About a year ago -- July 30, to be exact -- I wrote a column attempting to answer 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?
Might seem a quasi-stretch until you really think about it. Lester at the time was just entering his prime at 26 years old, had 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 was one of the top 10 pitchers in the league (while pitching in perhaps the toughest division). Throw in that he was signed for the next four years at a total of $38 million and you've got someone really close to untradeable status.
I looked at every serious candidate -- and in the How Things Quickly Change Department, the group included names such as Philip Hughes, Stephen Strasburg, Adam Wainwright and Mat Latos -- and decided that the Sox would in fact not deal Lester for anyone.
Well, it's 53 weeks later and I'm still wondering if that's the case. Lester is almost exactly where he was a year ago -- a legitimate ace (if not the best pitcher on his own staff this season), one of the dozen or so best starting pitchers in baseball, and still a steal at $31 million over the next three years. But, now at 27 years old and in his sixth season, is it fair to ask if he's going to make that leap to Cy Youngdom that everyone around here (me included) keeps predicting at the start of each season? Could be this is what Jon Lester is going to be -- ERA around 3.30, WHIP at 1.20 (it's been that way for four straight years now).
If this is the best we are going to see of Lester, I understand that it's still awfully good. Lotos of guys have made a very nice career -- and hundreds of millions of dollars -- out of being a consistent B+ performer. But there are guys who I passed on last season -- hello to Jered Weaver and Justin Verlander -- who are close in age to Lester and having far superior seasons.
As we did last year, let's eliminate any pitchers over 33 years old (which means Roy Halladay) and/or with a contract over $100 million (CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee). As good as those guys are, six prime years or $10 million to $15 million a season strikes me as a reasonable non-starter, right? I'd take Cliff Lee over Lester for the next two years, probably. But would I rather have Lester at $13 million for those two years or Lee at $46.5 million?
So let's take another look (with the understanding that this is pure speculation, one of those baseball arguments, a different way to look at Lester's value and place at the table and nothing else).
He'll be 26 in August and is under club control through 2015. Lester has a larger body of work -- 144 starts vs. 79 for Price -- but the two have similar career numbers (Lester has a 3.50 career ERA and 1.28 WHIP, Price has a 3.49 ERA and 1.21 WHIP). So it seems close, no? But here's the deal-breaker: Price has a career ERA of 2.72 at home and 4.36 on the road. Are you trading Jon Lester for a guy with a 4.36 career road ERA?
Having another solid season, fourth in the NL in WHIP and eighth in ERA. But he will be a free agent after the 2012 season (he's going to make $12 million in '12) and that has to be a factor, as does this: I'm pretty sure Cain would transition well to the American League, but in the NL West -- in a pitcher's park, no DH, never having to face lineups like the Yankees and Rangers -- he's put up career numbers that are about the same as Lester's (3.39 ERA, 1.20 WHIP). No reason to think those would improve in the AL East. Throw in what is probably going to be an $80 million contract (at least) and it has to be a pass.
The good: Team-friendly contract ($37.5 million over the next four years), has seemingly figured out control problems (walks per nine down from 4.6 in 2009 to 2.8 this season), has been durable (had ACL surgery in 2008, but has started 30, 31 and 24 games over the last three seasons) and is a better hitter than J.D. Drew (I'm serious -- his OPS and slugging are higher in each of the last two seasons). The bad: See David Price -- significant home/road splits (3.23 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in 53 career starts at home, 4.08 ERA and 1.41 WHIP in 53 career road starts). Again, I'm not giving up Lester -- at worst you'd figure a sure thing for 200 innings, 15 wins and 3.50 ERA -- for a career National League pitcher with a road ERA over 4.00.
Having a terrific season -- 12-4 with a 2.63 ERA -- and is under club control through 2014. But he's back on the DL for the second time this season and missed all of last September (and the NLDS) with a torn meniscus in his right knee.
Verdict: Too much injury history already. Nope.
Boy, plenty of stuff happened on Jan. 18, 1989. It's not just the date of Pineda's birth -- Shari Belafonte was the lead guest on "The Arsenio Hall Show" and Claudell Washington signed a three-year, $2.625 million contract with the California Angels. OK, so in reality it turned out to be a disappointing Google search (as was, sadly, the subsequent "Shari Belafonte nude" search. Not what I remembered). We can agree it was worth the effort, though.
Pineda -- though he has a 6.88 ERA over the last month -- looks an awful lot like a future Cy Young candidate. But we said the same about Jaret Wright as a rookie. Way too much unknown with Pineda, who five years from today is about likely to be just another guy than one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball.
Verdict: On Shari Belafonte? Probably too harsh, but we've all been spooled by the breast-enhancement era. Belafonte's November 2000 Playboy spread doesn't stand a chance today. It's almost quaint to look at now, I think Norman Rockwell might have shot it. Not her fault -- it's really the equivalent of hitting 38 homers in 1986. Just rendered irrelevant historically. Oh, and Pineda is a "no."
Had to sneak him in here, because I think he's the best pitcher in baseball today. He led the National League with a 2.30 ERA last year and has a 1.64 ERA this season. The problem is, of course, that Johnson has read every magazine in Dr. James Andrews' waiting room. Tommy John surgery in 2007 and now might miss the rest of 2011 thanks to inflammation in his right shoulder.
Verdict: Since the start of the 2008 season Lester had made 118 starts, Johnson 84. If you could guarantee me both will never be hurt again I'd take Johnson. But the difference between the two guys isn't nearly enough to take what would be a monster risk on Johnson's long-term durability.
And I think we might have a winner. Kershaw is 23 years old, makes about 500K this season (and is under club control until 2015), averages over a K per inning in his career (leads the NL at 9.9 this season), has had his WHIP go down in each of his four seasons, and has never been on the disabled list (31 starts in 2009, 32 in 2010 and 24 this year). The last two years he was fifth and ninth in the NL in ERA, and he's sixth this season. His one weakness going into 2011 was control -- he was third in walks in 2009 and seventh last year -- but his walks per nine have dropped from 4.8 in 2009 to 2.4 this season. Sure, he's a better pitcher at Dodger Stadium -- 2.61 ERA in 56 career starts -- but he's very good on the road (3.59 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 9.0 K's per nine innings). He's four years younger than Lester, zero health issues, making less money and with an already established peak at least as high as Lester's.
Felix Hernandez is going to make $58 million over the next three seasons, $20 million more than Lester. There is no doubt that Hernandez has been a better pitcher than Lester the last three years, but not $7 million a year better. Assuming the Sox have a limit on their payroll, give me Lester and the $20 million to spend somewhere else. Look at this season: Lester has a better ERA, K per nine, hits allowed per nine -- and has done it in the AL East.
Look, he's having one of those years. I don't know if it's an outlier (though he's obviously been plenty good) or the start of a half-decade run as one of the two or three best pitchers in baseball. A year ago I thought Lester was the superior pitcher -- his WHIP, ERA, hits per nine and K's per nine were better at the time. Things have changed, and if Verlander is going to be this guy for the duration of his contract I'd make the swap in a flash. But this is very similar to the Hernandez situation -- Verlander is set to make $60 million over the next three years. If you add Verlander and drop Lester from the payroll, could be you'll have to part with Ortiz and Papelbon after this season. If you get the 2011 Verlander, it's absolutely worth it. If you get the pre-2011 Verlander -- 3.91 ERA, 1.25 WHIP on the road, about a push with Lester -- it's not worth it.
Verdict: A very close no. (Not sure this is enough sample size to register, but do you care that Lester has a 2.57 ERA in eight career postseason starts and Verlander has an ERA of 5.82 in four postseason starts?)
I'm always skeptical about his durability -- historically there just aren't not a lot of hard-throwing guys that are 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds in their mid-30s -- but the guy made 34, 32 and 33 starts the last three years and hasn't missed a turn this season. Lincecum is actually better on the road (2.89 ERA, 1.15 WHIP vs. 3.07 ERA, 1.20 WHIP at home) and he has a 3.23 ERA and 106 strikeouts in 92 career interleague innings. And unlike Verlander and Hernandez, Lincecum isn't going to make $20 million a year until he becomes a free agent in 2014. He's been a significantly better pitcher than Lester and there's no reason to think that will change.
In a year of tremendous AL pitching (Verlander, Haren, Beckett, Sabathia), Weaver is currently the Cy Young favorite, having a season that blows away anything Lester has ever done. But there is the Boras Factor, which is very real and will come to life after Weaver heads to free agency after the 2012 season. If he comes even close to what we've seen this season in 2012, you are looking at Sabathia money. I'll take Lester and whatever else the Sox can do with the extra $10 million a year.