PHOENIX — After grooming Ben Cherington to replace him with the Boston Red Sox, Theo Epstein, the president of the Chicago Cubs, is going head-to-head against his onetime protege for the first time since both interviewed Dale Sveum for their managerial openings three years ago.

The stakes are much higher now, with the Red Sox and Cubs recruiting left-handed free agent Jon Lester, the ace Epstein drafted who helped both of them win rings in Boston in 2007 and another for Cherington in ’13.

Epstein and Cherington remain good friends, so it wasn’t surprising to hear the Red Sox general manager take on the persona of an athlete heading back to play his former team for the first time when asked about competing for the same player as his old boss.

“We’d prefer less competition, not more, obviously,” Cherington said. “I don’t think it matters what team it is. Once you get into (pursuing free agents), it’s competing and trying to get the best deals, and whether you’re going up against ‘X’ team or ‘Y’ team doesn’t really matter once you’re in the middle of it.

“Obviously it seems (the Cubs are) getting closer to a point where they’re going to start looking at different types of deals than they might have been two years ago. So it’s exciting for Chicago and Cubs fans.”

The Cubs are at that point. And they could prove it if they outbid the Red Sox for Lester, whose agent confirmed Lester will meet with the Cubs in Chicago next week after meeting with the Red Sox in Boston. That’s assuming the Red Sox don’t just sign him before he gets out of town.

If you don’t think Epstein would like to steal Lester from under the noses of his former bosses, you don’t know him.

Lester would be a significant investment – well more than $100 million. He would be the centerpiece of a Cubs team that would be expected to compete for the postseason annually and a symbol of the new Wrigley Field era. Lester’s durability and numbers suggest he deserves that kind of payday, though it’s a risk nevertheless.

Thirteen pitchers have commanded contracts of $100 million or more, including two for CC Sabathia because of an opt-out clause he exercised. Clayton Kershaw’s seven-year, $215 million deal is the gold standard, followed by Justin Verlander ($180 million over seven years), Felix Hernandez ($175 million/seven), Sabathia ($161 million/seven), Masahiro Tanaka ($155 million/seven), Zack Greinke ($147 million/six), Cole Hamels ($144 million/six), Johan Santana ($137.5 million/six), Matt Cain ($127.5 million/six), Barry Zito ($126 million/six), Sabathia ($122.5 million/five), Mike Hampton ($121 million/eight), Cliff Lee ($120 million/five) and Kevin Brown ($105 million/seven).

The jury is out on many of those deals, but certainly Brown, Lee, Hampton and Santana didn’t work out, and Sabathia’s contract has become an albatross for the Yankees. Cain and Tanaka were injured this year and Verlander no longer looks dominant.

The Red Sox have done studies to determine the characteristics in pitchers that make for better long-term investments – lefty vs. righty, power vs. finesse, type of delivery, etc.

“We do look at that. What we have found is the more predicted element at this point in their career is what they’ve done, not so much what they look like,” Cherington said. “Not to say what they look like or their delivery doesn’t matter. It does.

“But the track record is usually the best predictor. It just so happens that a lot of the available starting pitchers this offseason, at least toward the top of the market, have that very strong record of pitching a lot for a long period of time.”

Lester is certainly in that category, with Max Scherzer, the biggest free agent in the market.

Not only would Lester help the Cubs contend, his presence would allow Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks to be the No. 2 and No. 3 starters instead of Nos. 1 and 2, taking some pressure off.

“We actually have had some pretty good staffs the last couple of years without household names,” Epstein said. “I don’t fully buy into WAR (wins above replacement) as an exclusive way to evaluate a team, but we were second in the National League in WAR for our pitching staff last year. I think that would surprise most people.”

Cubs pitching, in fact, ranked second in the NL in WAR at 17.5, according to fangraphs.com, behind the Nationals’ major league-leading 22.8. The Cubs were sixth overall, including eighth in both starting pitching (13.1) and relief (4.5).

Hamels might make as big an impact as Lester, but the Cubs would have to deal some of their top prospects to get that done, a possibility Epstein seems loathe to consider, at least for now.

“We like the spot we’re in with our position players,” he said. “Most of them are athletic enough, versatile enough, young enough to play different spots on the field. We can play all of our impact position prospects at the same time. That’s probably what we’ll end up doing. We’re not rushing to move those guys for pitching, even though we admit we would like to acquire impact pitching over the next year or two.

“We feel like if we move some of those position players we’re going to look up and be in the same position as some other teams are, looking for those young impact position players. We have them now. We believe in them. … They fit well together. They’re proud to be Cubs and that’s going to be the core of our team going forward.”