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With every day, every Red Sox loss, every rumor, the odds increase that Jon Lester is going to be wearing a different uniform by this weekend. But which uniform? That's a question with more potential answers than you might think.
So after kicking around this topic with executives whose teams aren't involved in this particular derby, we'd include these clubs as potential candidates to match up with the Red Sox for Lester:
Los Angeles Dodgers: They're in on everybody. And they'd clearly love to add a starting pitcher this dominating. But a Matt Kemp-for-Lester deal isn't going to happen. And if the Dodgers balked at trading elite prospects like Joc Pederson and Corey Seager for David Price (whom they'd control through next year and might be able to sign long-term), would it really make sense for them to pay that price tag for a rent-an-ace? "They've been so consistent about not trading those guys," said one exec, "it's hard for me to believe they'd do that for Lester."
St. Louis Cardinals: We probably will never know how tempted the Cardinals were to use Oscar Taveras to front a package for Price. But as one NL exec said, "I can't imagine them giving up Taveras for Lester. That doesn't make a lot of sense." So would the Cardinals consider dealing, say, Shelby Miller for two months of Lester? Carlos Martinez? Stephen Piscotty? The guess around the industry is that it's going to take one marquee prospect to serve as the centerpiece of a Lester deal. And the Cards have the pieces to make a trade like that without sabotaging their future. But as we've written before, they've made only one pre-deadline blockbuster (Matt Holliday) in the last decade.
Seattle Mariners: The Red Sox sent a top scout to watch Seattle's Triple-A team this week. So that tells us the Mariners are a team to watch in the next 48 hours. Now realistically, the Mariners need bats more than arms. And losing five of their last six, eight of their last 11 and 11 of their last 16 games has dropped them from 5.5 games out in their division to 11.5 out. So in a sane world, can they justify overpaying for the chance to play one wild-card game on the road? Not really. But there are enormous pressures on this front office. And Lester did grow up near Seattle. So this would be such an incredibly popular deal, it would have the potential to energize a skeptical fan base. Not to mention that that local angle would at least give the Mariners the hope of keeping him -- as opposed to Price, who has already told them he wouldn't re-sign there. So stay tuned.
Baltimore Orioles: They're definitely in the market for a top-of-the-rotation starter and definitely interested in Lester. So the biggest question is whether the Red Sox would deal him inside the division. And the honest answer is: Why not? The Red Sox know Lester well, have an excellent feel for teams he'd want to sign with and probably wouldn't have much fear of him spending the next five to seven years in Baltimore. So if it means they have to face him once or even twice down the stretch, what's the difference if they get the right return? "I don't think the Red Sox would care if they traded him to Baltimore or Toronto," said one exec, "because I think they'd be confident he's not going to sign there." A bigger issue is the Orioles' consistent disinterest in including their best pitching prospects, Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey, in any deal.
Toronto Blue Jays: Um, see above. Toronto is in on, well, everyone -- especially the top of the starting pitcher market. So again, the only major hang-up would be whether the Red Sox would deal Lester to a team in their own division. They'd never send him to the Yankees, obviously. But why not the Blue Jays, for the reasons we just discussed? "I could even argue," said the same exec we just quoted, "that you should always trade rentals in your division, if you think they're not going to sign there, because you take their prospects away." Toronto still seems like a dubious landing spot for Lester. But the Red Sox are open right now to all sorts of possibilities.
Atlanta Braves: The Braves have been telling teams they can't take on money. So the $4.5 million Lester still has coming this year might be an issue. But Lester does live in Sharpsburg, Ga., in the offseason and loves the area. So this is another team that makes sense -- on that level, at least.
Milwaukee Brewers: It's now six years since Brewers GM Doug Melvin rolled these same dice on CC Sabathia, as a half-season hired gun. So is it possible this could line up as a déjà vu set of circumstances? A season in which a lot has gone right ... a lineup full of players in their prime ... a high-intensity race to win the division and avoid the wild-card game ... and a GM and owner (Mark Attanasio) who believe in doing what you have to do to win when the opportunity is there. Hmmm. "Everything about their season says, 'Go for it,'" said one NL exec. But the Brewers might lack the high-end prospect it would take to pull this off. And can they even afford to deal their most advanced young pitcher, Jimmy Nelson, for two months' worth of Lester? Fascinating team to watch.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Here's another team, in the same division, in a similar situation, except with a much deeper pool of prospects to deal from. The Pirates could afford a deal like this more easily than Milwaukee could. But their recent July trading history suggests they just aren't inclined to overpay for rent-a-players. So would they break from that philosophy, even for a difference-maker like Lester? Seems unlikely.
So that's eight teams that could match up, have some level of motivation to do this or just can't resist the powerful trade-deadline pressures that sweep through front offices across North America every July. We'd still bet on the Dodgers if we were in a gambling mood. But there's a big enough field to make the next 48 hours a lot more interesting than they looked a week ago.
• Sources say talks between the Pirates and Phillies about an A.J. Burnett reunion in Pittsburgh are all but dead, largely because the Pirates have been unable to get assurances that Burnett won't pick up his player option for next season, which could pay him as much as $14.25 million if he makes 32 starts. The Phillies have been telling other clubs they expect Burnett to retire. And Burnett has told teammates the same thing. But the Pirates aren't willing to take a gamble that expensive. As an executive of another team put it, "He keeps saying he's going to retire. But he said that last year, too."
• Other clubs report the Phillies haven't given up on moving Cliff Lee this month, despite his two shaky starts since coming off the disabled list. But "they want major prospects," said an official of one club. And they're not interested in just unloading Lee's contract to free up money. So we'll bet on revisiting this rumor-fest next month, too.
• The Rays are telling other teams they won't make any decisions about buying or selling until the final 24 hours before the deadline, and they're still "open-minded" about moving David Price and other players if the right offer comes along. But it's hard to find any team that still expects the Rays to move Price now -- especially because they don't have to. "With a free agent like Lester, you've only got one [time frame] to move him, and that's this week," said an exec of one club. "But with Price, they could move him now, or they could move him this winter, or they could move him in spring training, or they could move him next July. So they don't have to do it now." No matter what the Rays' mathematical chances look like on deadline day, they have to be aware, said an AL executive, of how deflating a Price trade would be to their team after an incredible six-week run that brought them back from the dead. "It would kill the clubhouse," the exec said. "And that's dangerous. You set that tone, and players remember that next year, too."
• Once you get past Lester, Price, Lee and Cole Hamels, the most intriguing starting pitcher on this market might be San Diego's Ian Kennedy, whose career-best strikeout rate (9.51 per 9 IP) and stats away from Petco Park (5-4, 3.18 ERA) have attracted a slew of shoppers. But one executive who spoke with the Padres came away estimating there was only a "50-50" chance that Kennedy gets traded. And that's largely because of the uncertainty created by the Padres' vacant GM job. The Padres have told teams they can't leave the next GM with no rotation, so they'd need a big league starter, plus a second prospect, if they're going to move Kennedy, who's under control for next season, too. And it's rare to see contenders subtract notable players off their major league team to make any kind of deal midseason.
• Another fascinating starting-pitching name on this market is John Lackey. He'd seem like a tough guy for the Red Sox to deal, given all the uncertainty about Lester's future. But teams that have asked about Lackey say the Red Sox want a major league starter in return and probably won't trade him if they don't get one back. Or, if they get an established starter back for Lester, it would give them more flexibility in fielding offers for Lackey. But remember, Lackey's Tommy John surgery triggered a clause in his contract that sets his salary next season at just $500,000. "So I just don't know," said an official of one team, "how you can give away a $500,000 pitcher who's that good."
• Teams asking the Twins about Kurt Suzuki are being told Minnesota hasn't given up on signing him, and it's possible the team could keep him past the deadline and revisit potential deals in August.
• While there were denials all around when rumors surfaced of the Nationals' interest in Adrian Beltre, the Rangers did scout the Nationals' Triple-A club this weekend.
• More scouting sightings: As the White Sox listen to offers on John Danks, they've been eyeballing the farm systems of the Yankees, Blue Jays and Red Sox.
• And yet one more: The Red Sox, who have talked to Atlanta about Andrew Miller, were scouting Atlanta's Triple-A club in Gwinnett Valley the past few days. So feel free to file all that away.