FORT MYERS, Fla. — The Red Sox and lefthander Jon Lester have “hit the pause button,” according to general manager Ben Cherington, and tabled talks on a contract extension.
Lester, who will be a free agent after the season, has repeatedly voiced a willingness to stay with the Sox and take a hometown discount on the contract. But the sides have not been able to strike a deal.
“We felt like if we continued it would be a distraction. For right now it’s probably the best decision for both sides,” said Lester, who will start the season opener on Monday in Baltimore.
“I don’t know if disappointing is the right word. I think any time you go into a negotiation like this you have to prepare yourself for something not happening.”
Cherington and Lester stressed there was no particular animus between the sides. It was more an issue of timing.
“We’ve had a lot of good dialogue, shared information,” Cherington said Saturday. “Jon and [agent Seth Levinson] have made good arguments for their position. We understand their position. We feel like we have good arguments for our position. Our desire remains to keep him here.
“We weren’t able to find something that worked for everyone during this spring training. In the interest of allowing [Lester] to get ready for Monday, let the team get ready for Monday, we’ve kind of hit the pause button and hope that we can pick up the conversation again at some point.”
Said Lester: “It’s been — I don’t want to say pleasant because I don’t think any time you have a negotiation process it’s pleasant — but amicable is a good word.”
Levinson and his brother Sam also represent Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. They had talks with Cherington during spring training last season, but no deal was struck until July when Pedroia agreed to an eight-year extension worth $110 million.
“Pedey’s deal was a little bit different. I’m going into free agency,” Lester said. “This is a little bit different circumstance. We’re making sure that we cross our t’s and dot our i’s and they’re doing the same thing.”
With the market for starting pitchers sharply on the rise, making a deal for Lester was never going to be a simple process. The 30-year-old was 15-8 with a 3.75 ERA last season before going 4-1 in five postseason starts. Lester won two games in the World Series, allowing one earned run over 15 1/3 innings.
“Jon has put himself in a good position,” Cherington said. “He’s a very good starting pitcher. He’s been consistent and durable. He’s now a season away from free agency, so he’s put himself in a good position. We understand that and respect that. Again our desire remains to keep him here and we’ll continue to have an open mind on ways to do that. But we just couldn’t get to anything during this spring training.”
Cherington said the sides are willing to talk during the season, but no further talks have been scheduled at this point.
“I think both sides have been really receptive,” Lester said. “Our door is always open and I feel like their door is open.”
Lester said he remains committed to staying with the Red Sox.
“Yeah. This hasn’t changed anything. This hasn’t been a war of words and I’m sitting here pounding my fist and they’re screaming at us. This has been, I feel, very positive,” he said.
“I feel both sides have been very positive. The timeframe right now, we just couldn’t get the deal done. If it was the red zone, we’d still be talking. That would be ideal.”
For now, Lester will focus on pitching.
“I’ll go out there and make sure I don’t let my teammates down, I don’t let the front office down. I take responsibility for that,” he said. “Every year is the same mindset for me, I’m going to go out there and bust my butt for this organization.”