Contenders with the Assets to Close a Deal on Red Sox's Impact Arm Jon Lester
It's quite possible that Jon Lester already has thrown his last pitch as a member of the Boston Red Sox. At least for now. On Tuesday night, manager John Farrell announced that Lester, who has been in the thick of trade rumors and speculation with the Red Sox falling entirely out of the playoff picture recently, was being scratched from his scheduled start on Wednesday.
"In light of all the uncertainty surrounding Jon Lester," Farrell said via Ricky Doyle of NESN after the Red Sox's 4-2 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays dropped them to 48-59, "it's probably in everyone’s best interest that he does not make that start."
While this maneuver doesn't guarantee that the 30-year-old will be traded between now and the deadline at 4 p.m. ET on Thursday, July 31, it certainly adds to the already intense intrigue surrounding Lester. This also doesn't hurt the possibility that trade discussions have been—or soon will be—picking up steam.
There are a number of factors to consider in evaluating the southpaw's trade value. First is performance this season, which has been the southpaw's best, as his 2.52 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 4.7-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio are all better than ever. That boosts his trade value.
Second, Lester's contract is up at the end of 2014, which hurts his value a good deal because either he'll require a massive, nine-figure investment from any team that obtains him or he'll spend two months in his new digs before hitting free agency and moving on.
To that end, Lester recently said that he very much would be open to returning to Boston, the only organization the nine-year-veteran has played for, even if he's traded.
"Why not?" Lester recently told Joey Knight of the Boston Herald about re-signing with the Red Sox. "This is what I know, this is what I love and like I've said plenty of times, this is where I want to be."
That in no small way, undercuts Lester's value, too, since it's a very real possibility that he could be nothing more than a two-month rental, especially if any acquiring club doesn't reach the playoffs.
Speaking of, Lester still will command quite a bit in a swap, because he's proven to be one of the better October arms in recent memory. Not only does he have two World Series rings from 2007 and 2013, but Lester also owns a sparkling 2.11 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 76.2 career postseason innings.
That's the kind of resume that might make a contender pony up prospects to land one of the few difference-making players who is readily available for the stretch run.
As far as prospects go, Boston actually has one of the better farm systems in baseball. However, with the likes of rookies Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Allen Webster and Christian Vazquez set to exhaust their prospect status, the Red Sox could use a piece or two to help replenish those who have graduated to the majors.
Plus, a great deal of the organization's minor league talent resides on the mound (Trey Ball, Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes, Brian Johnson) and on the dirt (Mookie Betts, Blake Swihart, Garin Cecchini). If general manager Ben Cherington is going to deal Lester, the return could be centered around a young outfielder, which would fit a need, as Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald notes.
With that in mind, here are the teams in contention, some of which, as pointed out by Gordon Edes of ESPN Boston, both have a need for a top-of-the-rotation ace like Lester and the means (read: prospects) to pull off a trade for him.
Los Angeles Dodgers
As a consensus top-50 prospect (or better) in the game, and one who is hitting .318/.450/.585 with 22 homers and 25 steals at Triple-A, Joc Pederson represents the absolute best-case scenario as a return for what could amount to merely 10 to 15 starts from Lester.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, however, could afford to part with the 22-year-old because they happen to have the outfield more than covered at the big league level—what with Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Carl Crawford and Scott Van Slyke all on the 25-man roster.
Plus, if the Red Sox include dynamite lefty reliever Andrew Miller (2.45 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 14.5 K/9), that might be enough to do the trick, especially since L.A.'s bullpen could use bolstering.
For a team that is chasing big-name stars and a World Series title like the Dodgers are, Lester is the clear big fish at this stage, especially with David Price looking more and more likely to remain with the red-hot Tampa Bay Rays for now.
Besides, who's to say Lester doesn't wind up enjoying his time in Hollywood so much—pitching as part of a ridiculous rotation including Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-jin Ryu and former Red Sox teammate Josh Beckett—that he wouldn't decide to stay?
It's not like the deep-pocketed Dodgers wouldn't be able to pay him the way the Red Sox decided against doing, causing extension talks to break down.
Among the teams listed here, none needs a legitimate No. 1 starter like Lester more than the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Ace-in-the-making Gerrit Cole has been hampered by shoulder and back injuries of late, leaving his status somewhat up in the air going forward. Meanwhile, right-hander Charlie Morton is an underrated but far from dominant arm, lefty Francisco Liriano only just made it back from his own injury, and no one is actually buying what back-end options Vance Worley and Jeff Locke are selling.
Lester would provide Pittsburgh with not only a shutdown starter the club so craves but also a proven winner with all kinds of October experience—something the Pirates are still getting used to after two decades of irrelevance.
This is one of the better organizations around when it comes to prospects in terms of quality, depth and variety. Focusing specifically on outfielders, there's Josh Bell, a 21-year-old switch-hitter in the middle of a breakout .322/.373/.471 season between High- and Double-A; and Harold Ramirez, who is hitting .309 in A-ball at 19 years old.
Bell, in particular, might be a bit much to give up for Lester, whom the small-market Pirates wouldn't be able to pay after 2014. Still, Pittsburgh already has a crowded outfield in rookie Gregory Polanco, the exciting yet enigmatic Starling Marte, and Andrew McCutchen, the reigning NL MVP. That trio is young, cost-controlled and should be around for years to come, so giving up some excess wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.
This one might seem like a long shot. The frugal Miami Marlins don't come across as the kind of club that would give up an inexpensive piece of their future in exchange for a high-cost player who surely would walk away at season's end.
Still, the Marlins are interested in Lester, as Joe Frisaro and Maria Torres of MLB.com report: "Ideally, the Marlins would like more than a rental. They'd prefer a starter with controllable years. None of those candidates, however, would have the immediate impact of Lester."
Plus, Miami has been on a roll over the past week, having won six straight to get back to .500. That has the Fish five games behind the Washington Nationals (whom they beat 3-0 on Tuesday) and only 4.5 out of the second wild-card spot in the NL. Lester essentially would replace the injured Jose Fernandez at the top of the five-man rotation for the rest of 2014.
The player who could work for both sides to get something hammered out might be outfielder Jake Marisnick, who was just recalled by Miami, per Torres.
The 23-year-old hasn't had much success in his initial time in the bigs with just 28 hits in his first 157 at-bats (.178), but he's a very strong defender in center who has the arm for a corner. On offense, Marisnick possesses a nice pop-speed combo, as shown by his 10 homers and 24 steals at Triple-A this season.
The Red Sox might want another piece or two because some of the prospect sheen is off Marisnick, but the Marlins might be disinclined to meet such a demand given that Lester would be good as gone after October.
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