You can’t blame Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington for making a lowball four-year, $70 million contract offer to Jon Lester. The lefthander, after all, said numerous times he wanted to follow the same path as Dustin Pedroia and stay with the team at a hometown discount.
Lester even has the same agents as Pedroia, Sam and Seth Levinson. So Cherington tested the limits of Lester’s loyalty with an offer that he had to know wouldn’t cut it.
Several teammates, angry at what they believed to be an insulting offer, leaked the offer on Saturday and Lester was left having to answer questions. But his teammates, while having good intentions, were a little rash.
This is just a stage in the negotiations. Each side starts with an offer that one party will add to and the other will subtract from before a compromise is reached or the idea abandoned.
Still, the Red Sox should have realized how it looked. They signed John Lackey to a five-year, $82.5 million deal in 2009. How is Lester worth only $17.5 million a year five years after Lackey was deemed worth $16.5 million a year?
For Lester, a realistic contract would be $110-$115 million over five years. Lester would get over $20 million in annual value in return for losing an extra year of security. He wins by getting to stay with the Red Sox at a substantial raise and the team wins by not approaching the $140 million level that Lester could reach as a free agent.
The Red Sox could very well decide that signing a pitcher who will be 31 to a five-year contact is a bad idea. History suggests such contracts are full of risk.
But here are some reasons the Red Sox should reach across the table and find a deal Lester can live with:
■ Their rotation is not very deep beyond this season. The team holds a $500,000 option for 2015 on Lackey, who turns 36 in October. Jake Peavy will be a free agent after this season and has hinted at retirement. Clay Buchholz is under team control through 2017, but cannot be counted on to stay healthy. The other starter is Felix Doubront, who has yet to prove he’s reliable.
■ But what about all the starters the Red Sox have in the minors? True enough. In Brandon Workman, Henry Owens, Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, Anthony Ranaudo, and Matt Barnes, the Red Sox have six solid prospects. But that is all they are right now, prospects. Only Workman has had any success in the majors and that was primarily as a reliever.
Lester is a pitcher who can be counted on for 33 starts and 200-plus innings a season. None of those prospects are providing that in 2015. Probaby not in 2016, either.
■ The free agent market offers few solutions. It would not make much sense for the Red Sox to let Lester go and throw that money at somebody else. If Max Scherzer didn’t want $144 million from Detroit, he’s not coming to Boston for the same amount. The idea of bringing Justin Masterson back is intriguing, but he’s only one year younger than Lester.
■ Owner John Henry vowed to avoid the mistakes made when the Red Sox signed Boston-phobic Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to long-term deals. The exceptions, he suggested, would be homegrown players. Pedroia fit that profile.
So does Lester. The lefty has been durable, accountable and professional in his career. The one stain was the chicken-and-beer mess in 2011, but Lester took responsibility for that and has shown exemplary conduct since.
If Lester is not deemed worthy of a long-term commitment, what message does that send to the rest of the organization?
■ Like any pitcher, Lester will have to adapt to diminished velocity as he ages. The Red Sox can be comforted by knowing that having John Farrell as manager increases the success of that. Lester’s greatest success has come with Farrell around and Farrell isn’t going anywhere.
■ Presumably the Red Sox are planning to play in the postseason. Lester has a 2.11 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 13 postseason appearances.
■ This is the cost of doing business. Lester may not be an ace in 2020 but he can remain a top-tier starter for at least three more years. Given the enormous revenues pouring into baseball, top-tier starters come at a significant price. No team is immune from that reality.
Given how angry some of his teammates were over the weekend, this situation could boil over on the Sox if they’re not careful. Lester is not a charismatic clubhouse leader, but he’s respected in that room and within the organization.
There is a deal to be made here. The Sox took a shot and now they have to get serious.