But Lester had his career interrupted in September 2006 after being diagnosed with lymphoma, and it took him most of the 2007 season before he even approached his previous strength. He had been told it likely would take until sometime in the middle of the 2008 season before his full leg and arm strength would return. And that is precisely what happened, as he rolled up a 16-6 season, threw a no-hitter and emerged as a legitimate No. 1 starter for a team that already had a No. 1 starter in Josh Beckett.
Because Lester pitched into October, his innings in 2008 jumped to 236, which concerns the Red Sox. "I know they worry about it," says Lester, whose fastball sat at 95 mph in his first two spring outings. "But I don't. I know they'll be cautious, but one of the many things I've learned from being around Josh is how to conserve my strength."
In the offseason a year ago, Lester's name came up in discussions about a deal with the Twins for Johan Santana. At the 2007 winter meetings, Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell stood up in an organizational meeting and predicted Lester would be the equal of Santana during the next five years.
"You just don't find people and talent like Lester, especially that young," Farrell said.
Phrases such as the following are what define Lester: "When people talk about competing, that isn't enough. I don't want to just compete, I want to win. All my physical and mental preparation is about winning."
So as the Red Sox prepare to sign Lester for five years and $30 million, they will pay Beckett, Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield, John Smoltz, Brad Penny and Clay Buchholz less than $36 million this season. Compare that figure with what the New York Yankees are paying two of their pitchers. If you include two $3 million bonuses CC Sabathia will receive during the 2009 season, Sabathia and A.J. Burnett will make $36.5 million. Boston has 2009 obligations to Beckett, Lester and Matsuzaka for $21 million.
Boston's bullpen of Jonathan Papelbon, Takashi Saito, Hideki Okajima, Justin Masterson, Javier Lopez and Ramon Ramirez will make approximately $11.7 million in 2009. And that doesn't include prospect Daniel Bard, who struck out the side Sunday against the American League-champion Tampa Bay Rays while throwing 100 mph. Meanwhile, Cincinnati Reds closer Francisco Cordero will make $12 million in 2009.
Major League Baseball has warned club businesspeople that attendance is expected to be down 17-20 percent in 2009, and that it could be worse, especially for franchises such as the San Diego Padres, Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers, Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros, Colorado Rockies and others that could be seriously impacted by the recession.
So it's remarkable business for a big-market team to have one of the game's deepest pitching staffs at a cost of around $50 million with 2010 commitments to only Lester and Matsuzaka. And getting Lester for an average annual value of around $6 million from ages 25 through 29 is simply good business.
The Red Sox dabbled in the low-risk/high-reward free-agent market, but their primary winter signings were a combined 16 years and approximately $110 million for the 25-year-old Lester, 25-year-old American League MVP Dustin Pedroia and 30-year-old Kevin Youkilis, who finished third in the AL MVP balloting. Prime dollars for the primes of their careers.