TORONTO — Jon Lester has mastered saying the right thing.
He said it to this reporter early Thursday morning. He said it to a group of reporters later on. What he said, after Red Sox and Boston Globe owner John Henry told the Boston Herald in an e-mail that contract talks had been tabled until the offseason, was that it didn’t mean a thing, that he could still negotiate and remain with the Sox.
“Doesn’t mean anything,” Lester said. “There’s been plenty of guys who have taken less to come back. Mikey Lowell had more years and money with the Phillies and he came back. It’s not the end all for everybody. I’ve expressed to [ownership] I want to be here.”
The most pressing situation is whether Lester will be dealt by Thursday’s non-waiver trade deadline.
“I don’t know,” Lester said of a possible trade. “It’s there. I think about it. Every year there’s that possibility. If that’s what happens, that’s what happens. I understand it. There wouldn’t be any bad feelings. It’s part of baseball. You have to think about it every year.”
Henry wrote in the e-mail to the Herald, “I’m not going to discuss Jon’s situation out of respect for both Jon and [general manager] Ben [Cherington] other than to say that both sides have put further discussion off until after the season. It’s clear that both Jon and our organization would like to see Jon back next year if possible.”
Both parties are saying the same thing.
Heard the same with Jacoby Ellsbury.
Once it gets to the offseason, prime players will get prime offers.
Ellsbury got seven years and $153 million from the Yankees last offseason. And from what we’ve been able to gather through sources on both sides, the Sox never offered Ellsbury more than four years or more than $20 million per season.
The prevailing thought around the league is that Lester will get lucrative offers from a few teams in free agency, six- and seven-year deals for salaries averaging between $22 million and $25 million per year. And the Red Sox won’t go there.
But this doesn’t necessarily give you the feeling Lester will end up elsewhere.
As we wrote in last week’s Sunday Baseball Notes, the Red Sox have adopted a philosophy of not overextending for players over 30 years old.
That philosophy was expressed perfectly in a Bloomberg Businessweek article earlier this year in which Henry said in response to a study that suggests big money is wasted on players 30 and over: “To me, the most important thing this study shows is that virtually all of the underpaid players are under 30 and virtually all the overpaid players are over 30. Yet teams continue to extravagantly overpay for players above the age of 30.”
And when comparing the Yankees and Red Sox, “It is a wildly different approach,” Henry said. “We haven’t participated in this latest feeding frenzy of bidding up stars.”
It may be that the Yankees will be one of the teams that bid for Lester, who will be 31 on Opening Day next year.
The Rangers, Dodgers, Mariners, Cardinals, and others could be in the market for the durable lefthander, who has had one of the best seasons of his career.
The Red Sox may be looking for a less costly way to replace Lester, especially if they can get a free agent such as James Shields within their four-year parameters or make a deal for one of the Phillies’ lefties, Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels. The Red Sox seem to have a lot of faith in youngsters Henry Owens, Brian Johnson, Anthony Ranaudo, and Matt Barnes as potential starters.
The decision to table talks isn’t a big surprise, as Lester said at the All-Star Game that he preferred to negotiate after the season, and Cherington has said for the past two weeks that there were no talks planned.
Lester said Henry’s comments “have been consistent with what I’ve known. I guess the news is that he said it.
“That’s been consistent with our side for a while. I think why John Henry and Larry [Lucchino] are saying that now, maybe they felt like they needed to say it because of the trade deadline. I’m glad they’ve said it because it takes pressure off me from having to answer questions and now we can let it be for a while,” Lester added.
Lester said the team’s initial four-year, $70 million offer is the only one on the table.
“After Opening Day, we haven’t talked money, “ Lester said.
“Like I said, I’ve expressed to them that I want to stay here. Just because we wait until the offseason doesn’t mean I won’t be here. I think I’ve said I just don’t want to have to worry about it day in and day out. The offseason is the right time when there’s no pressure. Like spring training there’s no pressure. That’s why the offseason is a good time.”
It will be the best of times for Lester.
He’ll receive the temptation of a jackpot contract, but probably not from the Red Sox.
But Lester said there’s no hard feelings or animosity toward the team.
“No. I don’t think it’s gone bad,” he said. “I know it’s hard for people to believe just because they’re not in the room and they’re not on the phone with these guys and not hearing the reports back from my agents. Everything has been positive conversations. During the season isn’t the right time to talk about years and money. We left spring training shaking hands and saying ‘Hey, let’s go win another World Series.’
“There were no hard feelings. Like I said before, people bad-mouthed their offer, it was an offer. Like Larry said, it was a reference point to start. It didn’t hurt my feelings. I understand the business side of it. Opening Day did not change anything about how I feel about the Red Sox and the organization. Just because we’re going to wait to the end of the season doesn’t mean I won’t be back.”
And forget about this becoming a distraction to Lester. He’s performed well. He’s a guy who has just won the lottery but has to wait for the payoff.
“I know how to handle things pretty well,” he said. “I’m pretty even-keeled in everyday life. Obviously I’m a little bit more emotional when I pitch. Like I said, this is my safe haven. I’ve got the guys not thinking about it. We’re just worried about winning and playing good baseball. The days I pitch, I worry about that.”
Really, Lester has no worries. He’s already a wealthy young man, about to get much wealthier. Just don’t think it’ll be with the Red Sox.