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Thoughts On Jon Lester, Wil Myers, And An F'n A Trade

Sounding a note of caution amidst the excitement regarding the Jon Lester to Kansas City for prospect Wil Myers rumors.

Leon Halip

You probably read Moneyball. I don't remember if it's in the movie or not, but there's a scene in the book (you can read it here) where Billy Beane decides he's going to execute what he calls an "F'n A" trade (except he didn't say "F'n A"). Beane defined it as, "[a trade] that causes everyone else in the business to say 'F'n A.'" (Except he didn't say "F'n A.")

If reports are to be believed, the Red Sox might just be in the market for an F'n A trade of their own. You could dismiss the rumor as the kind of thing that happens every off-season. It's true every off-season names are thrown around and every off-season a few names leak to the media and we all go 'WOW!' and spit-take our Frosted Flakes into our morning coffee. Then we go about our lives and never hear another word about it. The difference this off-season is the Red Sox payroll flexibility (thanks Ned Colletti!) and myriad ways that could be used to improve the team. Also, unlike most recent off-seasons, the roster is significantly less set. The need to fill holes in the roster combined with heretofore unseen financial flexibility has given the Red Sox more options than a teenager with his mom's credit card looking for porn on the internet.

There are two basic points to this rumor, if it is to be believed, and I think both are worth looking at. The first is the Red Sox are open to moving, and are even potentially initiating talks to deal, Jon Lester. At this point you'd have to think the Red Sox are willing to move anyone in the right deal, save David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia. Given the events of the last year-and-a-half, that's entirely justified, and the Red Sox should get some credit for not being wedded to 'their guys.' How much credit depends on the deals they make between now and pitchers and catchers reporting to Fort Myers, but for now, we're on page 43 of a 400 page novel. Things are getting salacious, but we don't know how they'll end yet. Gotta withhold judgement.

Lester, for all he's done as a Red Sock, is in that sweet spot where getting traded can still yield significant value. There are two seasons left on his deal at about $25 million. Given his history of success, even with full knowledge (or what passes for such) of last season, that's a bargain. Yet, I'd be surprised if the Red Sox traded Lester. Hiring John Farrell, that is, giving up major league talent for the right to hire him, was done at least in part because of Jon Lester and to a lesser extent Clay Buchholz. Farrell gets a lot of credit within the organization for the quality pitching by those two starters during his stay as pitching coach, and there is legitimate hope that he can get the most out of them again in his new capacity as manager. That doesn't mean Lester or Buchholz (again, to a lesser extent) are off limits. Clearly they aren't. But it might mean the Red Sox value them more than a peak at last season's numbers suggests they do.

The second is the Red Sox are looking at deals for prospects. The fact that Boston is on the prospect receiving side of a major league all-star for prospect trade though is both disorienting and fascinating. The Red Sox did just make one of those type of deals with the Dodgers, but that was less about acquiring prospects than it was about getting rid of future contract commitments. The prospects helped ease the medicine down, I'm sure, but they weren't the main focus. If this deal goes down in some form similar to what has been reported, it will be prospects for a former All Star and the prospect(s) will be coming to Boston.

Finally, a note of caution. I know many people are excited about the possibility of bringing a prospect of the caliber of Wil Myers to Boston and that's fine. Myers is clearly hugely talented, he's close to the majors, and he projects as a middle of the order bat, so it's understandable that he'd generate excitement. It should be pointed out though that prospects do fail sometimes. I'm not going to cherry-pick a few names because there are always other cherry-picked names to counter them, but just the fact that some do fail means that it's possible Myers could.

I'm hardly a Myers expert, but I did notice while perusing his stats that he struck out an awful lot, 140 times in 591 plate appearances across two levels last season to be exact. That's a 24 percent strikeout rate, folks. I'm not saying that's a deal breaker. Scouts think Myers has the skills to overcome it. Also, there are major leaguers who strike out that much and are productive. Mike Trout, Chase Headley, and Jason Heyward were all within a few percent of that number, but they were also older (more time to improve) and not in the minor leagues (easier pitching). Still, striking out that much can make productivity at the major league level difficult, and should that number rise, it could threaten Myers projection.

But suppose that strikeout number doesn't concern you (truthfully I'm not sure it concerns me). Over at Sons of Sam Horn, commenter Smashtroyin looked at all of the hitters who made Baseball Prospectus's top 10 prospect list in 2007, 2008, and 2009. These are top hitting prospects in the minor leagues according to BP from 2007-2009 (some are duplicates even though I've only listed them once):

  1. Alex Gordon
  2. Delmon Young
  3. Brandon Wood
  4. Cameron Maybin
  5. Chris Young
  6. Jay Bruce
  7. Evan Longoria
  8. Travis Snyder
  9. Colby Rasmus
  10. Matt Wieters
  11. Pedro Alvarez
  12. Buster Posey

He then asked the question, how many of those guys are worth Jon Lester's last two seasons? Eyeballing it, it looks to me like about a 30 percent hit rate. You'd take Posey, Wieters, Longoria, and Bruce for sure. Rasmus, Young, and Gordon have value, but I wouldn't trade their first six seasons for Lester's next two. Not saying that's definitive, just that I wouldn't do it.

So there's significant risk in receiving prospects, even one like Myers. On the other hand, there is serious risk in giving up Lester. Fan Graphs publishes the Bill James Projections (done, I believe, by Baseball Info Solutions) each year, and they project Lester for 211 innings of 3.71 ERA ball in 2013. That is hardly the end all be all, but I think it speaks to the quality of Lester's career up to 2012 as well as his peripheral numbers in 2012. Even despite 2012, Lester has a pretty impressive resume.

Baseball Prospectus hasn't released their PECOTA projections for 2013 yet, but last year's projections for 2013 are still available (in a sense, as players are projected forward 10 seasons). Of course, this doesn't take 2012 into account which is a vital bit of missing information, I grant you but I think it's worth saying that before last season, BP projected Lester for a 3.15 ERA in 206 innings in 2013. I'm sure that will change, but even if last season raises his ERA by a half run, that's still essentially the same as the Bill James Projections. In 2012 a 3.71 ERA would have made Lester the 14th best pitcher (by ERA of course, not the best measurement) in the American League.

These numbers are far from definitive, but they are trying to tell us something about Jon Lester, what happened to him in 2012, and what has historically happened to players very similar to him. Still, the Red Sox should absolutely explore trading him, and a prospect like Myers is surely intriguing. But Lester still has tremendous value. Dealing him for a prospect, even one as highly regarded as Myers, is taking on a whole lot of risk. That risk is heightened when you consider the Red Sox one huge failing since September of 2011 has been starting pitching.

It's shaping up to be an interesting off-season.