BOSTON -- And so, at last, the endgame. Ben Cherington in Arizona was merely the warm-up act. This goes way above his pay grade. It has come time for John W. Henry and Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino to reveal their true intentions regarding Jon Lester.
The owners are always the closers in deals of this magnitude, and sometime in the coming hours, perhaps as soon as Friday, they will be sitting across a table from Lester, looking him in the eye, and revealing their hand to the pitcher and his agents, Seth and Sam Levinson.
It will no longer do just to tell Lester how much they love him, how much they admire him, how much he has meant to the franchise. At this stage, there is only one way their message can resonate, and it is with cold, hard cash.
By now, both sides have a pretty good idea what it will take to get a deal done. Agent Seth Levinson would not be wasting Lester's time, nor his own, with this meeting unless he had received a direct signal, from Cherington or, just as likely, Lucchino, that the Sox are prepared to make an offer that will not insult the intelligence of the parties involved.
That means an offer of at least five years, more likely six.
Anything below $120 million is probably a nonstarter.
Something in the area of $130 million gets the Sox in the game, and then the burden of proof begins to shift toward Lester and his repeated desire to finish his career in Boston.
It seems no accident that Lester is meeting with the Sox first on his tour of suitors in the next couple of weeks. It might no longer be possible for the Sox to launch a pre-emptive strike and knock everyone else out of the game -- Lester may well have decided that he at least owes himself the chance to hear what Theo Epstein and others might offer.
But neither can it be ruled out, and while the Sox are hardly in a position to issue a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum, they can reasonably expect to know where they stand in the game.
And Lester would hardly be the first player to call off the hunt. Jason Varitek did it, albeit for a lot less cash, when the Sox told him what he wanted to hear just as he was about to test the market for the first time.
On so many levels, the Red Sox emerge as winners by re-signing Lester. They satisfy the desire of their baseball operations folks who would rather lay out the money than sacrifice the prospects it would take to trade for Phillies lefty Cole Hamels. It would send a signal to the players and manager that nothing less than an all-out effort to win again in 2015 will be acceptable, a message they can reinforce by also signing third baseman Pablo Sandoval, though that could prove more problematic. And it would be hugely popular with a fan base appalled that the Sox ever let it get this far and didn't lock up Lester last spring, when he kept talking about a hometown discount even though his agents cringed every time he did so.
John Henry's reservations about signing a pitcher beyond the age of 30 to a contract that will take him through his age-36 year are backed by a mountain of evidence, both statistical and anecdotal. But for those inclined to read the tea leaves, it was noteworthy to hear Cherington say this week that the best predictor of health and performance is previous health and performance, that a pitcher who has proven durable and avoided arm trouble is more likely to continue to do so. No guarantees, Cherington added, but Lester, who has thrown 200 or more innings in six of the past seven seasons and has never been disabled with an arm issue, checks the right boxes.
It's probably a fantasy that the Sox owners will return home to Boston with Lester's name affixed to a memorandum of agreement. These things are usually more complicated. But by the end of that meeting, it should be clear to all parties involved if a deal is within reach.