The Dodgers were revealed as the mystery team in pursuit of Jon Lester last night, the financial powerhouse of the National League coming from nowhere, ready to make a big push for the ace lefty's services. And, while at times Lester has been linked to the Braves, Cardinals, Giants, and most significantly, the Cubs, it's the arrival of the Dodgers on the scene that has really changed Lester's return to Fenway into more a matter of "if" than "when."
In a normal year, there would never have been anything certain about Lester coming back to Boston. For years, even dating back to the Theo Epstein era, the Red Sox have played by a certain set of rules, with a self-imposed salary cap set at the Collective Bargaining Tax threshold ($189 million in 2015). If that were still in effect this season, dumping as much money as they did into Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, leaving them with little room to tackle the issues at starting pitcher would have been madness.
But this is a different Red Sox team. One not playing by those old rules anymore. They're willing to go above and beyond should the situation call for it, and all indications are that 2015 does. Ben Cherington has said himself that there are still rules--it will shock no one to learn that their resources remain limited--but there's a lot more room to maneuver than in years past.
As a result, if you really believe the Red Sox want Jon Lester back in a Red Sox uniform in 2015, then there shouldn't have been much fear inspired by the likes of the Giants and Cubs. Imagine, for a moment, the offer Theo Epstein and Chicago are willing or able to make that the Red Sox are not willing to match in this brave new world of ours. The six-year, $138 million offer that's apparently on the table seems easily within reach, should Lester even make them do so. Marc Normandin made the case for going as high as $150 million, and it's just hard to imagine the Cubs outpacing the Sox at that point, much less the Giants.
But the Dodgers? The Dodgers are another story entirely. It sounds silly to say given how well-financed the Red Sox have been throughout the years, but they're newcomers to these free-spending ways. The Dodgers have been doing this for years, and aren't showing any signs of stopping. It would be disingenuous to say they invented it--perhaps you've heard of the Yankees?--but they certainly seem like the masters at this point. Where New York has taken a step back, and the Red Sox a step forward, the Dodgers are comfortably pacing the pack from a mile ahead.
What makes the Dodgers more frightening than anything else, however, is that they seem committed to this approach. Certainly moreso than the Red Sox, who are likely only taking a brief trip above the CBT threshold before dipping back under. That opens them up to offer Lester something the Red Sox likely aren't willing to: more years. For the Red Sox, a seven- or even eight-year contract is just too much. Long contracts can pile up and cripple the franchise if, indeed, they're limited by the CBT in the future. It's why we've heard so often that the Sox are more interested in keeping years down than dollars. They're willing to pay, just so long as they have the option to pay someone different in a few years to meet their needs as they develop.
The Dodgers, however, don't seem to have to worry about that. It's not that their budget is unlimited--no team can claim that--but it seems more flexible than most. In the event 2017 rolls around and they really need to go that little bit higher to add another pitcher, well, maybe that limit stretches to meet that need. Perhaps there's a point where the budget really just doesn't stretch any further, but if so, we don't seem to have found it yet.
Will the Dodgers take advantage of that freedom here to snap up Jon Lester? It's not at all clear yet. Not even the Dodgers take the commitment of $150 million (or more) lightly. There's certainly a middle ground here where Los Angeles is interested, but not so committed to truly change the market beyond pushing the Red Sox up towards that $150 million mark.
For the first time, though, the Lester sweepstakes features a team that can just...win. One that's playing by a different set of rules, and can take negotiations to a place that neither the Red Sox nor anyone else involved can reach without throwing caution completely to the wind. And the unfortunate truth for Boston is that there's not much they can do but wait for the Dodgers to decide whether or not this is still even a competition.