mlb_g_lester_200SP Jon Lester has helped lead the Boston Red Sox to two World Series Championships in the past seven seasons. 

When Jon Lester arrived onto the scene in 2005 for the Boston Red Sox, scouts raved endlessly about his potential as a starting pitcher.  He struggled with his command for much of that season as a rookie in the major leagues, but his talent was inherently apparent.

Then, a cancer diagnosis.  On September 3, 2006, Lester was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a treatable yet of course dangerous form of cancer.

By 2007, Lester had come full circle.  He returned to the mound on July 23rd of that year, throwing six innings of two-run ball in a win over the Cleveland Indians.  By that October he was rounding into the pitcher the scouts expected him to become, hurling five and two-thirds shutout innings in the deciding fourth game of the 2007 World Series.

The following season, on May 19, 2008, Lester hurled a no-hitter against the Kansas City Royals.

Over his eight full MLB regular seasons, he’s compiled a 100-56 record, with a 3.76 ERA,  10 complete games, three shutouts.  He’s allowed less than a hit per inning in six of his eight campaigns, and struck out more than a batter per inning in two of his seasons (2009 and 2010).  He’s also a two-time All-Star, and finished fourth in Cy Young Award voting following the 2010 season.

In the postseason Lester has been even better, and nothing short of dominant.

In 76 and two-thirds postseason innings, Lester has allowed only 59 hits, 18 earned runs, with a 7.9 strikeouts-per-9 innings ratio.  His earned run average sits at just 2.11 during the most important time of the baseball season.

In the 2013 postseason he was even better: a 4-1 record, a 1.55 ERA in 34.2 IP (innings pitched), and only five extra-base hits (doubles, triples and home runs) in five starts.  Many baseball pundits and “experts” alike noted that, “(Lester) is earning himself quite a bit of money with these performances.”

After the season, the Red Sox exercised a $13 million team option to keep him under contract for one more season.  When you consider the enormous contract Dodgers left-handed starter Clayton Kershaw just received (7-years/$215 million), most would have to agree those writers will probably be right.  Of course, Kershaw is a demonstrably better pitcher than Lester with two Cy Young Awards to his credit, but the amount of workhorse, consistent left-handed starters are a certain rare commodity in the MLB.

Last night at the Boston chapter’s annual Baseball Writers’ Association of America awards dinner, Lester showed why he’s no ordinary ballplayer in perhaps the biggest way yet.  All of the following quotes come courtesy of the Boston Globe.

“These guys are my number one priority,” Lester said “I understand to stay here, you’re not going to get a free agent deal. You’re not going to do it.  It’s not possible.  You’re bidding against one team.  I understand you’re going to take a discount to stay,”  quipped the 30 year-old lefty from Tacoma, Washington.

“Do I want to do that?  Absolutely.  But just like they (the Red Sox) want it to be fair for them, I want it to be fair for me and my family.  If we can get to something in spring training, that would be awesome…  I want to win.  If that means taking a Pedroia deal where you stay here for less money to be happy and be competitive and win every year, let’s do it.  Let’s get it done,” Lester continued.

He references the 8-year/$110 million deal that Dustin Pedroia signed with the Red Sox in the middle stages of last year.  Pedroia is represented by the Levinson brothers, the same agents who represent Lester.

“I enjoy it.  My family loves it here,”  he said “When it all comes down to it, we want to be here.”

If the two sides could not reach an agreement before the season officially begins on March 31st, the burly starting pitcher prefers to put off negotiations until after the season.

“That way, everybody’s relaxed and everybody is in the same place and then when the season starts you don’t have to worry about it and just focus on baseball.   Hopefully we can do that one way or the other.  I would like to, if we don’t get something done, try to put it off as long as we can to not make it a distraction.”

Red Sox fans:  this is exactly why you have to love Jon Lester.  How many other ballplayers can you honestly name besides he and Pedroia that would openly accept a discount to stay in one place?  Certainly not Robinson Cano, he of the massive 10-year/$240 million deal with the Seattle Mariners earlier this off-season.  It was always a central thought that he would be staying on with the Yankees, yet he ran to the west coast for an extra some-odd million dollars.  While nobody would blame Cano, he unquestionably sacrificed an opportunity to win for a paycheck.

The question is:  how much money should Lester make?  (Given the market landscape of baseball, of course)  For a fair comparison, there’s another left-handed starter over in the National League that draws as a pretty comparable one to the Red Sox starter.  Philadelphia Phillies lefty Cole Hamels.

During the 2012 season, the Phillies signed Hamels to a 6-year/$144 million extension thru the 2018 season (with a $20 million team option for the 2019 season).  At the time, Hamels was 28, a full two years younger than Lester is now.  However, their bodies of work in the major leagues are very similar.  By the end of that 2012 season, Hamels’ record sat at 91-60, his ERA at 3.34 and his K-per-9 rate at 8.5.  He had compiled just a third of an inning more than Lester over the same span (seven seasons) in just nine fewer starts.  The result was what many considered to be an overpaid contract graded against Hamels’ performance:  one that averages out to $24 million per season.  The argument can be made that had Hamels pitched in the American League, as Lester has, instead of the National league where the pitcher hits, that his numbers would literally mirror Lester’s.

As the discussions go on about what the Red Sox should attempt to sign Lester for, you can be sure that Hamels’ contract will be mentioned frequently.  Perhaps, even C.C. Sabathia’s will be as well.  Sabathia signed what was the richest contract ever for a lefty (before Kershaw’s) with the New York Yankees for 7-years/$161 million before the 2009 season.

Red Sox fans can rest assured that Lester probably will not require quite that much money.  They can also rest assured that, in all likelihood, their staff ace probably will not be going anywhere for this season or the next five to six.  Even though Boston’s most recent philosophy has been to sign free agents to shorter contracts with higher annual value, Lester has come up through the Red Sox organization.

Our prediction:  look for Lester to leave some money on the table, signing for around 6-years and $120 million.  The deal will be completed before the Red Sox open their season on March 31st at Baltimore. 

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