Jon Lester is a rental.
There seems to be a rather potent stigma around the R-word at this point in baseball, but rarely do contenders have such an open shot at acquiring a legitimate ace to only further the short-term agenda.
It hurts to surrender future assets and perhaps impede championship efforts in the long run, especially if a rental chooses to bolt town after a few months of service, but Lester is the rare rental who is worth almost any magnitude of investment.
By all accounts, Lester is very much available. The 30-year-old hurler turned down a four-year, $70 million offer last spring and has been subsequently thrown on the trade block. Although his agent wants the world to know that Lester's presence there has nothing to do with contract talks.
"The discussions we had with the Red Sox were confidential and will remain that way," Seth Levinson, Lester's agent, wrote in an email Tuesday to ESPN's Gordon Edes. "There is no truth to the report, and I am not going to guess why it was written or the basis for that report."
Lester is in the final year of a deal that pays him $13 million, per Spotrac. As the alleged declined offer shows, he is going to be quite pricey once he actually hits the market, although he has the results through recent years to back up the asking price:
The caveat being that any team that wants to inherit this production has to understand that this is different from a normal rental—Lester has not outright confirmed he will not re-up with a new team, but it is not often we hear about a player willing to go back to the team that dealt him away, as captured by Sean McAdam of CSNNE.com:
Yeah, why not? I mean, (Boston) is what I know, this is what I love. Like I've said plenty of times, this is where I want to be. And if they trade me I completely understand. No hard feelings. I know what they have to do for their organization and if that involves me, so be it. If it doesn't I'll keep running out there every five days and pitching.
Not convincing enough that Lester has Boston on the mind? Try this:
Ultimately, baseball is a business. It makes sense for the Red Sox—fifth in the AL East—to begin a bidding war and gain a bevy of assets though his departure rather than minuscule compensation should he leave via free agency and sign somewhere else.
What a war it has become too.
Just ask ESPN's Jim Bowden:
Let's glance at those Pirates for a moment. Stuck in the quagmire that is the NL Central, they still have a shot at the top spot and very much a shot at the World Series. An addition such as Lester would work wonders, and the front office has a deep farm to pull from in negotiations, even if the front office does not have a July track record that suggests a deal will go down.
The allure of a title, though, has to be palpable. Will it ever get closer than this in the foreseeable future? Perhaps burning through prospects for the best shot the club will see for years is not such a horrific gamble.
Such is the dilemma a host of contenders face. The Milwaukee Brewers lack high-end assets to surrender but knows a thing or two about pulling the trigger on such a deal about six years removed from the CC Sabathia transaction.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays seem to be in on everyone and have assets to burn, as does Seattle, although the Mariners need more bats than arms at the moment if one had to put an annotation on it.
It is a fickle game of "what if" to be sure, and the brass in the Red Sox front office surely kick themselves daily for low balling Lester so much last spring. But they have had the proper reaction to the chain of events and seem set to deal to the highest bidder.
Which bidder that turns out to be is perhaps the biggest storyline as the month of July, and the trade deadline, fades to black. Lester is relatively young, a proven playoff winner (one loss in five tries last postseason) and undeniably a No. 1 in about any rotation in the league.
The Red Sox seem to have overplayed their hand in negotiations but will reap the benefits when a contender finally takes the dive. Lester is the best kind of rental, especially if he turns out to like his new home and the boatload of cash his new team backs up to his, well, rental.
Until something happens, that line will only get longer and the price will only get higher.