BOSTON – When Clay Buchholz offers a variety of pitches – like a pinpoint fastball or a curve dropping in over the outside corner – he can look rather, well, ace-like.
But do the Boston Red Sox, let alone their fan base, really believe the talented, yet inconsistent Buchholz will lead the rotation in 2015?
Buchholz is 5-7, with a 5.79 ERA. He has allowed five runs total in his previous two starts, but 14 in the two before that.
In 2013, Buchholz looked ready to vie for the Cy Young Award (9-0, 1.71 in early June) but then was injured, again. He gutted out a start in the World Series (four innings, one unearned run).
He can be a good pitcher, and the Red Sox can control him through the 2017 season (His contract has options for ’16 and ’17).
But an ace? That label implies dependability. Hmmm.
So, if not Buchholz, then who?
I know the name you’re thinking.
He gave an interview to John Tomase of the Boston Herald last week. Lester said “I’m not (necessarily) going to the highest bidder. I’m going to the place that makes me and my family happy. If that’s Boston, it’s Boston.”
The sentiments sound similar to Lester’s words before the season when he said he would take less to stay in Boston. But the Red Sox presented such a low initial offer (four years, $70 million) that negotiations reportedly never got serious.
The question now, as it was then, is: Does Boston want Lester back?
Yes and no.
Let’s look at the NO first. The obvious reasoning against signing Lester is the concern about giving a long-term, big-money contract to a pitcher who turns 31 in the offseason.
Those contracts can become a burdensome yoke, especially when a team needs to make changes. The New York Yankees, for instance, have already committed $554 million in payroll beyond 2014 – and New York needs to fix a team that may not make the playoffs for a second straight year.
Boston has $175 million committed beyond 2014.
Red Sox owner John Henry does not have to be thrifty like management in Tampa Bay or Oakland, but he has shuddered at going to the other extreme and overpaying older athletes. After the Yankees signed several expensive free agents last year, including Jacoby Ellsbury, Henry told Bloomberg Businessweek that Boston’s “is a wildly different approach. We haven’t participated in this latest feeding frenzy of bidding up stars.”
And now for the YES answer to the question of Boston pursuing Lester after the season.
This goes back to the question about Boston preferring Buchholz as a No. 2 or 3 starter, not an ace.
One alternative may be Cole Hamels, who is 11 days older than Lester and has a 2.44 ERA this year for the Phillies.
Philadelphia has considered trading Hamels, who has four years left on his contract, totaling at least $96 million, which includes a $6 million buyout if a fifth option year is not picked up. While the money seems reasonable – in baseball terms – Hamels will not come cheap. The Phillies will want a boatload of players in return.
So instead of four years (at $96 million) for Hamels, how about five years for Lester ($120 million?), with an option year or two (tied to innings pitched)?
That way, Boston can hold onto its players (and prospects). Maybe some of them could be used for another deal (“Hello Marlins, about that outfielder …”).
And then we come to Mr. Henry again. When Lester was leaving Fenway Park for the last time this season, Henry made a point to say goodbye, walking to the players’ parking lot and beckoning Lester out of his truck. They shook hands, hugged and then Henry pulled him aside to talk some more.
Interesting extra effort from the owner.
Does Henry wish he did more to keep Lester?
Recall these words from Henry nine years ago: “This is a great, great loss, I hold myself wholly responsible.”
That was Henry speaking after Theo Epstein resigned. Henry eventually enticed Epstein back.
Sure, there is a difference between a general manager and a 30-year-old pitcher.
But maybe Henry and his front office make an exception to their dislike for long-term contracts (like they did with Dustin Pedroia) and go after Lester in the offseason.
Boston looks to have a solid rotation next year, especially if Buchholz is on again. But the Red Sox are still missing an ace.