Breaking up is hard to do. Jon Lester is without a doubt one of the 10 best pitchers in Boston Red Sox history. Since he returned to full-time duty with the Sox in 2008, he made 80 more starts than any other Red Sox pitcher. He was one of three players still around from the 2007 World Series championship team. Trading him is going to sting in a way that hasn’t stung for Red Sox fans since Manny Ramirez was traded, or depending on your feelings towards Ramirez, since Nomar Garciaparra was traded. But this wasn’t a typical trade, and getting Yoenis Cespedes back in return for Lester and throw-in Jonny Gomes does take some of the sting out of this deal, and signals to the Sox fan base that they aren’t looking to rebuild.
Cespedes is the power bat the Red Sox have been coveting. It was the one thing, as Buster Olney noted this morning, that isn’t really plentiful in their otherwise stacked farm system. His powerful bat, combined with good defense, makes him a player that really isn’t going to be available on the free-agent market this winter either. Giancarlo Stanton wishcasting has been a thing in Boston for some time, but in order to land Stanton, the Sox would have hard to part with enough prospects that it would have been close to a zero-sum return. They didn’t exactly get the next-best thing — Stanton ranks eighth in isolated power this season, while Cespedes ranks 27th — but considering what they had to give up, it might as well have been. It’s only for one year, as thanks to the contract he signed, Cespedes must be non-tendered, so there will be no compensation pick if he hits free agency after the 2015 season.
And he might just land in free agency. While Cespedes is a solid player, who is a great fit for Boston’s needs as well as being perfectly suited for Fenway Park — careful if you’re driving on the Mass Pike during Sox games for the foreseeable future — he has never quite achieved the promise of his rookie season. As a 26-year-old, he stormed into the American League and posted a 137 wRC+, which was 21st-best in baseball that season. It wasn’t enough for him to take home Rookie of the Year honors, as some guy named Mike Trout happened, but the three-win campaign whetted appetites for more to come. Cespedes had only suited up for 129 games in his rookie season. Given a full season of play, it looked like he had a chance to be a four-win player.
Last year, Cespedes got six games closer to that full year of play, but he regressed across the board, with his on-base percentage dipping under .300. He was still a two-win player on the strength of good defense and scratch baserunning, but his hitting tool was just average. He did deal with thumb and wrist injuries though, so perhaps a mulligan was warranted. The truth, as they often say, lies somewhere in the middle. Cespedes’ OBP this year looks a lot like it did last year, but he has cut his strikeout rate while maintaining his ISO, and that has made an impact. He’s also handling curveballs much better this season, which should hopefully stow any Pedro Cerrano comparisons for the time being.
It was never realistic for the Sox to get a premium, top 30 prospect in return for Lester, so the trade-off they were facing was to whether to go for a shorter term addition or a longer term project. Cespedes is clearly the former, and probably makes more sense for a team with the Red Sox roster than waiting a couple of years for an A-ball guy to make the big leagues. The deal gives the team an outfield of Cespedes in left, Jackie Bradley Jr. in center and Shane Victorino in right, with Daniel Nava, Mookie Betts and Brock Holt looming. Netting Cespedes also gives the team, if they desire, the freedom to move Victorino this offseason in order to open up a permanent spot in the lineup for Betts.
Betts seems like the one player who is set to suffer the most as a result of this trade. Two months ago, his arrival in Boston seemed imminent, and it was, but when he came up he essentially wasted away until he was sent packing. He has posted a .318/.348/.515 line in his first 10 games back in Triple-A, and for the season, he has hit .321/.401/.478 in Triple-A, good for a 146 wRC+. He seemingly has nothing left to prove there, but he now also seemingly has no permanent place on either the 2014 or 2015 Red Sox. And with Holt having staked out the super utility role, there may not be a place for Betts at all. Surely, things will change between now and next April, but for the moment, the Red Sox have one of those good problems on their hands.
By trading Lester to Oakland, Boston not only did him a solid — as Dave Cameron noted earlier today, this deal might not move the needle much for the A’s, though they are one of the big favorites to win it all this year — but the Sox also may have done themselves a favor. The A’s are all-in this year, but it’s basically impossible to see them re-signing Lester this winter. While the Sox now will need to compete with many other teams in order to re-sign Lester in free agency, the exclusive window the A’s have to bring him back may become moot, and that’s probably not something that could have been said if Lester had ended up with, say, the Dodgers. If the Red Sox still want to sign Lester long-term, there’s likely some benefit to sending him somewhere he won’t re-sign.
In addition to getting Cespedes, that hope that maybe the Sox can get back in the Jon Lester business after the season ends will make this deal a little easier to swallow for Red Sox fans. For the better part of a decade, Jon Lester wasn’t just a Red Sox pitcher — he was the Red Sox pitcher who won the clinching game of the World Series 14 months after being diagnosed with cancer. Lester has been the rock for the Red Sox. This month, he passed Luis Tiant for fourth place all-time in games started by a Red Sox pitcher. Only Tim Wakefield, Roger Clemens and Cy Young have made more. Whether you prefer WAR, RA-9 WAR, RE24, WPA, FIP- or any other stat, Lester is among the best in the franchise’s history.
Losing Jon Lester is going to hurt, and it’ll hurt even more if the team doesn’t bring him back into the fold this winter. But the A’s are unlikely to keep Lester long-term, so perhaps the Red Sox will get their chance to bid for him on the open market. Either way, the team took one-third of a season from Jon Lester and turned it into a season and a third of Yoenis Cespedes. Cespedes may not be the long-term solution in left field for Boston, but he gives them some additional right-handed thump in the middle of the lineup, and this deal gets the ball rolling for a productive offseason in Boston.
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