Spring forward: Getting Ortiz, Lester locked up

Spring forward: Getting Ortiz, Lester locked up
February 11, 2014, 11:15 am
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All this week, Sean McAdam will be examining issues facing the Red Sox as they begin spring training. Today: A look at some of the contract situations on the Sox. Tomorrow: Koji Uehara and the bullpen.

As the Red Sox arrive in Fort Myers, they sit on top of the baseball world.
    
The Sox won their third championship in the span of 10 years last October. The team's minor league system, ranked in the top three in the game, is brimming with young players who could keep the franchise competitive for years.
    
But there exists the potential for distraction, too. The club's best offensive player (David Ortiz) and best starting pitcher (Jon Lester) are unsigned beyond the current season.
    
Both have signaled a desire to remain with the Red Sox. Lester said last month that he'd be willing to take a below-market value deal to finish his career in Boston, and Ortiz has said he'd like just a one-year extension.
    
Typically, the Red Sox use spring training as a time to work out extensions with veteran players. They laid the groundwork for the landmark Dustin Pedroia deal last spring, though it wasn't completed until July. Clay Buchholz also had his deal extended in the spring of 2011.
    
Of the two, the Ortiz deal figures to feature more melodrama, if only because of the personality involved.
    
Though he's been well compensated, Ortiz has done little to hide his frustration with the fact that while the Sox have invested large, multi-year deals to free agents from outside the organization (Carl Crawford, and soon after he arrived via trade, Adrian Gonzalez), the team has often chosen a more year-to-year approach with Ortiz.
    
After 2012, when Ortiz was coming off a potential career-threatening Achilles injury, Ortiz was given a two-year, $26 million deal that, with incentives, turned into $30 million.
    
At 38, Ortiz can't expect a four- or five-year deal. Nor does he want one.
    
But Ortiz will want to be paid -- even on a one-year contract -- as one of the game's biggest offensive forces. Last year, only three players in baseball hit .300 with 30 homers and 100 RBI: Miguel Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt and Ortiz.
    
Following his standout post-season in which Ortiz was the World Series MVP, he has some leverage. Just a few seasons removed from a report that he had used PEDs in 2003, Ortiz has never been more popular with the team's fan base and the Sox can hardly claim that his production has dropped off.
    
For that matter, ownership has always displayed something of a soft spot for Ortiz. But there will be limits to the team's largesse.
    
Ortiz may have leverage in the court of public opinion, but he has far less on the open market. Half the teams in the game -- in the NL -- would have no place for him as a DH, and most teams in the American League has moved away from the concept of a fixed DH, preferring to rotate several players in the role, allowing for more roster flexibility.
    
If Ortiz doesn't get an offer he likes in the next six weeks, it will be interesting to see how his disappointment plays out and impacts the team dynamic in 2014.
    
Lester is far less emotional, but is likely to be far more expensive. He turned 30 last month, has been remarkably durable -- 191 innings or more in each of the last six seasons -- and, like Ortiz, is coming off a career-defining performance in October.
    
The going rate for a premier starting pitcher has risen to an annual average value of about $20 million. The big question for Lester may be: for how many years?
    
It's difficult to see Lester taking anything less than a five-year deal, which translates into a $100 million commitment on the part of the Sox.
    
(Contrary to some speculation, the Sox are not necessarily averse to handing out such deals, especially when it's a player with whom they have a long history.)
    
Philadelphia's Cole Hamels, whose career is quite similar to that of Lester's, signed a six-year, $144 million deal two years ago, but that appears to be the high side of the contract parameters, with an average AAV of $24 million.
    
The Red Sox will probably try to shave a year off the length of the deal and offer something like five years, $105 million. Whether that's enough -- and long enough -- for Lester remains to be seen.
    
What's clear is this: The Sox need Lester. The rest of their rotation is either older (Ryan Dempster, Jake Peavy, John Lackey) or not nearly as durable (Felix Doubront and Clay Buchholz).
    
True, the Sox have a host of promising staters in the system, but for now, they are just that: promising.
    
Lester is proven. And it's going to cost a lot, hometown discount or not, to retain him beyond 2014.