FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Jon Lester doesn't look any different, and really his demeanor seems about the same.
But things have changed.
Some of the alterations have to do with his season of a year ago and the uneven results that came with it. But this metamorphosis isn't solely about an out-of-nowhere 9-14 record or 4.82 ERA.
Things have changed because Lester realizes he has entered a period in his career that will be unlike anything the lefty has encountered. Trade rumors. Contract uncertainty. And, above all, the need to turn back the kind of doubt that was hard to find heading into '12.
"This year is tough because you're comparing it to a year that was a career low," said Lester. "If it was a career high it would probably be a different answer. I would probably be like, 'Yeah, I'm ready to go.' As far as a career low, yeah, that first month this offseason was tough. I usually spend a couple of days here and there by myself, whether it's down at the farm or doing errands, or whatever, and kind of reflect on things and think about the season and think about how things went. It seems like it took me a lot longer than that. It took me a couple of weeks to filter through everything. I think you could really throw any and every one of those words into my offseason and into spring training and into my season. I've never been on this side. I've never had to prove myself. I'm using that as motivation and go out and prove to myself I am who I am.
"I think you could really honestly put any one of those words: driven, motivated, pissed off, ready to go, whatever you want -- in front of my name and that will describe how I'm feeling. I'm ready to get the season going and go back out there and prove those first four or five years of my career weren't flukes."
What transpired with Lester in '12 certainly would appear to be somewhat of an aberration, a case of a healthy pitcher falling into the kind of bad habits that have seemingly been identified.
Heading into last season, he had gone on an impressive run of four straight years in which he recorded at least 15 wins, totaled ERAs of 3.50 or lower, and pitched at least 190 innings in each of those campaigns. As WEEI.com's Alex Speier points out, during that four-year stretch Lester became the 16th pitcher since 1901 to manage four straight seasons between the ages of 24-27 with an ERA+ of 120 or better and enough innings to qualify for the ERA title in each of those campaigns. Speier also notes that of the previous 15, nine are now Hall of Famers.
It is this success that makes Lester's current existence somewhat complicated.
To start with, he doesn't want to hear about this "next-level" talk. Sure, there is obvious goal of being better than last year, but Lester also is quick to point out that there is nothing wrong with what preceded that.
"What next level is there? That's the thing that frustrates me," he said. "People don't consider me an ace or don't consider me a front-line starter. Well when there are two other pitchers in all of baseball who (won at least 15 games four straight seasons), what am I? That's my argument to it. What extra level is there to it? Am I supposed to win 25 games every year? It's not possible.
"You look at last year, how many quality starts did I have? (Note: He had 17 quality starts, same as Edwin Jackson and Jeremy Hellickson.) How games did I lose when I gave up three runs or less? I can't control the outcome of the game. I can only control being healthy every five days and going out there and pitching. That's what I consider an ace. I don't care if you're the No. 5 guy, the Opening Day guy or somewhere in between, if you take the ball every five days, you go out and pitch, bust your ass and you compete, to me, in my mind, that's an ace. So I don't know the next level. I don't know what people want from me for the next level. So I'm not concerned about the next level. I'm not concerned about what people want from me. I'm concerned that for the past six years I've taken the ball every five days, take pride in that, bust my ass in between each start and pitch 200 innings. That's all I can control."
Last season aside, there is a belief in the Red Sox' organization that Lester is the type of pitcher a team can build around. He has the desired demeanor. The health and stuff are still there. And it doesn't hurt that there is a new wave of optimism surrounding the pitcher considering his familiarity with new manager John Farrell and how the former Sox' pitching coach might be able to help push aside those bad habits.
Still, that doesn't mean Lester's status as a Red Sox will remain status quo, no questions asked. This is a reminder the hurler was slapped with this offseason when reports surfaced that Kansas City and the Sox were talking about a deal involving Lester.
He had been part of trade rumors before -- in the failed Alex Rodriguez and Johan Santana deals. But this was different. Lester wasn't a prospect anymore. He was a proven commodity, which was the exact reason the Royals wanted his services.
"After last year people try and buy you low," he said. "They figure maybe if he's having a down year they just want to get rid of him and maybe try to rebuild in the back-end with prospects. It is what it is. It's business. I don't hold anything against [GM Ben Cherington]. I don't hold anything against ownership. It's business. I understand. It's something you obviously need to get used to. It's different when you hear your name out there for the first time. You're like, 'Oh man, this could be a possibility.' It's the first time it crosses your mind. It's different. But, like I said, it's business. Ben could walk out here right now and say we traded you. It's the nature of what we do. It's the stability of what we do. You don't see the guys that get drafted, get called up and play their whole careers [with one team] anymore. That's just how things are. The earlier you can accept that, I think the better off you are regardless of how good you are and how much an organization says they want you around. It's the nature of what we do. The quicker you can realize that the easier it becomes when things like last year, this offseason come up."
The talk of a potential trade also reiterated another change Lester knew was coming his way -- the uneasiness of his contract situation.
Lester is in the final guaranteed year of his contract, with the team holding a $13 million option for 2014. It was most likely just short enough of a commitment that led the Red Sox to at least consider a deal, and just long enough for a team like the Royals to make a play for the 29-year-old.
And while it would seem like a no-brainer that the Red Sox would be picking up that club option, Lester knows -- especially after last season -- there are no certainties in baseball.
"It's there. It's there," said Lester regarding the thoughts of what his contractual future holds. "Even the option was so far away, now it's next year. It's an option, [so] you don't know. Obviously if I go out and have a good year, it's 99 percent it's going to get picked up. If I go out and have an OK year, you don't know. There's that unknown about stability. Where are we going to be? What are we going to do? That's something a lot of people don't have to deal with, a lot of people do. It's the nature of the beast and it is what it is. This is probably the last time I talk about it and I'm going to move on. That's all I can do. I can't worry about that because if I go out and do my job that stuff takes care of itself. If I don't go out and do my job that's when you get the second questions. It is what it is. You just have to cross that bridge when it comes. That's what I'm going to try and do, pitch and cross the bridge when it comes."
All of it is adding up to a new era of Jon Lester, a notion to which he isn't blind. It's why he started working out earlier this offseason than ever before. It's why he moved up his timetable when it came to his winter throwing program. And it's why has embraced the notion that all is not the same anymore.
"I'm not worried about in four years. I'm worried about this year," he said. "This is a big year for me. Not only as far as stability, but also me just getting back to being me. Getting back to the pitcher I know I am. That's the biggest thing for me.
"The past two years have been kind of reality grabbers and knocked me back into thinking what I have to do get back to being me. I think the offseason was a good time to reflect and figure out who I am. Just look back and say, 'This is me, and this is not me,' and make adjustments off of that."