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Jon Lester could be poised for major payday

Jon Lester picked up the win in his Opening Day start at New York.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Jon Lester picked up the win in his Opening Day start at New York.

NEW YORK – What is the incentive for Jon Lester to have a great season? CC Sabathia, Zack Greinke, Matt Cain, Felix Hernandez, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Justin Verlander, Adam Wainwright, Tim Lincecum, who have signed silly money deals.

If Lester continues to have a strong season, the Red Sox will have to take the big dip. It’s the dip they probably don’t want to take, but it’s the dip that teams around baseball have decided they need to take to keep their No. 1 starter on their team for the foreseeable future.

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Lester has entered that timeframe.

To his credit, he knows he’s coming off a terrible 2012 and has to re-establish himself. When asked about those other big contracts he said, “If I pitch the way I did last year, I can’t even think about that.”

And he’s right.

But if he rebounds, oh baby.

He’s 29 years old, a lefthander. He’s already earning $11.25 million this season and there’s a team option for $13 million for 2014 with a $250,000 buyout. If Lester finishes first or second in Cy Young balloting he can void the option.

Listen, if he’s that good, the Red Sox would have to void it anyway because Lester’s contract will be torn up at the point and he’ll earn one of these mega-pitcher contracts.

If you don’t think he’s as good as some of the previously mentioned pitchers, well he’s not far off either.

If he has a season where he wins 15-20 games, he’ll have won 15 or more in five of his eight full major league seasons. At that point you would have to say he deserves to be in the same class as the aforementioned.

We know he’s not Verlander, but is he Sabathia? Is he at least as good as Greinke or Hamels or Wainright? The answer is yes.

Lester is 86-48 (.642 winning percentage) with a 3.76 ERA which is higher than most of the others, but some of the others are National Leaguers where the ERAs are lower. While it’s not fashionable to go by wins anymore, we give you a very fair measure of a pitcher – WHIP. Lester’s is also higher than the others at 1.307.

He’s had seasons of 16-6, 15-8, 19-9 and 15-9. His one aberration was last season when he was 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA, which obviously hurt his overall WHIP. He was NOT a No. 1 pitcher last year or during the September collapse. So really, for a season and a month he’s left us wondering if he is a No. 1?

So if he can re-establish himself as an ace and the leader of this pitching staff, the sky is the limit on his next contract.

Let’s see where he compares:

1. Greinke, Dodgers – He is also 29, has a Cy Young. He’s 91-78 with a 3.77 ERA, but he has a 1.247 WHIP. He’s won 15 or more four times in nine seasons. His Dodgers contract is 6 years at $147 million.

2. Hamels, Phillies – Hamels is 29 with a 91-61 (.599) record and a 3.36 ERA. He has a low 1.140 WHIP over eight seasons. He has two 15-plus win seasons. He received a 7-year, $144 deal.

3. Cain, Giants – Cain is 28. He’s 85-78 (.521) but with a 1.172 WHIP. He’s won 15 games once but has six, 200-plus inning seasons. He earned a 6-year, $127.5 million deal.

4. Wainwright, Cardinals – The 31-year-old righty is 80-49 (.620) with a 1.214 WHIP. Twice he’s won more than 15 games and won 20 once. The Cardinals recently agreed to a 5-year, $97.5 million extension.

5. Lee, Phillies – The former Cy Young winner, is 125-78 (.616) with a 3.59 ERA and a 1.211 WHIP. He’s had three 15-plus win seasons and one 20-win season. Last year he won six games for the Phillies. Lee earned a 5-year, $120 million deal. Lee is 34 and in the second year of his deal.

6. Lincecum, Giants – Lincecum, 28, has already won two Cy Youngs, but the fear is that his best days are already behind him. He too had a poor 2012 when he went 10-15 with a 5.18 ERA. The difference between him and Lester is, Lester still has his velocity and stuff, Lincecum has lost some of his. The diminutive righty is in the final season of a 2-year, $40 million deal being paid $22 million this season. He can’t be a free-agent (unless he’s released) until after 2014. Lincecum is 79-56 (.585) over his career with a 1.231 WHIP. Three times he’s won 15 or more games.

7. Sabathia, Yankees – CC is 191-103 (.650) with a 3.51 ERA and a 1.233 WHIP. Eight times, the Cy Young winner, has won 15-plus games. He’s 32 years old. His extension last year was seven years at $161 million.

8. Hernandez, Mariners – At 26, the youngest of these pitchers. He’s 99-76 (.566) with a 3.20 ERA. He has a 1.209 WHIP. He’s won a Cy Young. He recently signed a 7-year, $175 million deal.

9. Verlander, Tigers – Verlander is probably the best pitcher on the planet, so he’s above and beyond. At age 31, he’s 125-65 (.658) with a 3.39 ERA and a 1.173 WHIP in nine years. He has a Cy Young and MVP award. His recent contract is 8 years for $180 million with an option to make it a $200 million deal.

The next giant pitching contract we’ll be adding to this is Clayton Kershaw, who may surpass Verlander’s deal given the way the Dodgers hand out money. It would appear the Rays may be thinking about tying up David Price long term, though he’s in their control until 2016.

But what’s clear is that teams aren’t letting their best pitchers go. It’s one reason why the Red Sox wouldn’t give up Lester in a deal for Kansas City’s Wil Myers. But because the Rays knew they couldn’t re-sign James Shields long-term they let him go in a multi-player deal for Myers.

The Royals still have a $14 million option on Shields for next season, but he too could be in line for one these huge contracts.

Toronto’s Josh Johnson is a free agent after this season and if he has a big year the Jays would likely tie him up before he can become a free-agent. Matt Garza and Roy Halladay (if the 2014 option isn’t picked up or it doesn’t vest for $20 million) will also be free-agents. Halladay is in the final year of a 3-year, $60 million deal.

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