First Pitch: Sox need revitalized Lester to help with turnaround

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First Pitch: Sox need revitalized Lester to help with turnaround

Jon Lester will make his 31st start of the season Friday night as the Red Sox begin their final homestand of the season, and barring anything unforeseen, will make two more after that before the season comes a merciful end on Oct. 3.

If Lester wins his final three starts -- something he's done once before this season, from Aug. 12-24 -- he'll avoid finishing with a losing record for the year.

Even that, however, would be cold comfort for Lester, who, like his team, has weathered a massively disappointing season. Lester entered this season with the third-highest winning percentage (.691) of any pitcher with a minimum of 50 decisions and the very fact that he will have to rally here in the final two weeks just to break even speaks
to how sub-par his season has been.

When Lester drew the Opening Day assignment from Bobby Valentine, it helped represent a passing of the torch for the lefty. Though Josh Beckett was then still a teammate, the choice of Lester to pitch April 5 symbolized that he -- and not the more experienced Beckett -- was the top pitcher on the staff.

Except Lester failed to make good on that designation. He won just five games in the first four months and was tagged for five runs or more five times in his first 20 starts.

Given his team's fall from contention -- and, at times, respectability -- the outcome of Lester's last three starts is largely irrelevant. At this late date, Lester's season is beyond redemption.

But, as the saying goes, there's always next year. And it's overstatement whatsoever to suggest that Lester may be the most important player if the Sox are going to successfully execute a turnaround in 2013. With Beckett dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers last month, Lester is, more than ever, the face of the pitching staff. It's impossible to foresee the Sox becoming contenders again without substantial contributions from the lefty.

Just what exactly has ailed Lester this year is difficult to pinpoint. His .314 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is up from his career average and suggests that he's been at least somewhat unlucky, as he has claimed more than once.

Still, there's far more to Lester's off-year than simple misfortune. Too often, he has seen his concentration wander as he disputes umpires' strike zones and there have been a few mechanical glitches to overcome.

One club source believes that, more than any Red Sox pitcher, Lester has suffered from the team's endless parade of pitching coaches since the end of 2010. Lester, the source said, needs a consistent, forceful message and he has not had that this season.

In addition to his occasionally wandering focus on the mound, Lester is prone to bouts of self-doubt in between outings. He benefits from someone who can expertly diagnose flaws in his mechanics. Neither Curt Young last season, nor the tag team of Bob McClure and Randy Niemann have fit that description.

But if the Sox can work out a deal with Toronto to get Farrell to manage next season, Lester could be a huge beneficiary.

"I guarantee that you that Farrell could fix Lester in about half an hour," said one of the pitcher's former teammates recently. The club source voiced a similar sentiment.

Lester had his best seasons with Farrell as his pitching coach. From 2008-2010, Lester averaged 207 innings and almost 17 wins per season, with a composite ERA of 3.25 in that span.

There's no guarantee that Farrell is returning and no assurance that he -- or anyone else -- can return the pitcher to his prior form. But put it this way: the Red Sox' path back to contention is a lot more complicated without a rejuvenated Lester leading the way.

The road back to respectability begins Friday night. The real journey begins next April.

Market for Encarnacion is shrinking, yet Red Sox still don't seem interested

Market for Encarnacion is shrinking, yet Red Sox still don't seem interested

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- As the annual winter meetings get underway today, the market for arguably the best free-agent hitter may be -- against all logic -- lessening.

Edwin Encarnacion, who has averaged 39 homers a year over the last five seasons, should be a player in demand.

But in quick succession, the Houston Astros and New York Yankees, two teams thought to be in the market for Encarnacion, opted to go with older hitters who required shorter deals -- Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday.

Further, the Toronto Blue Jays' signing of Steve Pearce to a two-year deal Monday, coupled with their earlier acquisition of Kendrys Morales, closes the door on a potential return to Toronto for Encarnacion.

Seemingly, all of that would position the Red Sox, in search of a DH to replace the retired David Ortiz, to swoop in and land Encarnacion for far less than they could have imagined only weeks ago.

And yet, it appears as though things would have to change considerably for the Red Sox to reach agreement with Encarnacion.

While the first baseman-DH is known to be Ortiz's first choice as his replacement, for now, the economics don't work for the Sox -- even as Enacarnacion's leverage drops.

Encarnacion is expecting a deal of at least four years, with an average annual value around $20 million.

The Red Sox, industry sources indicate, are very much mindful of the luxury tax threshold. The Sox have, however modestly, gone over the threshold in each of the last two seasons, and even with a bump due to last week's new CBA, the Sox are dangerously close to the 2018 limit of $195 million.

Should the Sox go over for a third straight year, their tax would similarly ratchet up.

That, and the fact that Encarnacion would cost the Sox their first-round pick next June -- for this offseason, compensation for players given a qualifying offer comes under the old CBA rules -- represents two huge disincentives.

It's far more likely that the Sox will seek a cheaper option at DH from among a group that includes Pedro Alvarez and Mike Napoli. Neither is in Encarnacion's class, but then again, neither would cost a draft pick in return, or the long-term investment that Encarnacion is said to be seeking.

Boomer Esiason witnessed Pete Rose hire people to sign autographs

Boomer Esiason witnessed Pete Rose hire people to sign autographs

Boomer Esiason tells Toucher & Rich a story from his early days in Cincinnati when he witnessed Pete Rose overseeing five guys he paid to sign a stack of photographs for fans.