The echoing sentiment in the Boston Red Sox contractual battle with starting pitcher Jon Lester has been not so much about losing the pitcher as much as it’s been about replacing him. The team faced a similar issue when Jacoby Ellsbury skipped town this past winter. With no viable replacement plan for the center fielder, the team struggled in the first half in large part because Ellsbury’s departure created so many holes.
Having botched the Ellsbury situation already, Ben Cherington needs to get this thing right if he wants to be the Red Sox general manager four or five years down the road.
So if he can’t retain Lester, Cherington darn better find a guy to replace the southpaw’s output. A guy to replace his innings. A guy who can end all debate of who will start on opening day. A guy who can carry you through the regular season. A guy who can carry you through the postseason.
A guy like, say, Cole Hamels, who has been linked to the Red Sox in the yearly musings of trade rumors. The asking price from Ruben Amaro is reported being upwards of three or four minor league prospects, something the Sox have plenty of. If there’s any replacing Lester, the Philadelphia Phillies pitcher is the closest alternative.
To put it more simply, if Cherington can’t keep Lester, he’d better get Hamels.
If such a scenario were to play out — it would only make sense that Hamels would be obtained in the offseason as a consolation prize for Lester — it would give Boston exactly what they want to commit to Lester, with respect to the term and financially.
With four years and $90 million remaining on Hamels’ contract that includes a $24 million vesting option for a fifth year, it would be in the neighborhood of what is believed to be the terms the Red Sox camp is offering to Lester.
Meanwhile, Hamels is cut from the same cloth as Lester as a pitcher.
Going back to 2008, Hamels has made at least 31 starts and has thrown 193 or more innings. His 209 starts since ’08 ranks 12th among starters, while his 1,388 1/3 innings ranks sixth. Possessing a 6’3″, 195-pound frame, he looks to be a pitcher who could hold onto that output well into his 30s.
With 102 wins in 181 decisions, he’s one of just 15 active pitchers with 100 wins and a winning percentage north of .560, a stat that becomes even more impressive when you factor in how bad Philadelphia has been over the past couple of seasons.
Going back to the start of the 2012 season, the Phillies have gone 196-223. Hamels has gone 28-25 in 80 starts over that stretch, posting a 3.25 ERA and striking out 524 in 542 2/3 innings. He went 17-6 with a 3.05 ERA on a 2012 Phillies team that finished 81-81.
A good regular season pitcher, Hamels is even better in the postseason. In 13 October starts, he’s 7-4 with a 3.09 ERA. He was the ace of the Phillies staff in their 2008 run to the World Series title, being named the NLCS and World Series MVP as a result.
While he struggled in the 2009 postseason despite Philadelphia winning their second consecutive NL pennant, he was great in the 2010-11 tournaments. In three starts between the two postseasons, he allowed just two earned runs over 21 innings, with 25 strikeouts to four walks.
So a top-of-the-rotation starter with a heavy resume of reliability, with a reputation of raising his game in the postseason. A guy who has been among the best pitchers in the game despite never actually being the best. Sound familiar?
There’s no doubt a Lester contract extension is vital to Boston’s fortunes in the coming years. Cherington’s job could depend on a compromise being reached.
But if Lester can’t be retained — a stark possibility at this point — the Red Sox need to go out and get Hamels. Even if it costs a few prospects.