Spring training hasn't started, but there are plenty of Red Sox players already in Fort Myers, along with members of the Red Sox beat. This means that it's the time of year where we're going to start seeing player quotes on what kind of shape they're in, where they're heads are at, and, most intriguingly of all, whether or not any contract discussions have taken place. Cue Jon Lester:
Lester said that the #RedSox have not approached him about contract extension. In last guaranteed year of deal (with team option for '14)— Rob Bradford (@bradfo) February 7, 2013
There's nothing particularly surprising about this, as the Red Sox have the aforementioned -- and reasonable, at just $13 million -- option for the season after this one. And, given Lester had his toughest year in the majors in 2012, there wouldn't be a rush in the second week of February to get something done, even if 2013 were the final season of his contract. The Red Sox might have faith in Lester to move beyond 2012 and improve, but they don't have to show that faith in dollars until Lester gives them further evidence of this.
With that being said, an in-season extension would not be a surprise. The last third of Lester's 2012 went well, even if it wasn't quite vintage Lester. With the kind of mechanical issues he had, it was unlikely he would reverse course all at once, so the move to a 3.92 ERA in his last 13 starts and 85 innings, propelled by more than twice as many punch outs as walks and with plenty of ground balls induced was more positive than the stats might indicate. It's not enough to get Boston to offer him an extension, but it is likely enough that, combined with a strong start to 2013, one that has Lester producing at the levels he did prior to 2012, things could get moving on that front.
Boston has strong pitching in their farm system, with Matt Barnes, Allen Webster, and Rubby De La Rosa all close to full-time major-league jobs. What none of those young arms are, though, barring a leap in development, is an ace. Jon Lester, prior to his 2012 hiccup, was an ace, one who rattled off a four-year stretch of 135 ERA+ and over 200 innings per season. Just five other starters in all of baseball managed that or better from 2008 through 2011: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Tim Lincecum, CC Sabathia, and Felix Hernandez. If Lester can prove 2012 was a fluke, one caused by mechanical issues much like Justin Verlander's 2008, then Boston has no reason to want him to pitch elsewhere in the future.
Should Lester return to form, Boston will absolutely talk extension with him (which is not the same as a guarantee that they will sign him), and they'll do it sooner than later. They retain leverage with Lester while he's under contract, and the further from free agency he is -- and with a down year on his record a reminder that bad things can happen at unexpected times -- the greater the likelihood that Boston can get a relative bargain on their former ace. A 2015 rotation with Lester doing Lester things along with Clay Buchholz and whichever group of three out of Felix Doubront, Barnes, De La Rosa, and Webster has earned it, has some serious potential. Lester has to both return to form and be willing to sign an extension that works for the Red Sox, though, and in early February of 2013, it's impossible to know if either of those things could or will occur.
The Red Sox treated him well earlier in his career, though, and they've stuck with him during a tough stretch rather than dealing him off for prospects like they have with others. They have the wallets to make him a competitive offer, and if they bring it to him before the guaranteed portion of his deal ends, he could very well be receptive to the idea, especially now that his former pitching coach is back in town.