SAN DIEGO -- Clearly, it's an unpopular sentiment in the week that Jon Lester takes up residency in Wrigley Field, but may we offer an alternative narrative to the "Sox owners are idiots" storyline?
How about this one: The Boston Red Sox were willing once again to risk the wrath of their fan base -- as they did most famously in 2004 when they traded Nomar Garciaparra three months before winning their first World Series -- because they have a pretty good idea of how to build a winning baseball team.
In the span of four months, the Sox have added a gifted Cuban center fielder, one of the top right-handed bats in the game and an All-Star third baseman and great October performer, and they will go into 2015 with five veteran starting pitchers, none of whom are older than 30 years old. And an ace to stick on the top of that rotation is within their grasp.
Would this all look better if they had kept Lester, too? Of course. But while no Sox player in recent history (ever?) stayed above the fray of free agency any better than Lester, who even after agreeing with the Cubs spent hours exchanging tweets with disconsolate Sox fans, there are some debatable assumptions being made about how the Sox bollixed negotiations.
Start with this one, which most folks, present company included, have embraced without much scrutiny: The Sox's biggest misstep was their first one, when they submitted a low-ball offer of four years and $70 million last March. The problem with that analysis is this: It assumes that the predatory Sox were trying to take advantage of Lester's stated preference to end his days in a Sox uniform, when in fact it might have been just what the Sox are calling it, to no avail -- a starting point in negotiations. What a concept.
Was Lester within his rights to dismiss it out of hand? Of course. Was it aggravating? As much as someone offering you $70 million can be called that, sure. Did it have to bring a halt to any further discussions? That was Lester's call. The Sox tried to restart talks before the end of spring training. Lester said no. They approached him twice more during the summer, once at his charity event just before the All-Star Game. He said no then, too. Again, his prerogative. He said he didn't want negotiations to be a distraction during the season, and that certainly appears to have been a smart play; he had the best season statistically of his career in 2014, a spectacularly timed feat given this was his walk year.
Can we be absolutely certain that had the Red Sox offered five years, say, at $100 million to $110 million in March, that would have gotten a deal done just because Lester said he was willing to take a hometown discount? Of course not. Scott Boras had his client, Max Scherzer, turn down a six-year, $144 million offer from the Tigers last spring. With all due respect to Boras, was he the only agent capable of reading the market? Don't think so.
Should the Sox have foreseen that Lester would have such a terrific season? Maybe, based on his wonderful October the year before. But it is easily forgotten that when the 2013 season began, there was some debate over whether the Sox should even exercise the option they held on 2014, with Lester himself expressing doubts about the outcome.
The Sox took his '14 performance into account when they finally did engage him in free agency. They set aside their reservations about a six-year deal for a pitcher north of 30. John W. Henry met with him twice. They increased their final offer to $135 million, an average of $22.5 million a year. That doesn't look like eyewash, something to take back to their fans as a "See, we tried?" gambit. If that's all it was, they would have been better off not entering the bidding at all rather than opening themselves up to another round of bashing for falling short.
The Cubs gave Lester a vesting seventh year. They gave him no-trade protection. The Sox were never going to match those perks. They went to the outer limits of what they were willing to do. It wasn't enough. The Cubs were willing to do more. For some, that makes Sox owners villains. Some of those people are the same folks who berated the Sox for giving seven years to Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez.
John W. Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino have not offered their views of why negotiations went the way they did. I've asked, to no avail. Part of their silence might stem from not wanting their words to be construed as smearing Lester, a refrain they've heard in other instances in the past.
Cherington and his baseball operations staff, meanwhile, moved on. With Rusney Castillo, Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval and the four additions to the rotation since Opening Day a year ago -- Joe Kelly, Rick Porcello, Wade Miley and Justin Masterson -- the Sox have the chance to be a much better team than they were at that time. The Sox have held on to their best prospects -- Mookie Betts, Blake Swihart and Henry Owens. Xander Bogaerts isn't going anywhere. Dustin Pedroia is expected to be healthy again; so, too, Mike Napoli. There's a chance Shane Victorino will be, too.
Porcello, who turns 26 later this month, might emerge from the shadow of Justin Verlander and Scherzer to become one of the league's better pitchers. His career is trending in that direction, and last season he crossed the 200-inning threshold for the first time. The Sox are not committed beyond 2015 to him; if he doesn't pan out, they'll move on. Kelly, also 26, was on track to establish himself last year when he blew out his hamstring. Masterson was an All-Star in 2013 who took a big step back last year because of injuries. He's here on a one-year look, too. Left-hander Miley has two 200-inning seasons under his belt, and like Porcello, throws strikes and induces plenty of ground balls.
Collectively, they might be stronger than when they are parsed individually. It will help immeasurably, too, if Clay Buchholz, the lone holdover from the rotation that started last season, can put his erratic days behind him and pitch to the level his stuff suggests. It's not out of the question that the Sox could offer Buchholz in a deal for an ace.
Before Cherington left San Diego on Thursday morning, he reminded folks that it's still early in the offseason. He didn't promise that the Sox will add an ace, but he left the definite impression that he will try. He also said he was confident the Sox would put together a winning team. From this vantage point, it sure looks like he knows what he's doing.