MINNEAPOLIS — Jon Lester was in a good mood as he sat at his interview station in a grand ballroom of the downtown Hyatt Hotel on Monday afternoon. The Red Sox southpaw was barely bothered while, a few yards to his left, dozens of cameramen and reporters elbowed each other for access to Derek Jeter’s table.
If not for a few Boston scribes asking about his impending free agency, Lester might have gone unnoticed during the mandatory media session for baseball’s All-Stars.
Lester’s contract status is going to be the big story in Boston baseball for the next few months. He is the ultimate commodity: a 30-year-old power pitcher who has won two World Series, never misses a start, has demonstrated he can perform in a tough market, and is having his best overall season (9-7, 2.65 ERA, 29 walks, 134 strikeouts in 129 innings).
Lester’s price goes up every day and there’s little doubt that the increasingly desperate Yankees are going to be leading a conga line of wealthy teams willing to pay Lester more than double Boston’s opening offer (four years, $70 million) from last spring.
Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino moved the needle on this story a little bit last week when he acknowledged the low-ball starting offer, but he expressed some surprise that Lester’s camp stopped talking so quickly.
“It ended on Opening Day,’’ explained Lester. “We had a meeting and the deadline was Opening Day. Opening Day came and went and we didn’t have anything done.’’
Did he think the Red Sox were serious when they made their offer?
“Yeah,” he said. “They want me here. Obviously, my representation has had a lot of talks with them. I think that feeling is still mutual on both sides. I would hope.’’
When he spoke at the Boston Baseball Writers’ dinner in January, Lester acknowledged he wants to stay in Boston and spoke of giving the Sox a hometown discount. Does he feel like the ballclub exploited those remarks?
“I don’t know if ‘exploited’ is the right word,’’ he answered. “But they’re businessmen. They didn’t get to own the Boston Red Sox by being stupid with money. I think they took a shot. Larry and [general manager] Ben [Cherington] and the collective group put that offer out there and that’s what they wanted to start at.
“We’ve had plenty of talks after that as far as moving money, moving years, but never got to another offer. The Opening Day came and went and [we] put it on the back burner for a while.’’
Is it hard not to get angry at the Sox’ spring strategy?
“No, I don’t think you can,’’ said Lester. “I get it. I told John [Henry] and the ownership that to their face. This is business and you guys have a business to run and I have a business to run. I have to run myself. I think you have to try to put your feelings aside in this and if it does offend you, you need to go, ‘Hey, we have to talk about this.’
“I’ve had those talks. There’s things that have come up through the year that Ben hasn’t liked. That’s what I keep telling everybody. The conversation’s amicable. It’s not like we said, ‘screw you,’ or they said, ‘screw you,’ and we slammed the door. I’ve had four, five, maybe six conversations with Ben over the last couple of months.
“I don’t want this to be a distraction to the team,’’ he added. “This is nothing against ownership or my friends or anyone, but we know it’s going to get out. Whatever we talk about it’s going to get out and it’s going to become a distraction and that last thing we need in last place is that kind of distraction. I don’t want Jackie Bradley Jr. to have to answer questions about my contract. That’s the last thing that I need and that we need right now.’’
So, it still could get done this year?
“Yeah, everybody’s hopeful about everything,’’ Lester answered. “The right time will come when we can sit down and talk about it, whether it’s tomorrow or in four months. This is where I want to be. Let’s say the year ends tomorrow and I go to free agency. It doesn’t mean I don’t still want to be a Red Sox. It doesn’t change anything. Now they just have more competition.’’
Swell. But having gone this far, and pitched this well, it seems ill-advised for Lester not to discover what 29 other teams think he’s worth.
“I look at it this way: This is where I want to be,” he said. “When it comes down to it, the first day [of free agency] I hope Boston is the first team that calls me and I don’t have to worry about it.
“I’m playing right now for the Red Sox and I want to play for them for the rest of my career . . . It’s all I’ve known. I don’t like the unknown.”
Jon Lester is not Jacoby Ellsbury, who wouldn’t say he wanted to play the rest of his career in Boston. Lester is a guy who doesn’t like change. He wants to stay. Cherington and manager John Farrell clearly want him to stay. Lester has handled this awkward situation magically. He looks good and classy.
The Sox ownership? Not so great at this moment.
Letting Ellsbury go was easy. The Sox were world champs and they were not going to get into a stupid Yankee-type contract.
It’s different now.
This time, the Sox have a player who wants to stay. They are in last place. And they charge the highest prices in baseball.
How could they explain not competing with other teams for Jon Lester’s services?