ARLINGTON, Texas — When the stories broke last fall about the unprofessional behavior in the Red Sox clubhouse, fairness required that Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and John Lackey be given the opportunity to present their side of the story.
Beckett passed, as did Lackey. No surprise there. But following a series of emails with his agent, Jon Lester called one morning in October and we spoke for 45 minutes or so.
Lester was honest, admitting that drinking on the job was a mistake. He also spoke earnestly about wanting to be more of a team leader. He seemed intent on distancing himself from Beckett and Lackey.
In reviewing notes from that interview, one thing stood out that didn’t before. On four different occasions when we spoke, Lester said that he cared what people thought of him and that he was sensitive to the public perception of the team.
“I really want this to work,” he said shortly before we hung up.
The same sentiments were in place in spring training. Faced with a barrage of questions about 2011, Lester admitted to his mistakes and promised to do better. There was a clear sense that he was trying to do the right thing and be more of a positive presence in the clubhouse.
Obviously it hasn’t worked out like everybody hoped it would. Lester is 5-8 with a 5.46 earned run average. The Sox are a shocking 7-13 in the games he has started and Lester walks around with a scowl that never seems to change.
The Red Sox are 55-68 since last Sept. 1 and it’s primarily because Lester and Beckett, their top two starters, have a 5.11 ERA. The team has won 15 of the last 46 games they have started.
Everything else — Bobby Valentine, the owners, the offense, etc. — is just noise. Baseball invariably comes down to starting pitching and when the top two starters stink, there’s not much else that matters to a team.
The question now is what to do with Lester. Let’s start with what not to do:
Trade him: This is dumb. Lester has never had less value than he does today. Trading him now would be akin to selling your car after you drove it into a tree.
Lester is under team control for the ‘13 and ‘14 seasons at a reasonable cost of $24.62 million. He has had approximately eight bad starts in 2012. He had far more impressive starts from 2006-11. Lester is a 28-year-old healthy lefthanded starter with a good track record. You don’t trade such players.
Demote him: This is a big shouting point among the masses. Teach the player a lesson and send him to Pawtucket! No can do. Lester has five years of major league service time. He can refuse the assignment and become a free agent. The Yankees would sign him 30 seconds later.
Here’s what they could do:
Disable him: Sure, this is possible and maybe even likely. Invent an injury (forearm tightness is a good one) and give Lester two weeks off to clear his head. This might even make sense given that otherwise he starts in the Bronx this weekend.
Fix him: Lester has gotten away from overpowering hitters with his four-seam fastball and relies too much on his cutter. His pitch selection needs fine-tuning. It’s also pretty obvious that he lets missed calls by the umpire bother him.
Somebody, and Valentine is a good candidate, needs to sit Lester down and tell him to stop worrying about things he can’t control. The Red Sox front office treats players they drafted like favorite children. A little discipline is needed.
Mechanically, Lester is not driving the ball down as consistently as he once did. These are all things that can be cured.
Get a pitching coach who can help him: The Sox have had three pitching coaches in the last three years. The transition from John Farrell to Curt Young and now Bob McClure has affected the starters adversely.
Farrell was a forceful presence intellectually and physically, the kind of coach who told his pitchers what they had to to instead of merely suggesting it. Young, a genial guy who worked well with young pitchers in Oakland, came in with the idea of not screwing things up and generally that was the case until September. McClure, who was fired by the Royals, knows pitching. But his hands-off method (oddly, he is against going to the mound during games) doesn’t appear to be working.
It also doesn’t help much that Valentine clearly prefers the counsel of Randy Niemman, the “assistant pitching coach” who took over for several weeks when McClure was away attending to a family medical emergency.
The biggest offseason need for the Sox may be finding a pitching coach with the gravitas to handle Beckett, Lester and Co. They Sox need one strong voice with their pitchers, not a chorus.
Maybe that’s even McClure. But the system in place now is not working.
It’s easy to watch Lester pitch the way he did on Sunday and demand instant changes. But the smart thing is to find a way to fix what is wrong and reap the benefits.
The Yankees dumped A.J. Burnett on the Pirates in February for a bag of rocks. Burnett got hurt in spring training then allowed 12 earned runs in 2 2/3 innings against the Cardinals on May 2.
He is 10-1, 2.84 since and the Pirates are percentage points out of first place.
Burnett had a lousy season in 2011 for assorted reasons. He didn’t forget how to pitch. Neither did Jon Lester.