FORT MYERS, Fla. — The Red Sox and lefthander Jon Lester Saturday “hit the pause button” on contract negotiations but could pick them up again before the end of the season.
Lester, who will be a free agent after the season, repeatedly has voiced a willingness to stay with the Sox and take a hometown discount on the contract if that’s what it takes. 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 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.”
Based on comments from Lester and general manager Ben Cherington Saturday, it was more an issue of timing than a sharp disagreement. Both made it clear the talks have been productive.
“We’ve had a lot of good dialogue, shared information,” Cherington said. “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 was signed to an eight-year extension worth $110 million.
Pedroia was signed through the end of 2014 at the time.
“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 15⅓ innings.
The Red Sox signed Pedroia for what amounted to a deep discount. But top-tier starting pitchers rarely settle for bargain deals. Philadelphia lefthander Cole Hamels, a pitcher comparable to Lester, received a six-year, $144 million deal in 2012.
Detroit’s Max Scherzer recently turned down six years and $144 million, according to multiple reports.
“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.
“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 mind-set for me, I’m going to go out there and bust my butt for this organization.”