Jon Lester knew the reality when talking to WEEI.com back in spring training.
"It's there. It's there," said Lester regarding the thoughts of what his contractual future held. "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."
The bridge has officially been crossed … for now.
Predictably, the Red Sox exercised Lester's $13 million option for 2014 Friday afternoon. The biggest no-brainer in the history of Earth. It proved the pitcher was right on the money back in Fort Myers: he had a good year, and it became a virtual certainty that he would be under contract with the Red Sox for at least one more year.
This is a guy that matched his best years, and then some. Between the regular season and postseason, Lester went 19-9 (with the Red Sox winning 23 times in his starts), compiling an 3.45 ERA over 248 innings. By the fifth inning in Game 5 of the World Series he had thrown more pitches (4,081) than any pitcher in the major leagues.
Punctuating his season was a playoff run that included four wins, a 1.56 ERA and 34 2/3 innings.
But now it becomes a bit more complicated.
Lester and the Red Sox have not yet engaged in talks regarding an extension with the lefty now headed toward his first chance at free agency (following the '14 season). He will be 31-years-old by the time his next contract kicks in.
There is a lot to contemplate until a decision is forced.
Lester has officially established himself as a staff ace, one of the most valuable commodities for any organization. And, as we have discovered, ace's don't come cheap.
Zack Greinke signed a six-year, $147 million deal with the Dodgers last offseason.This is a pitcher just more than three months older than Lester who compiled a 3.44 ERA in 163 starts and 1,052 1/3 innings over the five seasons prior to his big deal. And before his 15 postseason innings in '13, he had totaled three playoff starts, giving up 12 earned runs on 23 hits over 16 2/3 innings (6.48 ERA).
Lester, conversely, has a 3.68 ERA in 67 starts and 1,062 1/3 innings over the five seasons leading into '14, with his most recent postseason accomplishments to point to. And it isn't inconsequential that he has done this in the American League East, while also shining brightest on the biggest stages -- the American League Championship Series and World Series (totaling a 1.33 ERA in four starts).
So, if Lester stays the course, you have an idea what the Red Sox will be dealing with.
But another lesson the Red Sox should have been reminded of is how important it is to have that ace when trying to navigate through the postseason. Lester pitched three Game 1s, allowing a total of three runs in 21 2/3 innings.
There will be another such a pitcher slated to hit the open market after the '14 season, Tampa Bay's David Price. But unlike Price, who is expected to be dealt by the Rays for the start of next season, Lester's fate figures to be either determined by an extension or free agent-eligibility.
There was a window it made some sense to explore a trade involving Lester, one which was somewhat utilized by the Sox and Royals when talking about a transaction involving phenom outfielder Wil Myers. The Red Sox needed to continue to build for the future, with the need to find top-level young players trumping the idea of holding onto a potential World Series star. Any team that acquired Lester would be getting two full seasons and then, presumably, a draft pick when he walked. And there was, of course, the uncertainty regarding Lester's performance after a subpar '12.
"After last year people try and buy you low," he said in the aforementioned spring training conversation. "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."
Lester's right. It is a business, and you typically don't see teams going stem to stern with players throughout the life of their careers.
But there are exceptions.
The script will remain predictable in places like Tampa Bay. As important as Price is, the likelihood is he will be dealt, just as James Shields, Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza was before him. There is little to no chance the Rays can sign him, and if they did the financial burden would be crippling when trying to construct the rest of the roster.
It doesn't have to stay true to form for the Red Sox, however. Sure, the Sox will be more hesitant to lock down starting pitchers to the kind of $80 million-plus contracts given to Josh Beckett and John Lackey than they were pre-MJ (Magic Johnson … Dodgers trade). As John Henry and company have stated, they are just going to be a whole lot more particular when dishing out long-term deals, particularly to pitchers.
So the question is, should Lester be viewed as the kind of foundation piece that fits into the Red Sox' model?
It was interesting to here Henry utter these words following his team's World Series-clinching win Wednesday night: We look at our own players differently than we do free agents."
The Red Sox have a pretty good idea what they have in Lester, both in terms of on-field performance, and off-the-field work ethic. For the most part he has been healthy (dealing with a bit of a back issue this season). And over the past six seasons, the southpaw leads all pitchers with 49 wins against American League East teams, totaling a 3.57 ERA in a big league-best 597 innings.
Lester also offered a new feather in his cap this year, as well, proving he can adjust when his stuff betrays him. During his post-All Star break resurgence, the starter went away from using his go-to pitch (the cutter) in two-strike counts. Then he rediscovered the pitch, striking out nine batters on the pitch over his final two starts.
But even with the organization's confidence in the player, a large part of the decision will be shaped by what kind of options the team kind find to fill in that spot. The problem for the Red Sox is that other than replacing a middle-of-the-order slugger like David Ortiz, replacing a No. 1 starter would be their most uneasy task.
Clay Buchholz is locked in through '17, with John Lackey under the Red Sox' command until after '15 (with that final season paying the righty the major league minimum due to a clause built-in to protect the team against Lackey's elbow ailment). Jake Peavy and Ryan Dempster will both be eligible for free agency following '14.
A good portion of the organization still believes mightily in Felix Doubront, who won't even be arbitration-eligible until after '14. Following the season's final game, Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves predicted that Doubront would have won 20 games if the lefty had come into camp in shape. "We start changing that now," Nieves said while standing on the Fenway Park field in among the post-World Series celebration.
Brandon Workman has the potential to be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher, as does Allen Webster and maybe Rubby De la Rosa. Henry Owens provides perhaps the greatest hope of all the young pitchers, but realistic projections shouldn't put No. 1 or 2 expectations on the 21-year-old for at least a couple more years.
Contenders always have the anchor, and that is exactly what Lester has proven to be. Soon, we will find out how much the Red Sox are willing to pay for such an anchor.
"He's matured into a pitcher on the mound, and matured into a man off the mound," said Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington. "He's taking full responsibility as a leader of this rotation."