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Lester among biggest bargains in baseball

02.05.10 at 3:10 pm ET
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It is now just under a year since the Red Sox gave Jon Lester the sort of deal that had no precedent. The Sox and Lester agreed on a five-year, $30 million deal that includes a $13 million option for the 2014 season. That deal represented a record in terms of guaranteed years (5) and dollars ($30 million) for a pitcher who had yet reached arbitration eligibility. (For the context of the deal at the time, click here.)

For the club, there was some risk involved. The Sox were making a sizable long-term commitment to a pitcher on the strength of one truly dominant year at the big-league level. Less than one year later, however, it becomes obvious that the deal is one that may end up saving the club tens of millions of dollars.

Over the last two years, Lester has established himself as one of the most dominant left-handers in the game. He is part of a conversation that includes CC Sabathia, Johan Santana, Cliff Lee and not many others. In 2008-09, he went a combined 31-14 (tied for the 6th most wins in the majors) with a 3.31 ERA (13th), 377 strikeouts (12th), and a puny 74 OPS+ (6th). In his career, he is now 42-16 with a 3.66 ERA.

Yet assuming that the Sox end up exercising their option on the 26-year-old, he will cost $42.75 million between now and 2014. He’s only given up one year of free agency — two if the Sox exercise their option — but assuming the Boston front office does indeed keep him for the final year of the deal, Lester’s first two free-agent years would be coming at a cost of $11.625 million and $13 million.

As Brian MacPherson of the Union Leader has pointed out, those figures seem like a bargain when compared to the two market-changing contracts that were just signed by Tigers ace Justin Verlander and Seattle’s royal figure of pitching, Felix Hernandez.

Verlander — who has one more year of service time than Lester — just inked a five-year, $80 million deal that will keep him in Detroit through 2014. His free-agent years are being valued at $20 million each. That deal went just over the five-year, $78 million deal that Hernandez — who, like Verlander, has one more year of service time than Lester — signed to remain with the Mariners through 2014. His first three free-agent years are valued at an average of $19.33 million per season.

Verlander has a career record of 65-43 with a 3.92 ERA; he’s never had an ERA below 3.45. His strikeout numbers (8.0 per nine innings) are better than Lester’s (7.9), but not by much, and Lester is more of a groundball pitcher than Verlander.

Hernandez’ numbers compare more impressively to Lester’s: he is 58-41 with a 3.45 career ERA, 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings and a tremendous groundball rate that is better than either Lester’s and Verlander’s. He is also the youngest of the three. (Hernandez turns 24 in April; Lester turned 26 last month; and Verlander turns 27 later this month.)

If you were to bet on one pitcher to be the best of the three — regardless of contract — it would be Hernandez. But would you anticipate that he will be so much better than Lester that he would be worth an additional $35 million over the next five seasons? Probably not.

Put another way: had the Sox waited until after the 2010 season to sign Lester to an extension when he had accumulated four-plus years of service time, barring a disastrous performance in the coming year, there is little question that he would have been in line for a long-term deal along the lines of the ones signed by Verlander and Hernandez.

Of course, Lester’s contract cannot be compared apples-to-apples with the two that were just signed. He agreed to his deal at a much different point in his career than did either of the other two pitchers. In that regard, Lester did an excellent job of achieving a lifetime of security after just a couple years in the majors. Again, he received more guaranteed money than any other pitcher in his service class at the time that he signed his contract.

That said, the recent deals suggest that the Sox, by moving aggressively to achieve a long-term deal at an early stage of a dominant young pitcher’s career, got one of the best bargains in all of baseball. If Lester remains healthy, and continues to perform at the elite levels that have characterized his past two years, his deal with Boston will be one of the most team-friendly around.

Read More: felix hernandez, Jon Lester, justin verlander,
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