Veteran lefty will be a free agent after 2014 season, likely to command big money
BOSTON -- Saturday's game at Fenway Park made you wonder. It made you wonder if the Red Sox could ever let Jon Lester depart Boston via free agency.
Against the Athletics, a group that came to town with the best record in the American League, Lester was virtually unhittable. Even that seems like an understatement. Virtually untouchable might be closer to the core of this performance.
Lester struck out 15, a career high. He also set a record for the most strikeouts by a Red Sox left-hander in a regulation nine-inning game. Plus, it only took Lester eight innings to get those 15 strikeouts.
The A's -- a club that mirrors the Red Sox offensively, given their patience and selectivity at the plate -- had little chance against Lester. Throwing his mid-90s fastball to precise locations, throwing precision strikes with all four of his pitches, Lester had Oakland off balance and striking out for eight innings.
The Red Sox won, 6-3. It was no coincidence that the A's didn't score until the ninth, after Lester had left the game.
Lester gave up one hit, and that was an opposite-field bloop to Craig Gentry in the third inning. He walked just two -- and when he missed the strike zone, he missed it by the barest of margins. Lester overpowered some hitters, while he fooled some others. He was in complete command, front to back.
"The combination of power and command was impressive," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "He was locked in, seemingly from the first pitch of the game, and maintained his stuff throughout."
Lester commanded the inside part of the plate. He commanded the outside part of the plate. Lester was consistently nipping the outside corner with back-door cut fastballs, getting called third strikes.
"When you have that, there's no reason to go away from it," Lester said.
And Lester demonstrated a relentless competitive quality. You can't strike out 15, while giving up just one hit, without that combination.
"Days like today, you can't take anything for granted," Lester said. "You've got to keep attacking and see what happens every time you throw the ball."
Lester didn't exactly limp home, either. In his final inning of work, the eighth, he recorded three strikeouts -- all on called third strikes.
With all these strikeouts, Lester did not require a lot of assistance from his colleagues in the field. Grady Sizemore made a nice running grab of Jed Lowrie's line drive to left-center in the seventh. Apart from that, no exceptional defensive work was needed.
OK, Lester has not been this consistently terrific in all seven of his starts this year. But neither has anybody else. The bulk of his career has been about success. Lester has won 15 or more games five times. With the exception of the 2012 season -- an exception that could be made for practically the entire Boston organization -- he has been one of the most consistent pitchers in baseball. And when it matters most? Lester is 3-0 with a 0.43 ERA in three World Series starts.
But Lester will be eligible for free agency after this season. The Red Sox and Lester's agent suspended negotiations after Boston made a contract extension offer for $70 million over four years. In today's inflated pitching market, that seemed a bit on the low side.
Cincinnati's Homer Bailey, not as accomplished as Lester, received a six-year deal for $105 million. Bailey, at 28, is two years younger than Lester, so that could argue for a longer deal. But Detroit's Max Scherzer, who will turn 30 in July, rejected an offer that was reportedly worth $144 million over six years.
There are currently 10 starting pitchers receiving contracts with average annual values of $20 million or more. Lester can't be far away from that group. You can understand the reluctance of a club to give out additional contract years in the case of a pitcher who is 30. But based on his track record and the current market, everything else being equal, this is going to be a windfall time for Lester.
There was no acrimony on either side following the suspension of negotiations, which is healthy. Lester has been clear about his preference to remain with the Red Sox -- and there has been talk of a "hometown discount." That is nice, but there is an entire culture on the other side of the question, arguing against taking anything other than the largest offer. Maybe Lester could be the happy, refreshing exception.
But fans were reminded on Saturday of just how good this pitcher can be. Against top-shelf opposition, Lester reached a level that few pitchers ever attain. Performances like this one will help make Boston a championship contender again. But they won't make Lester a bargain-basement item.