|Lester made a disappointing decision by rejecting Boston's offer (FoxSports)|
But Ellsbury's departure was a foregone conclusion, allowing Red Sox Nation to brace themselves for his inevitable exit. There were no illusions about him coming back to Boston. So when he left to go play for the Yankees, of all teams, there were no hard-feelings, no sense of shocked betrayal.
Lester leaving, on the other hand, was like a blow to New England's collective gut. The moment he was traded to the Oakland A's last July 31st, fans began dreaming of his return. Sure, the Red Sox had royally screwed up their contract extension talks with him, but Lester loved Boston. He didn't want to play anywhere else, he said, and when he reached free agency he promised not to sign with the highest bidder. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger, he'd be back.
Even after emptying their pockets for big-ticket free agents Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, the Red Sox remained committed to Lester. They promised him more years (6) and dollars ($135 million) than either Ramirez or Sandoval, trying to make amends by buying back his love. Their aggressive pursuit of him culminated in a competitive offer that seemed sizable enough to reel him in, especially given his stated preference for Boston.
Perhaps sensing that Lester was lukewarm about returning, the Sox put the full-court press on Lester, even sending principal owner John Henry to try to sway him back. Henry, who'd awkwardly embraced Lester as the star pitcher exited Fenway Park, did everything he could to coax Lester into coming back. But at the end of the day, Boston's offer just wasn't high enough.
Had they offered him that six months ago, Lester would still be a Red Sox. Instead, his new home address is Wrigley Field.
As much as it hurts to not end up with what felt like a sure thing, Boston made the right call. Lester's a helluva pitcher, but he's not worth a $155 million contract at this stage in his career. The contract covers his age 31-36 seasons, paying him almost $26 million per year (only Clayton Kershaw makes more among pitchers) for the decline phase of somebody who's not quite really an ace (last year notwithstanding). Justin Verlander, Cliff Lee, and CC Sabathia were way better than Lester when they signed their megadeals, and look how they've done since. Roy Halladay retired after his age-36 season, meaning there's a good chance that Lester's a broken down shell of a pitcher by the time his new deal expires.
Chicago got a bit carried away, but if Lester leads them to their first World Series championship since 1908 he'll have been worth every cent. The Cubs were clearly on a mission to redeem themselves after falling short in the Russell Martin sweepstakes. Martin seemed like a lock to land with the Cubs--who are in the market for a high-caliber backstop--only to sign with Toronto when the Blue Jays swooped in with their five-year, $82 million offer. Desperately in need of quality starting pitching, they turned to Lester, and this time didn't let their target slip away. They overpaid for him, yes, but now have a front of the rotation workhorse to replace Jeff Samardzija, whom Oakland recently traded to Chicago's other baseball team. Lester brings the Cubs that much closer to contending in 2015 and beyond.
As for Boston, it's back to the drawing board. Their next move is to go after James Shields and/or Max Scherzer. Scherzer will cost even more than Lester, which is why I'm partial to Shields, who also has plenty of experience pitching in the AL East. The Sox will also have to put together a package for Cole Hamels, which would likely include Yoenis Cespedes and perhaps Xander Bogaerts. With an abundance of outfielders and shortstops, Boston shouldn't have too much trouble unloading some of that excess talent.
So while the Red Sox didn't get their man, there's no reason to panic. There are still several aces available and plenty of time left to get them.