Boston Red Sox ace lefty Jon Lester is coming off a season he'd like to forget, as he racked up a career-worst 14 losses and compiled a career-worst 4.82 ERA in 2012.
Now it sounds like there's a chance he may not be back in Boston for the 2013 season.
On Monday, Bob Dutton of The Kansas City Star reported that the Red Sox have talked about a deal with the Kansas City Royals that would send Lester to KC in exchange for top prospect Wil Myers. Rob Bradford of WEEI.com went on to confirm the discussions with a source of his own.
Nothing is imminent, mind you. And frankly, the Royals would be fools to part with Myers just to land Lester. If they really want to trade Myers, they can probably do better.
But the fact that the Red Sox have even talked to the Royals about the possibility of a Lester trade is an indication that they may be willing to trade him if the right deal comes along. He may not necessarily be "on the block," but the Red Sox are clearly keeping their options open.
If they decide that they should move Lester this winter, there are eight clubs in particular that GM Ben Cherington should have on speed dial.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson (L) and GM Mike Rizzo (R).
I'm putting the Nationals on this list, but with one caveat: Lester could fit in Washington, but the Nats are easily the least perfect fit for him among the teams on this list.
The Nats have to be considered an option for Lester because they have a hole in their starting rotation that needs to be filled this winter. They have four very solid starters line up, but it's highly unlikely that Edwin Jackson will be back.
That means the Nats are in the market for a good but not great pitcher who can give them roughly 200 innings. They could have just held on to Jackson, but Nats GM Mike Rizzo indicated that the club can probably do better.
"We felt with the depth we had at the major league level and the depth of free agents that we had out there, we had as good or better options," said Rizzo recently, via The Washington Times.
He also said: "We want to get as qualified and impactful a starting pitcher as we can."
These things considered, a pitcher with an 85-48 career record and a 3.76 career ERA who's still only 28 years old sounds like a good fit. Instead of trolling the free-agent market for a solution, perhaps the Nats will consider Lester if the Red Sox formally put him on the block.
The Nats do have some solid prospects the Red Sox could take a look at, but one other option would be a straight-up swap for right-handed slugger Mike Morse. The Nats won't have a spot for him if they re-sign Adam LaRoche and also sign a centerfielder.
However, that may be a stretch, and the Nats may not be overly interested in Lester in the first place seeing as how they have two lefties already penciled into their rotation in Gio Gonzalez and Ross Detwiler.
The Red Sox may be better off doing business with a contender that could actually use a top lefty in its rotation. Somebody like...
Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski
The Tigers' starting rotation was a huge strength all year long in 2012, particularly in the playoffs. And with Justin Verlander, Doug Fister and Max Scherzer all set to return in 2013, starting pitching figures to be one of the club's main strengths once again.
However, the Tigers are going to have a rotation spot to fill if Anibal Sanchez walks as a free agent. They'll have Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly to round out their rotation, but going from Verlander, Fister and Scherzer to the two of them would be a pretty significant dropoff.
The Tigers could take an interest in Lester as a candidate to be a more suitable option to fill the vacancy in their rotation left by Sanchez if he leaves. As a bonus, it would be nice for them to have a lefty to slot behind Verlander or between Fister and Scherzer. The only lefty starter they have now is Smyly, and he's no more than a No. 5 starter at this point in time.
Because Lester would fit pretty well in Detroit's rotation, it has to be considered a slightly better fit for him than the Nationals. It could also be more willing to pick up the roughly $25 million he has left on his contract between his 2013 salary and his 2014 option.
However, the Tigers are a little short on tradeable assets. They don't have any expendable parts on their major league roster, and their farm system is pretty barren at the moment. The Red Sox would probably have to take a small collection of decent prospects rather than one good one.
In addition, Comerica Park isn't much more friendly for pitchers than Fenway Park is, and Lester could be burned by Detroit's shaky defense.
It's not a bad fit, but there are better fits out there.
Padres manager Bug Black
The last big trade that the Red Sox made with the Padres didn't work out as well as they hoped, as Adrian Gonzalez only lasted a season and a half in Boston before he was shipped out.
Nonetheless, it's not like either of the teams robbed each other in the Gonzalez deal. There shouldn't be any bad blood between the two franchises that could get in the way of a potential deal.
Finding starting pitching is one of the Padres' main priorities this offseason. San Diego GM Josh Byrnes recently indicated to MLB.com that his club is in the market for as many as two starters this winter, and he'd prefer to acquire them through trades.
"We have focused most of our energy on starting pitching ... with more of our energy on trades than free agency," Byrnes said. "Now we have to bide our time and find the ones who fit."
Since Lester's stuff is not what it once was, a move to the National League could be just what the doctor ordered for him. And though the fences at Petco Park are moving in next season, it's hard to imagine it going from being one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in baseball to being one of the most hitter-friendly parks in baseball.
Closer fences didn't lead to much of a shift at Citi Field, after all, as the New York Mets' home park still rated as one of the toughest parks in the majors for hitters (see ESPN.com).
Because the Padres have new owners, they may be willing to take on the money left on Lester's contract if they view him as a good fit for their rotation. If they do, they'll be able to make the Red Sox a very competitive offer for him due to the strength of their farm system.
However, the Padres may not be in "win-now" mode just yet. If they aren't, they may not be overly willing to sacrifice prospects for two years of Lester's pitching.
If so, the Red Sox could turn their attention to another National League club.
Pirates GM Neal Huntington
The Pirates haven't made the playoffs in 20 years, but they've at least flirted with going back to the postseason in each of the last two seasons. If not for two horrendous finishes, their postseason-less streak could be history right now.
One thing that could get the Pirates to where they want to be is a deeper starting rotation. A.J. Burnett is solid and the Pirates can expect consistent work out of Wandy Rodriguez, but they don't know what they're going to get out of James McDonald, and the rest of their rotation options leave much to be desired.
The Pirates know this, hence the reason Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has reported that the Pirates are in the market for a starting pitcher this winter.
Adding Lester would make the top of Pittsburgh's rotation a little lefty-heavy, but one thing that's for sure is that he would fit well at PNC Park. It was one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the majors in 2012, and its spacious outfield could help curb the home run problem Lester has been dealing with in the last two seasons.
It worked for Burnett. Per FanGraphs, he saw his HR/FB rate fall from 17.0 in 2011 to 12.7 upon joining the Pirates in 2012. His HR/FB rate at PNC Park was 10.3.
If Lester were to pan out in Pittsburgh, the Pirates would have a rotation capable of competing with the other top rotations in the NL Central. They'd be even more formidable if McDonald were to find his form from the first half of 2012.
There are, however, two hang-ups to the idea of Lester going to Pittsburgh. One is that the Pirates have two top pitching prospects in Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon who they could call to the majors in 2013. The other is that they may not have the financial wiggle room to bring Lester aboard.
The Red Sox could be better off sticking with AL Central teams...
Royals GM Dayton Moore
The Royals went into this offseason knowing they had a strong offense and a strong bullpen, but they also knew that their starting rotation needed several upgrades.
So far, Royals GM Dayton Moore has definitely made starting pitching a priority. He pulled off a trade for Ervin Santana and recently re-signed Jeremy Guthrie to a three-year contract.
Moore is not done yet, though, as his discussions with the Red Sox about Lester clearly prove. And while the odds of a straight-up Myers-for-Lester swap actually happening are probably slim, there's no denying that Lester certainly would be a rotation upgrade for the Royals.
Even with Santana and Guthrie lined up for 2013, Lester would immediately become the club's ace if he were to join the Royals. If the club's offense continues to develop in 2013, he could help the Royals make some noise in an AL Central division that is fairly weak outside of the Tigers.
Lester's home run problem could pop up again at Kauffman Stadium during the summer months, but it's not necessarily a given that his gopheritis would get any worse in Kansas City. After all, Guthrie was able to keep the ball in the yard with the Royals, and he's traditionally had a very hard time keeping the ball from going over the fence.
As good as the fit may be, though, it's hard to see something getting done between the Royals and Red Sox if Myers isn't part of the deal. The Red Sox could target Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon or Billy Butler instead, but Dutton's report indicated that Moore's preference is to deal prospects for pitching rather than major leaguers.
There may be another team in the AL Central more willing to do business.
After their starters posted an AL-worst 5.40 ERA in 2012, no team needs starting rotation help more than the Twins. That may even be a fact proven by science.
At the very least, we can take Terry Ryan's word for it.
"We've got to find pitching, however we go about it," said the Twins GM, via MLB.com. "When you lose 90-plus games two years in a row, there shouldn't be too many untouchables on the club. You've got to find a way to get better."
Presently, the only pitcher locked into Minnesota's rotation for 2013 is lefty sinkerballer Scott Diamond. The other four spots are wide-open, and it sounds like Ryan is going to leave few stones unturned in his quest to fill these spots.
Lester would probably be a little expensive for Minnesota's tastes, but it could take on the expense because Lester would be the de facto ace in the rotation it currently has lined up for 2013 (such as it is). Moreover, he would fit in Target Field much like he would fit in at Petco Park or PNC Park.
Minnesota's home park was more friendly to hitters than usual in 2012, but it's traditionally been more of a pitchers' park since it opened in 2010. It's particularly tough on home run hitters, as Joe Mauer can vouch (five career homers at Target Field).
The Twins don't have a very deep pool of prospects to draw from for trades, but one guy they could be willing to give up to get Lester is Ben Revere. He has his limits as a hitter, but he's an excellent defensive right fielder and a very good base stealer.
If that doesn't work for either side, the Red Sox could always move on to a team that may be more willing to land Lester.
New Indians manager Terry Francona
It's hard to tell exactly which direction the Indians are going these days. They hired a manager in Terry Francona who's not exactly accustomed to rebuilding—unlike, say, Buck Showalter—yet they've also been rumored to be listening to offers for some of their best players.
For example, Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com recently reported that the Indians are willing to listen to offers for shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and right fielder Shin-Soo Choo, but only if they get "front-line pitching" in return.
It's not surprising that the Indians are looking for pitching. Their rotation was a mess for much of the 2012 season, and it ended up compiling a 5.25 ERA that ranked them just above the Twins among AL clubs.
By reputation, Lester is a front-line starter who could step in and help provide some stability in Cleveland's rotation. He could also benefit from the fact that Progressive Field tends to be a little more friendly to pitchers than it is to hitters.
Lester may also be open to a reunion with Francona. He did tell the Boston Globe last October that Francona's departure was probably for the best, but Lester also once described Francona as being "like a second dad to me."
Going to Progressive Field and playing under Francona again could lead to a bounceback for Lester, and the Indians may be open to taking on what's left of his contract after finally jettisoning Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore this winter. They're obviously not a big-spending team, but asking them to pay Lester the rest of what he's owed wouldn't necessarily be asking too much.
The harder part would be figuring out a deal. I'm not sure I'd trade two years of Lester for one year of Choo. I'd rather trade two years of Lester for two years of Cabrera, but even that's an iffy proposition due to Cabrera's unreliability in the field and at the plate.
A better trade would be Lester straight up for Justin Masterson, but the Indians wouldn't do that. They want to bring pitching in, not send it out.
There's a deal to be made with the Indians, but the best place for the Red Sox to set their sights may be out west.
Angels GM Jerry DiPoto
When the 2012 season began, starting pitching was one of the Angels' biggest strengths.
Alas, things didn't pan out the way they were hoping. Jered Weaver had a great season, but Dan Haren was hurt and ineffective for much of the year, C.J. Wilson stumbled after a strong start, and Ervin Santana was bad a lot more often than he was good.
Santana is in Kansas City now, and Haren is a free agent after the Angels declined to pick up his option. Trade deadline acquisition Zack Greinke is also a free agent, and the latest word from Danny Knobler is that the Angels are now "unlikely" to re-sign him.
The problem for the Angels is that Greinke is eyeing a record contract for a right-handed pitcher. They have money to spare, but not that much. Plus, they may not think as highly of Greinke as he thinks of himself.
If Greinke walks, the Angels are going to be in a very tight spot in regards to their rotation. They'll have to pursue all options, including whatever options that may be available on the trade market.
Truthfully, the odds of Lester going to the Angels in a trade are probably slim. The Angels don't have a strong farm system, and they're short on expendable assets aside from Vernon Wells. The Red Sox may be willing to trade John Lackey for him, but not Lester.
But would Lester fit in Anaheim?
Would he ever. The Angels are a very good defensive team, so they could help limit the damage of Lester's declining strikeout rate. Moreover, they play in a park that's extremely kind to pitchers and death on home run hitters.
Plus, Lester would look pretty good as a No. 2 starter behind Weaver and in front of Wilson. With a rotation speared by the three of them, the Angels could continue to contend in 2013.
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