6.08 at the new Yankee Stadium (and 5.63 at the old Yankee Stadium). I wonder if he'd be the same pitcher outside of Angel Stadium and the cozy AL West. Also he's not locked into a long-term deal and his agent is Scott Boras.
The Verdict: Nope.
(Sorry, got one eye on the TV and I'm watching the David Tyree stuff. Looks like he's retiring -- nice way to say no one wants him -- and is going to sign a one-day deal with the Giants. Is this pushing the one-day rule? I know Tyree made his mark, but the guy had like 12 catches in his career. What's the cutoff? Just have to play a key role in a title? Tyree could set a dangerous precedent. Could Kevin Millar have done it? Or how about J.R. Redmond?)
Already crashing back to Ubaldo Jimenzville (an ERA of 4.41 in June and 7.59 in July). He has to be on the list because he's 15-2 with a 2.75 ERA, but this screams "fluke season." Tough to imagine that his ERA will be south of 3.00 at the end of the season.
The Verdict: No.
Here's a question, though. Is "The Karate Kid" the only teen movie in history where the female lead outweighs her love interest?
Still trying to figure out how he wasn't on the NL All-Star Team. Latos leads the NL in WHIP (0.99) and has struck out nearly a batter an inning (106 in 112.2 IP). He's a couple of years younger than Lester and under club control for the next six years, but like Hughes the body of work just isn't enough to consider giving up a pitcher like Lester.
The Verdict: No.
Here's what you have to love about Cain -- he figured it out. After the 2008 season Cain had three full seasons as a starter under the ol' belt. His walk rate per nine innings in those seasons was 4.1, 3.6 and 3.8. But he's matured, you know that? A 3.0 per nine rate in 2009 and 3.1 in 2010. Big drops in WHIP and ERA has followed as well. At the same time, however, his K rate has dropped (8.4 per nine in 2006, 6.7 this season) while Lester's has jumped (10.0 in 2009 and 9.5 this season). Lester has a better contract (Cain is due $22.5 million over the next two years, which is about a million less than Lester will make over the next three years) and has proven he can get it done in the AL East. Cain works in a pitcher's park, no DH, and in a division that has no Yankees or Rays.
The Verdict: It's a pretty easy pass.
I like him, but A) he walks way too many guys (nearly four per nine innings in his career, he walked 30 more batters than Lester in 18 fewer innings pitched last season) and B) has had some serious knee issues.
The Verdict: I don't know, I can't imagine the Red Sox trading Jon Lester for a guy that ranks 29th in the NL in WHIP. It's a no.
Sneaks in here because he's under 32 years old (turns 32 August 30) and isn't a member of the $100 million club. That's going to change, clearly. Lee has to be looking at a nine-figure contract from someone, right?
This is the first pitcher on the list that I would absolutely swap straight up for Lester for the rest of the season, but that's not really what we are asking here. Gotta take it all in (that's the only time in this column that I'll borrow a line from the transcript of the Rick Pitino extortion trial). Cliff Lee is a better pitcher than Jon Lester. I'll buy that. But is the difference between the two worth giving up six years in age and what will probably be close to $50 million dollars in salary over the next four years? Not a chance.
The Verdict: No.
One of the legitimate aces in the AL, but his contract ($73 million over the next four years) and career road numbers (4.21 ERA, 1,34 WHIP) make this a no-go.
This is why win-loss records mean almost nothing. Verlander and Lester are about a wash this year in win-loss, Verlander 12-6, Lester 11-5. But look at the other stats:
WHIP: Lester 1.09, Verlander, 1.20
ERA: Lester, 2.92, Verlander, 3.74
Hits per nine: Lester, 6.6, Verlander, 7.7
Ks per nine: Lester, 9.5, Verlander 8.5
K/BB: Lester, 2.98, Verlander, 2.65
Throw this into the "small sample that could mean something or nothing" category. In eight career postseason appearances Lester has a 2.57 ERA. In four career postseason appearances Verlander has a 5.82 ERA.
The Verdict: The difference in salary is huge, but the truth is that Lester is a better pitcher and that's reason No. 1 why this is a no.
The point is that we don't know. He could be Nolan Ryan or Kerry Wood or Roger Clemens or David Clyde. Remember how good Jaret Wright was as a rookie?
Strasburg could pitch 22 years in the majors and this might be the only time he ever spends on the DL. Or he could be Mark Prior, spending half his prime making rehab starts and the other half in Dr. Andrews waiting room. The point is we don't know.
I hope he's great. He sure looks the part so far. He's the best young pitcher I've seen since Doc Gooden. Doc finished his career with 194 wins and a 3.51 ERA, numbers that 99.99 percent of pitchers would take for a career but way short of the massive expectations for Gooden. I'm serious, 330 wins and a 2.50 ERA seemed possible in 1985. If you had told me on Opening Day 1986 that Jamie Moyer could finish his career with 100 more wins than Dwight Gooden I would not have known what language you were speaking.
Strasburg isn't Gooden, obviously. But there is so much unknown with him that the Red Sox couldn't pull the trigger on a deal. By the way, the Nationals wouldn't make the deal, either. The guy is the Nationals. There is nobody -- Albert Pujols, Hanley Ramirez, Joe Mauer -- the Nationals would even consider. And that's the right move for a team that needs a face. The Red Sox don't care about faces, they sell tickets OK.
The Verdict: On ESPN killing the LeBron in Vegas story? Typically gutless. Nothing those strippers did to LeBron in the story I read was as degrading as what Jim Gray did on "The Decision" or Robin Roberts' tongue bath the next day on "Good Morning America." Oh, you mean Strasburg for Lester? That's a no.
The pros: 22 years old, making about 400K this season and is under club control for the next half decade, has over a K an inning average for his career, ERA and WHIP have gone down in each season, doesn't give up homers (0.5 per game in his career, second-fewest in NL in 2009 and sixth this season), first guy since Fritz Von Erich to pull off "The Claw" as a nickname.
The cons: Stop if you've read this already -- NL West pitcher with dramatic home/road splits (career 2.62 ERA and 1.20 WHIP at Dodgers Stadium, 4.00 ERA and 1.42 WHIP on the road) and control problems (career 4.4 walks per nine innings). Kershaw has terrific stuff, is young and strikes out enough guys that he probably wouldn't be a victim of the "NL to AL" curse.
The Verdict: Again, not worth the risk when you've got a sure thing in Lester.
Here's what I wrote a few weeks ago in my midseason Red Sox report card …
"Johnson is interesting. He and Lester are basically the same age (Lester is three and half weeks older) and have similar career lines. Lester has a career record of 53-19, Johnson 43-19. Lester has a career 8.1/3.3 K/BB ratio, Johnson's is 8.2/3.0. WHIP? Lester's is 1.29, Johnson 1.23. But push to shove I'm still going with the guy I know can pitch in the AL East."
That's the thing -- Lester is already one of the, what, six or seven best pitchers in baseball on numbers alone, forgetting where he pitches and in what division. Factor that in and it's tough to make the case that a guy with basically the same numbers in the NL East (though admittedly having a unreal 2010) is going to come to Boston and pitch better. Not a big track record of that happening.
The Verdict: No.
The best pitcher in baseball since the start of the 2009 season -- 33-14 with a 2.47 ERA. Right now the Cy Young is Johnson's to lose, but Wainwright is going to finish in the top three for the second straight season. I bet the Cardinals would turn down a Lester offer, and it would be tough to blame them. But I think I'd keep Lester if the Cards called. Wainwright is 29 years old, three years older than Lester. If the two were the same age I'd trade Lester for Wainwright. If Wainwright was three years older than Lester but had put up these same numbers with the Yankees or Rays I'd probably make the deal. But the age difference (three years is 100 starts, 600 innings, not insignificant) and the NL-AL stuff would be deal-breakers for me.
The Verdict: A very close no.
Comes down to this and only this: Felix Hernandez is going to make $68 million over the next four years, Lester $38 million. I'm OK with the idea that Felix Hernandez is a better pitcher than Lester, but $7.5 million a year better?
The Verdict: Only if Seattle is willing to kick in the $30 million. Pretty good chance that would happen, right?
A better Phil Hughes for this debate. If Price can put up these kind of numbers for the next two years than you'd have to think he would be fair value for Lester. But it's wait and see for now. One other thing to remember about Price is that he'll be 25 in August. Seems he should be younger, probably because this is his first full season in the rotation. Not unlike Buchholz, it took some time for Price.
The Verdict: For now, no.
Having a "down" year, still 10-4 with a 3.12 ERA. One of the few guys that is just as good on the road (1.17 WHIP both home and road for career). When I kicked this column idea around I kind of figured Lincecum was the one lock, the one guy that I'd swap for Lester. Two Cy Youngs, great K rate (10.0 per nine), under team control until 2014, all that stuff. But you know what? I can't get past his size (5-11, 170) and delivery. I just think he's a serious injury waiting to happen. And Lester -- assuming the worst is over with his illlness -- has the size and delivery of a guy that will make 32-33 starts a year for the next decade.
The Verdict: No.
Let the homer bells ring. There isn't a pitcher in baseball -- again, taking all factors in account -- I would absolutely trade Jon Lester for.