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Analysis

Why trading Jon Lester is a bad idea

At 29. Jon Lester is coming of the worst season of his career.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

At 29. Jon Lester is coming of the worst season of his career.

Bob Dutton covers the Kansas City Royals for the Kansas City Star. He wrote a story on Monday speculating that the Royals could be willing to trade outfield prospect Wil Myers for a starting pitcher.

Dutton mentioned Jon Lester and James Shields as examples of such pitchers.

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In the 12th paragraph of the story, halfway through, Dutton wrote: “Both deals have been discussed, but neither appears close at the moment. Other players could be involved, but the basic framework would be Myers for one of the two pitchers. At this point, all sides — the Royals, Rays and Red Sox — remain hesitant.”

Obviously it’s not something imminent, likely or even very probable. Otherwise Dutton would have made it first paragraph, not his 12th.

Nonetheless, in some corners this has become a “Lester is on the trading block!” story, even though he’s really not.

Would it be a good idea? Let’s check it out:

• Wil Myers is a very good prospect. He’ll be 22 in December and he’s coming off a season that saw him hit .314 with 37 home runs.

Myers also struck out 140 times in 591 plate appearances, 24 percent of the time. He started his career as a catcher and has since played right field, left field, center field and third base.

Scouting reports call him a below-average defender. He’d be passable in the majors at best. He has 29 stolen bases and 12 triples in four seasons.

This is not an athletic freak like Mike Trout or Bryce Harper. This is a corner outfielder with pop.

• Lester was 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA last season. It was the worst season of his career. In general terms, it’s usually a really bad idea to trade a player when his value is at its low point.

• That said, Lester was 18th in the American League last season in FIP -- Fielding Independent Pitching, which (per Fangraphs.com) is a statistic that measures what a player’s ERA should have looked like over a given time period, assuming that performance on balls in play and timing were league average.

In basic terms, it measures those things a pitcher can control: strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches, and home runs. FIP is a much better indicator of a pitcher’s worth than ERA and it shows that Lester wasn’t as bad as it initially looks.

If you watched most of his starts last season, you probably already knew that. Lester had one of those season where everything that could go wrong did.

• Lester has had three pitching coaches in the last two seasons since John Farrell left. None were particularly good at the job. He also transitioned to a new catcher after the retirement of Jason Varitek.

The return of Farrell will be very meaningful to Lester. Lester was 54-23, 3.40 when Farrell was the pitching coach. There is nobody on the roster happier to have Farrell back than Lester.

• Lester was a disciple of Josh Beckett, which had its good points and bad. Two of the bad points were that he got too fond of his cut fastball and working at a slow pace. Lester had a 3.60 ERA in his last four starts once he started to pick up the tempo. He also was less grouchy.

Lester vehemently disagrees with this notion out of loyalty to his friend. But there are people in the organization who believe he will be better off now that Beckett is gone.

• Lester is under contract for $11.625 million in 2013. The team has a $13 million option for 2014. Lester, who will be 29 in January, is under control for two seasons at $24.625 million. That is a bargain in the current market.

• The Sox already need one starter. Trading Lester means they would need two. Where is that coming from? The free-agent market is thin and expensive. The trade market for starters hasn’t exactly been robust.

• Facts aside, let’s say for a second that the Red Sox were indeed willing to trade Lester. Don’t you have to get back much more than an outfield prospect?

If you want to trade Lester and Jacoby Ellsbury for Felix Hernandez, go for it. Lester for a terrific pitching prospect? You would have to think about it. But Lester for a corner outfielder who has yet to play a game in the majors? This is Jon Lester.

• The Red Sox, hideous as they were last season, were fifth in the American League in runs scored. Offense is not their problem. Offense has never been their problem. Offense never will be their problem.

Pitching is their problem, starting pitching in particular. The single most valuable commodity in baseball is homegrown, cost-controlled starting pitching.

Pitching, pitching, pitching. This cannot be repeated enough.

We know what Jon Lester is. He may not have become the ace he was supposed to be. But he’s pretty darn good and he’s 29. Nobody can be sure what Wil Myers will be.

Delmon Young was the top prospect in baseball in 2006 and routinely destroyed minor league pitching. He has been with three teams in his seven-year career and soon will be on his fourth because the Tigers don’t want him him back.

The same people convinced that Myers will be stud thought the same of Young. It’s an inexact science.

GMs talk to each other. That is what they do. Dayton Moore should fish around because the Royals haven’t made the playoffs since 1985.

But Jon Lester for a prospect? Come on now. That’s crazy talk.

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