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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Red Sox may have Lester on the trading block

Jon Lester for Wil Myers.

Well, that got everyone’s attention, didn’t it? ...

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Jon Lester for Wil Myers.

Well, that got everyone’s attention, didn’t it?

The mere mention Monday night by the Kansas City Star of trade talks, however preliminary, between the Red Sox and Royals over a possible Jon Lester-for-Wil Myers swap caused hot stoves across New England to finally start boiling. As a matter of policy, the Red Sox don’t comment on such rumors, and a Royals official told the Herald he “couldn’t comment one way or the other” when asked for confirmation of the report.

That said, there is every likelihood that Ben Cherington and Royals counterpart Dayton Moore have spent at least some time chatting about such a trade because, well, that’s what GMs do. Cherington talked to the Marlins before they executed an everything-must-go blockbuster with the Blue Jays, and you can wager Carl Crawford’s millions that he has kicked around potential deals with just about every other team. As Cherington has said numerous times since the end of the season, when you lose 93 games, you can’t leave any stone unturned in the quest to improve.

The 21-year-old Myers is arguably the top player prospect in baseball. In a 2012 season split between Triple A and Double A, Myers hit 37 home runs with 109 RBIs, batted .314 with a .387 on-base percentage and .600 slugging percentage.

No deal is close and there are no indications if the talks are ongoing or ever progressed beyond initial contact. The Royals may prove to be reluctant to pull the trigger. The Red Sox may want to wait and explore their options after free agent starter Zack Greinke signs, then decide if they can deal Lester.

The Royals have promising young everyday players including first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas. General manager Dayton Moore, however, probably prefers to trade talent from their minor league system and be competitive immediately.

From the Red Sox’ perspective, there actually are compelling reasons to trade a two-time All-Star left-hander who doesn’t turn 29 until January for an uberprospect who hasn’t spent a day in the majors.

Even though Lester will cost the Red Sox only $11.625 million next year and $13 million, assuming they exercise his option, in 2014, he will be eligible for free agency beyond that. Lester is coming off a career-worst season in which he went 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA and only 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings.

But even if this year proves to be an aberration and Lester regains his ace-like form after being reunited with John Farrell, he figures to command a contract that at least rivals, and perhaps even exceeds, Jered Weaver’s five-year, $85 million extension from the Angels.

One need only remember the four-year, $68 million extension signed by Josh Beckett before the 2010 season to understand why extending Lester would give the Red Sox at least some pause.

The Red Sox would control Myers’ rights for six seasons. And after Mike Trout and Bryce Harper took the majors by storm this year, it’s not difficult to imagine Myers joining their ranks. (Myers is even a converted catcher, like Harper.)

Plug him into the middle of the order with David Ortiz and Will Middlebrooks, and behind Jacoby Ellsbury (for at least one more season) and Dustin Pedroia, and suddenly, the Red Sox would have the makings of a young, dynamic and fearsome lineup even before their own top position prospects (shortstop Xander Bogaerts and outfielders Jackie Bradley Jr. and Bryce Brentz) are ready for Fenway.

But the problem is, lousy pitching, more than anything, has caused the Red Sox’ precipitous downfall over the past two seasons.

So, how could they justify trading a 29-year-old lefty who throws 200 innings every year and, relatively speaking, has a reasonable contract? By making such a move, wouldn’t the Red Sox be admitting they don’t plan to contend in 2013?

Even with Lester, the Red Sox are looking to strengthen a starting rotation that posted an unseemly 5.19 ERA this year.

Trading him would require that they find two top-five starters, including one who could slot in at the top of the rotation alongside Clay Buchholz.

Sure, the Sox could give in to right-hander Anibal Sanchez’ demand for a six-year, $90 million contract.

Or they could wait to see if right-hander Dan Haren’s price falls, then cherry-pick from a free-agent bargain bin that could feature Shaun Marcum, Francisco Liriano or, once again, Edwin Jackson.

But if Farrell’s influence helps to produce a return to normalcy for Lester, he’s a better pitcher than anyone available.

And what if Myers is less Giancarlo Stanton and more Ben Grieve, the can’t-miss future superstar who doesn’t live up to the hype?

With prospects, that’s always a risk.