FORT MYERS, Fla. – Jon Lester has gone from cancer survivor to hot young pitcher, to the anchor of one of the strongest rotations in baseball.

Lester is now being asked to mentor Casey Kelly, the first pick for the Boston Red Sox in the 2008 draft, and other young pitchers in the organization.

”I don’t really look at myself like that,” said Lester, who turned 26 in January. ”I still follow Josh (Beckett) around and I still try to do the same things he does to prepare because it works. So to be put in that group, it’s an honor.”

Joining the power-throwing Lester and Beckett in the rotation are Daisuke Matsuzaka, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and possibly Tim Wakefield.

But it’s Lester who has evolved into the staff ace, going 31-14 in his first two full seasons after the cancer scare. He had a 3.41 ERA and a .242 batting average-against, both the fifth-best in the American League last year.

”Well, we all are,” Lester said Friday when asked about being at the top of the rotation. ”You guys can label us with whatever you want, but in my mind it takes five starters to win a championship and that was proven back in ’07.

”It’s going to take all of us, all six of us the whole season.”

 

PADRES: Right-hander Chris Young, who had arthroscopic shoulder surgery Aug. 17, said he felt good after participating in a bullpen session during the team’s first workout.

Infielder Josh Barfield returned to San Diego, agreeing to a minor-league contract.

 

INDIANS: First baseman Russell Branyan has reached a preliminary agreement to rejoin Cleveland.

 

TIGERS: Detroit General Manager Dave Dombrowski said he made a contract offer to free agent Johnny Damon.

 

JOHN KIBLER, a longtime umpire seen emphatically pointing fair on the ground ball Bill Buckner missed in the 1986 World Series, died at 81 of a heart attack in Palo Alto, Calif.

 

DODGERS: Eric Gagne, a former NL Cy Young Award winner, agreed to a minor-league contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers and will receive a $500,000, one-year contract if added to the 40-man roster.

 

BLUE JAYS: Catcher Jose Molina agreed to a one-year contract with Toronto.