For most of the seven years from 2008 to 2014, Jon Lester was the best pitcher on the Boston Red Sox. And then he was gone. With free agency on the horizon and their record a lost cause, the Sox traded Lester to Oakland, and then apparently never came close to matching the seven-year, $155 million offer the Cubs would land him with.
The thinking at the time was that Lester was simply too rich for their blood. While the Red Sox have never been a small-market team by any stretch of the imagination, they were reluctant to re-enter the biggest free agent markets after recent deals had gone bad.
So when less than a year later the Red Sox signed David Price for seven years and a much higher figure of $217 million, Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun Times felt compelled to ask Jon Lester about the whole thing:
"There's no hard feelings by any means with those people. I still talk to [Red Sox manager] John Farrell. They were a big part of my life. And I'm always grateful for what they did for me, especially back in '06, '07."
Hard feelings? Why would there be? Well, as Wittenmyer tells it, Jon Lester " had a right to feel angry. Maybe even betrayed" after the Price signing.
Alright, let's stop right there. There's just too many things wrong with this narrative.
The most glaringly obvious problem comes in who, exactly, made or didn't make those offers. Ben Cherington elected not to make a big enough offer to Jon Lester in 2014. Dave Dombrowski signed David Price in 2015. The biggest holdover is ownership, and they made the decision to put Cherington in charge three years before Lester became a free agent. If Lester has a beef with organizational philosophy? The philosophy isn't even there anymore.
But even if it were. Even if the Sox had stuck with Cherington for another year, and even if Cherington had then gone out and signed David Price for a lot more than he'd ever offered Lester, there would be nothing to be upset over. Yes, it would show they value Price over Lester. This should not be a surprise, as Price is the better pitcher. It's not even something Red Sox fans would really have argued during most of Lester's time here. Price has the lower career ERA, higher strikeout rate, and lower walk rate. He's a Cy Young winner and one of the best starting pitchers in baseball.
Lester briefly made a cameo in that role in 2014. That Jon Lester could be talked about in the same sentence as any of baseball's unquestioned aces without raising eyebrows.
The argument goes that this was also the Jon Lester who headed into free agency, and it's true. But for the Red Sox, perhaps it was their familiarity with Lester more than anything else that would lead them to shy away from paying Lester like his 2014 self would demand. It was only after more than a thousand innings with the Red Sox, after all, that this Lester had shown his face. The sudden transformation of Lester was more glaring to Boston than anyone else, as were the rough patches that had come immediately before.
Don't get me wrong, there are no professional baseball teams that actually thought Lester had always been that good. That's back-of-the-baseball-card information, after all, and Theo Epstein was actually in Boston during the "good not great" days. But he wasn't there for the struggles, and when you put those together with the pre-2012 Lester, you might hesitate to pay for the 2014 Lester.
And, hey, Lester in Chicago? Looks a lot like the Lester we knew from back before 2012. And while that pitcher is still good enough to keep the deal from looking bad, the fact is he isn't good enough to be placed on quite the same tier as David Price. Price's down years look like vintage Lester, while he's never fallen off as hard as Lester once did.
So yes, the Red Sox valued David Price over Jon Lester. But they did so under different management, and even if they hadn't, they'd have been right to value Price higher all the same! The only thing Price's signing does is provide an easy narrative for those not interested in considering the situation in its proper context. Thankfully, Jon Lester seems to be above that.