Jon Lester’s Market Value Will Surprise

By TJ Horgan

So, Jon Lester has joined just about every other member of the Boston Red Sox over age 26 in being the most recent name to be available for trade inquiries. The five-year question in Boston has been whether or not Lester is an “Ace,” and the Red Sox have been answering that with a resounding “YES!” by not putting legitimate effort into acquiring a better pitcher.

As reported by Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe, Lester is looking for a “competitive offer consistent with the market.” The immediate question this elicits is, of course, what is the current market for a Jon Lester-caliber pitcher?

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Believe it or not, from 2010-2014, Lester has the sixth-highest Wins Above Replacement (WAR) among all pitchers (32.0). Despite not even including his 16-6 2008 or 15-8 2009, that number is good enough to top Roy Halladay, Adam Wainwright, CC Sabathia, Max Scherzer, Cole Hamels, and Zack Greinke.

I will compare Jon Lester to CC Sabathia from a contractual standpoint, as both pitchers had a similar WAR from 2008-2014 (Sabathia: 32.4, Lester: 32.0). Sabathia received a 7-year, $161 million deal from the Yankees in 2009, when he was 29 years of age. Prior to his deal, Sabathia averaged a 4.5 WAR/year in an 8-year career.

Lester, on the other hand, will be 30 or 31 (turns 31 on January 7) when receiving his deal. However, Lester, in his first seven MLB seasons, has also averaged a, wait for it, 4.5 WAR/year, and I won’t be remiss in mentioning that Lester is currently on track to have the best season of his career. Despite having a dismal 2012, Lester currently holds a 4.6 WAR, career-best ERA (2.52), and career-best WHIP (1.12).

Lester is set to hit the open market at the end of the 2014 season, and with numbers virtually identical to Sabathia, what’s stopping Lester from asking for a similar contract? On the surface, Lester’s career-best 3.21 ERA and 1.20 WHIP are not laudable feats, but the money is not in box score statistics. Jon Lester’s xFIP (Expected Fielding-Independent Pitching) was 5th-best in the MLB in 2009, and 8th-best in 2010.  Oh, and did I mention that Lester is in the midst of a career-best statistical year?

In terms of how the financial element has changed from Sabathia’s 2009 contract, well, that only favors Lester. Recently, the market for starting pitchers has become exponentially more lucrative. Adam Wainwright scored five years and $100 million at age 32. Zack Greinke earned six years, $147 million at age 29, and Cole Hamels signed a 6-year, $144 million deal at age 29.

If CC Sabathia can get $23 million for seven years at age 29, what is stopping Lester from earning  at least $20 million for at least another six years? The obvious answer is nothing, so pay up, Red Sox.