So you think the Jon Lester conversation has been occasionally spicy so far? Well, dig in. One week from Monday it's going next-level, the kind of scene that can be uncomfortable for some heading into the final months of their contract.
And you know what? That probably will be OK with Lester.
As Sunday evening's All-Star classification helped punctuate, the execution of the last six months -- since the words "hometown discount" were uttered -- has been virtually flawless from the pitcher's side of things. The two days in Minneapolis will be chaotic. But for the lefty, it will be a very comfortable chaos.
There is no question the honor of being named to his third All-Star Game is an enormous feather in Lester's cap. Just Saturday, his manager, John Farrell, identified this as being the most impressive stretch of the lefty's career. He has barreled down the path leading to all kinds of leverage, instead of careening off a road so many free agents-to-be have uncomfortably attempted to navigate before.
Lester didn't get what he was looking for in spring training from the Red Sox, moved on, pitched better than the guy who turned down $140 million (Max Scherzer), then set new parameters: If the team wants to talk about something that might facilitate a quick deal -- say, in the vicinity of five years, $120 million -- then conversations could be kicked back up. if it was an offer that would be perceived as more of a starting point for weeks of negotiations, then everybody was going to have to wait until after the 2014 season.
That's what a 2.73 ERA, 122 strikeouts and just 29 walks over 18 starts will do.
But if there was ever a moment that brought everything that has transpired regarding Lester and his last half of a year to the surface, it will be in and around Target Field.
In case you don't understand the dynamic ...
A week from Monday, the media is allowed two one-hour sessions with players from the American League and National League, respectively. The All-Stars are seated at their own tables, unable to move for almost 60 minutes while national and international media outlets come and go.
It is almost a rite of passage that one of the priorities for the assembled media during these sessions is to seek out those players whose contracts are up after the season and ask not only about the status of their negotiations, but how playing in this city or that city would seem.
Ask Cole Hamels, who rode out the All-Star media availability in 2012, consistently referencing the opportunity to hit the free agent market if such an occasion presented itself. For an hour those sorts of answers were thrown back in response to the inevitable line of questioning. (Two weeks later, he agreed to a six-year, $144 million deal with the Phillies.)
That same year, Roy Halladay -- the subject of rampant trade rumors -- stood in front of his locker for more than an hour, just moments before starting the game for the AL, and fielded any and all questions regarding the possibility of the starter changing teams. He made it clear that that was going to the last time he talked about such things, so any and all questions would have to be asked in that setting.
The point is that the All-Star Game is not the place to be if you're uncomfortable living the life of an almost-free agent. There is no hiding. There are more opportunities to fall into a unintentional sound byte than at any point in the entire season. (Just ask Jonathan Papelbon, whose suggestion that he would love to close out the 2008 game sent pro-Mariano Rivera New Yorkers into a tizzy.)
But not only has Lester expertly put himself in an advantageous position to date with his on-field performance, but his off-the-field execution has him heading to Minnesota without any doubt regarding public perception. With each report or line of questioning, he has steered it back to prioritizing the job at hand and not contractual hypotheticals. Even when the topic of potentially being traded came up, his answer left little room for eye-rolling.
"I think every year when you get to the trade deadline, that's always a possibility," Lester said on The Bradfo Show podcast. "How great a possibility it is, I don't know, because you're not in that room, you're not making the phone calls. I think this year, given the unique situation we could be in at that time, I don't know. I always said, if they feel like trading me is going to make the Boston Red Sox better for the future, then no hard feelings. Like I said, it's business.
“I want to be here, I think they want me to be here. But like I said, at the same time, I'm sure they wanted [Adrian Gonzalez] and [Carl Crawford] and [Josh Beckett] and [Nick Punto] to be here, but they needed to make a decision for the greater good for the future. That's what they had to do. If that's what they have to do, then that's what they have to do. There wouldn't be any hard feelings. I would still think of my time here as great, cherish every minute that I was here, go about my business wherever I go. ... This game isn’t stable. As much as we'd like to make it stable, it's not."
Lester continued: "Like I said, if they get to that position and they feel it’s necessary, then it is. I can't stop it. I can't do anything and I can't say anything. There's nothing you can do. If you get traded, you get traded and you try to make the best of it. ... If they did, I'd understand. It would probably be a pretty sad time, but at the same time exciting and all those things we talked about before.
"I've always tried to take that mindset going into the deadline, because if you sit there and worry about it and contemplate and get on the Internet and try to figure out where you think you're going and find out all those things, it's just unnecessary stress and thoughts you don't want."
Right now, as we close in on the All-Star Game, the only way the light of public opinion might darken on Lester is if the Red Sox are able to duplicate the Tigers' strategy when it came to Scherzer: "Hey everybody, this guy turned down a crap-load of money ... But we tried." That's probably not going to happen. If any semblance of that kind of money is mentioned by the team, the likelihood is that a deal is struck before a single online poll can be fashioned.
The approach has been virtually flawless, and don't think even Lester's teammates haven't taken notice.
Said outfielder Jonny Gomes: "The pressure of that along with the pressure of just trying to pitching your game and just trying to help your team -- if there is a book to be written, he is definitely writing about how to deal with it.”
Said catcher David Ross: "When you go out there and pitch even after the phenomenal year last year, and the World Series, you might think [things] would work out a little earlier than expected, but they haven't. I think he's handled it great. I think he's gone out and done his job. I've never been in his shoes, but to be where he's at, as mature as he is, I think he's handled it great. His mindset is very important to me as the guy who catches him the most. I need to have his head clear and focused on the team he's facing and not pitching with a chip on his shoulder or to prove somebody wrong. I don't think he's done that. He's not out there pitching with a grudge. It's kind of refreshing to see him each start and have the right mindset."
Said outfielder Shane Victorino: "That situation is never going to be easy, especially when you want to get something done, had the willingness to get something done, and not have it go the way you want. Sometimes that can take a turn for the worse. But Jon's done a great job at staying focused. There are certain individuals you have an idea that this might not be a good scenario because it's going to affect what he does out on the field. Jon's not that way. I knew that when it didn't get done, it wasn't going to affect him. Some guys I've seen it affect them. Like [Victorino's former Philadelphia teammate] Cole [Hamels]. He was never going to be affected by it. Same with Jon."
What the southpaw has done is position himself so that there will be no hesitation within this celebration.
This will be an opportunity to take stock of Lester's accomplishments -- both on and off the mound. It will be time for the pitcher to embrace the chaos.