This season is done. Everything that follows should be framed by that harsh truth — for the Red Sox, the possibility of on-field success has been snuffed out by July, and the only victories that the defending world champions can hope to have over the remainder of this season will be in the front office. Any sense of accomplishment will be derived from the intelligent, stabilizing moves made by the Cherington-Lucchino group of Super Friends that pulled together a ragtag team of misfits in the perfect patchwork order to form a World Series champion in 2013. This season will now be won or lost in the backroom, by guys in suits with a laundry list of roster modifications to make before next spring.
And they can’t even get past Move One.
It’s right there for them. The genius staff who in 2013 pulled off one of the finest offseasons in baseball history are right now faced with a simple reality: In four months, their 30 year old, ace pitcher, who is having the best opening half-season of his career, who is showing every sign of still being immersed in his peak, will become an unrestricted free agent. He’s told the Red Sox, one of the richest sports empires in the world, that he’ll re-sign, no questions asked, for nothing more or less than his market worth: somewhere in the range of five years, $110 million. Regardless of the general public’s distaste for the quibbling of millionaires over guarantees for certain more millions, what Lester is proposing is, in fact, a hometown discount – you can scoff and call him greedy, but in his profession, this is his minimum value, and he’d earn much more on the open market.
So this is easy, right? Just get it done, right?
The counter made this spring by the glorified Red Sox front office – the only counter currently on record: Four years, $70 million.
The Red Sox have valued Jon Lester somewhere in the range between Homer Bailey and Edwin Jackson. In non-baseball terms, they’ve eyed a Porsche, confidently strode up to the dealer and pointing it out proclaimed, “Yonder Corolla looks okay, I guess.”
This is too important, Lester is too important, for this deal to stalemate in hardball negotiation. Last year’s patchwork champion is in tatters. As strong of an offseason as the Sox had in 2013, the follow-up has so far been a shameful disaster.
They won the World Series in what was supposed to be a middling, transitional year, and the verdant lineup to which last year’s team was supposed to be transitioning is still proving enormously unready to provide any sort of positive Major League output. With Ellsbury and Saltalamacchia gone, Victorino incapacitated, and Middlebrooks, Gomes, and Nava turning suddenly back into pumpkins, the Red Sox are left with only two remaining veteran stalwart non-pitching position players from last year’s team: Dustin Pedroia, whose bat has taken this year off, and Mike Napoli, whose degenerative hips still require frequent days off.
Aside from adding A.J. Pierzynski, whose offense is tanking and whose management of the pitching staff has been dubious, the Red Sox haven’t looked beyond their own Triple A roster for additional lineup depth. Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts are now both experiencing heavy playing time in the outfield, after hastened rises through the farm system – Jackie Bradley Jr. was in A-ball as recently as 2012, and spent only 80 games in Triple A last season before being awarded the starting centerfield job after Ellsbury’s departure. That the Sox front office viewed Bradley’s rise as justification for putting up no fight at all as Ellsbury was making arrangements to defect from Boston to the Bronx is already proving flawed – no one expected Bradley to immediately replace Ellsbury’s output by himself, but so far Bradley has only deepened the offensive crater left by Ellsbury, and halfway through his first full-time season in centerfield, there’s earnest concern that he simply isn’t capable of hitting in the majors.
If Bradley’s promotion was escalated, Betts’ has been meteoric – he began this season in Double-A, spent 23 games (103 plate appearances!) in Triple-A, and as of last week is the starting right fielder for the Boston Red Sox. John Farrell has insisted that the ascension of Bradley and Betts is primarily a result of the organization’s responsibility to ‘challenge its young players’ – this explanation certainly sounds good, but it’s mostly gibberish. I’m not sure if Betts’ ability to first encounter and then surmount and then become bored with Triple-A pitching can be adequately discerned in 103 plate appearances, and given the blundering routes he’s taken to track fly balls in the last week, he’s certainly still challenged enough in the outfield to merit additional time in the minors. The rise of the young players in the Red Sox lineup is almost wholly a byproduct of the current roster’s utter lack of veteran talent and depth – if Victorino is healthy and Ellsbury’s still on the team, then at the least, Bradley is not an everyday player and Betts is absolutely still in the minors.
It hasn’t been all bad for the Red Sox young players – Brock Holt has played something like nineteen different positions since his call-up in May, and while the sample size is small, his play has been fantastic in each of his already diverse assigned roles; and shortstop Xander Boegarts has perhaps been the most promising of the Sox’ young, next-generation players.
Enter Stephen Drew.
Stephen Drew is rising up the list of My Most Hated Players of All Time faster than Mookie Betts flew into the major leagues. The Red Sox rewarded one of the most perplexing holdouts of all-time, during which Stephen Drew somehow mistook himself for a player worth holding out into the regular season for a 10+ million dollar per year contract, by signing Drew two months into the season to a 10+ million dollar contract.
The early returns are not good. His slash-line looks like a barf. His mere presence on the roster has disrupted the aforementioned only two shining young beacons: The shortstop phenom Boegarts has had to shift to third base, which has forced the natural third basemen Holt into a platoon that includes every position other than catcher.
Referring to his cataclysmic start, Drew said “I sort of expected it.” Everyone else sort of did too — that’s why it took until May for someone to meet his demands. The only person duped was Ben Cherington.
Aside from Lester, the Red Sox current pitching staff consists of an effective but aging John Lackey, a decomposing Clay Bucholz, a remarkably deficient and soon-to-be-traded-at-the-lowest-value-of-his-career Jake Peavy, and Brandon Workman, who’s been suspended more major league games than he’s started.
There’s a crop of promising but unproven starters waiting in the minors, and while next year the Sox can plug in Allen Webster or Rubby De La Rosa for Peavy or Lackey, they can’t use them to replace Jon Lester. The void he’ll leave is too enormous, and the roster is still too hopelessly decimated to take that hit. Without major changes to the lineup, supplanting Jon Lester with the current bunch of pitching prospects would at very least vanguard another two years of rebuilding, taking the Red Sox down a path of calculated failure that this ownership group has in the past rallied mightily against, and with great success. Part of what makes the Red Sox’ relentless approach to these negotiations so mystifying is that the only guys you can use to replace Lester are the kind of guys you have to give 5 year deals worth $110 million – this is what an ace pitcher costs, and if the Red Sox plan on winning more than 70 games a year for the indefinite future, they’re going to have to give that contract to someone – give it to the Cy Young-caliber guy who’s having the season of his life and is ready to sign now. End this farce and get it done.
The 2013 offseason was a front office success not because they were able to win with a crop of players signed to deals below market value — before the season started, Victorino and Napoli were actually considered overpays — those free agent contracts were intelligent because they ended up representing actual market value to fill clearly defined holes on the roster, and while there’s legitimate reticence for structuring big-money contracts that pay out into a player’s mid-30’s, re-signing 30 year old Jon Lester to a 5 year deal is not the same as signing 35 year old Albert Pujols to a 10 year deal. Their pitching staff is deficient, and Lester’s contract demands represent the market cost of filling that need and keeping it afloat. The Red Sox can’t allow themselves to be disillusioned by the one-year returns on a few solid contracts given last year to role players – that strategy works when bolstering a lineup and giving it one-through-nine depth, but Jon Lester is not a role player. Top tier starting pitchers are not role players. The guys who take 4 years/$70 million are guys like Homer Bailey and Edwin Jackson, and take note of how many world championships the Cubs and Reds have won recently – you can’t win a World Series with an Edwin Jackson at the top of your staff. If the Red Sox are not willing to pay market value to Jon Lester, given their current roster realities, this team will be a sewer far beyond this season.