Gene Collier: Jon Lester lives in high-rent district



With just a few quasi-desperate hours remaining until baseball’s non-waiver trade deadline, the trophy for best speculation remains firmly in the grip of Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon, who not only said something deadly accurate nearly three weeks ago, but said something that would pretty much define the trade market from that point forward.

Driving home from Cincinnati, where the Pirates had dropped two of three at the front edge of the All-Star break, I heard Maddon on the radio explaining how he felt his seriously dreadful Rays were about to turn things around dramatically and that the market for David Price, his left-handed ace, likely never would materialize.

Tampa Bay roared out of the break 9-3, and, while Maddon didn’t say explicitly the Rays would not be willing trade partners, he strongly implied the market might have to re-focus.

Enter Jon Lester.

As of this writing, the Pirates, Los Angeles Dodgers, Baltimore Orioles, Miami Marlins, Oakland A’s, and Milwaukee Brewers were still trying to pry Lester away from the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox, whose preseason offer to Lester in his walk year was $70 million for four seasons, or $17.5 million per summer, at which the 30-year-old left-hander verily scoffed.

That’s right, verily.

But, yes, you did see the word ‘Pirates’ in that previous sentence, the same Pirates who never have gone into an upscale pitching boutique unless it has been with a boat load of somebody else’s cash (see the Houston Astros paying half of Wandy Rodriguez’s ridiculous $13 million salary, and the New York Yankees paying half of A.J. Burnett’s $16.5).

In this case, however, the Pirates only would be responsible for a little more than $4 million in wages for Lester, who would become the best pitcher on the staff the minute his flight landed at Pittsburgh International.

He’s strictly a summer rental, but, in a sense, that doesn’t uncomplicate things all that much.

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, in this view, still has two plausible positions in a trade market that is about to close.

One is that the Pirates, a superior offensive team to the 2013 National League Division Series runner-up, shouldn’t, despite unspectacular pitching, be diminishing their inventory of top prospects even a little for a temporary fix with no guarantee.

Two is that in a division without an outstanding team, the time for Huntington to deviate from his own hyper-careful market posture might be now.

Like today.

Lester certainly would answer a lingering hypothetical question making the local rounds, the one that goes something like this:

With a rotation that frightens no potential postseason opponent (see its bottom-feeding collective WAR), who would you possibly start in a wild-card game tomorrow (not Charlie Morton!)?

You would start Jon Lester and his 2.11 postseason ERA, earned in the Boston crucible since 2007.

Boston’s front office should be trying to convince Huntington that it’s about to send Lester into another National League Central Division city, but that task got harder to do Wednesday because the St. Louis Cardinals acquired Justin Masterson from Cleveland to solidify its rotation, albeit marginally.

Huntington has no doubt made it clear which Pirates prospects are available for Lester and which certainly are not. You would hope those lists go at least partially like this:

Available — Alen Hanson, Stetson Allie, Tyler Glasnow, Jose Tabata (please).

Not available — Josh Bell, Nick Kingham, Jameson Taillon, JaCoby Jones.

I certainly would have no interest in moving Bell, whom the Pirates boldly mailed a check for $5 million in 2011 even after Bell had sent word through the Commissioner’s Office that he didn’t want anyone trying to keep him out of college.

Bell’s a huge investment for the Pirates, not to mention their best insurance in the event that Starling Marte has developed as much as he’s going to, or that Gregory Polanco has everybody fooled.

I would be eager to move Hanson, but it’s getting harder by the month because plenty of big-league executives have been linked to the Curve coverage in the Altoona Mirror, in which manager Carlos Garcia recently complained to columnist Cory Giger:

“Enough is enough,” regarding the talented shortstop. “It’s time to grow up, as a ballplayer and a person, and a responsible person will understand what he’s here for.”

Hanson’s been benched twice for lack of hustle, and another time for what the organization described as developmental issues.

Hanson is so available.

So the deadline is 4 p.m., and the gap before speculation about the non non-waiver trade deadline begins possibly 15 seconds later.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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