Buster Olney: Detroit Tigers

videoSAN DIEGO -- In keeping with tradition, the Rule 5 draft was held on the final morning of baseball's winter meetings Thursday, and typically, executives pull roller bags into and out of that room, dying to get to the airport after four boring days of sitting around waiting for their phone to ring and picking through plates of stale room service nachos.

But that was not the feel this year. No, there were wry smiles all over the place as scouts and club officials chuckled over how this year's meetings turned into some kind of transaction stock car race. The Cubs and White Sox slammed against the news of each other; the Dodgers lapped the field in a Wednesday sprint that carried into Thursday morning; the Red Sox lost the Lester 500 but hit the checkered flag with three pitchers.

In the usual way, there were lots of winners and some losers -- the Giants, for example, who own October every other year but have gotten off to a slow start this winter, missing out on Pablo Sandoval and Lester. They want to make a deal sooner rather than later, assistant GM Bobby Evans says. But in light of the fact that these were not your typical winter meetings, we're going next level on the whole winners and losers thing
Sandoval/RamirezUSA TODAY Sports, AP PhotoThe Red Sox signed two big hitters this offseason. Now, they need to make a splash on the mound.
SAN DIEGO -- As the winter meetings kick off, here are the most significant needs for 12 teams that view themselves as top contenders in 2015:

1. Boston Red Sox: A starting pitcher

Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval are unique in this winter’s market in that they each have the ability to hit good pitching, and so it’s possible that Boston’s offense will rebound in a big way next season. But it really won’t matter unless Boston finds a way to make up for the departures of Jon Lester and John Lackey -- maybe even by re-signing Lester.

As of this morning, the Red Sox rotation looks like this, according to their website:

1. Clay Buchholz
2. Joe Kelly
3. Rubby De La Rosa
4. Allen Webster
5. Anthony Ranaudo

As a reminder, Boston’s ranking in ERA after the All-Star break, when it mostly competed without Lester and Lackey:

30. Minnesota Twins, 4.99
29. Colorado Rockies, 4.51
28. Chicago White Sox, 4.47
27. Boston Red Sox, 4.27

If not Lester, then the Red Sox need James Shields; if not Shields, they need Jeff Samardzija, Doug Fister or one of the other high-end starters on the market.

As the Lester bidding nears a conclusion, John Henry flew to meet with Lester one-on-one, writes Rob Bradford and Alex Speier. The Red Sox should bolster their rotation by using trade chips rather than signing pitchers to long-term deals, writes Brian MacPherson.

Max Scherzer would also be available, writes Michael Silverman.

Here’s the problem with that for Boston:

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Jon LesterBob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsSome believe Jon Lester will fetch between $135 million and $150 million in his next contract.
Andrew Miller has a free-agent market all to himself, in a sense, as the only elite left-handed power reliever, and in the hours ahead he will choose his next team independent of anything else that happens with other players. There are a small handful of starting pitchers looking for one-year deals to rebuild value, like Brett Anderson. Theoretically, they could sign without being affected by other dominoes.

But many other pitchers -- including those who could be traded, like Oakland’s Jeff Samardzija -- may have to wait for Jon Lester to set the price. Almost everything in the pitching market seems to be on hold until Lester makes his choice among offers from the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants (and perhaps others). Once that happens, the price ceiling will be established. “Then everything else will fall in line after that,” said one agent.

Lester and Max Scherzer are regarded as the two best free-agent pitchers, but some club evaluators fully expect Scherzer’s contract talks to carry over for weeks, as agent Scott Boras works to make a big deal happen -- something significantly more than the six-year, $144 million deal that the Tigers offered to Scherzer in the spring. Boras’ negotiations often play out way past the winter meetings, and there is so little current buzz around Scherzer that some evaluators and agents theorize that one of two scenarios is developing with the former Cy Young Award winner:

1. He could be out on a limb, some evaluators believe, with his expected price undercut by the extraordinarily high volume of available pitching. “It’s not the best time to be looking for a big deal,” said one GM, noting the many pitching alternatives that can be found for less money.

2. He will be the target of a big, bold surprise strike by some team flush with cash, much in the way that the Washington Nationals jumped on Jayson Werth for $126 million in December 2010. Scherzer might be one among many options, but he is the best right-hander available right now with few strings attached, because he’s a free agent. (A team would have to surrender a top draft pick to sign him.) Sure, you can land Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto or Jordan Zimmermann, but any interested team would have to trade a major package of prospects in return.

So Lester is viewed as the bottleneck of the moment, and once he goes, an array of trades and signings will follow

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10 crucial matchups in the ALCS, NLCS 

October, 8, 2014
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Jarrod Dyson and Caleb JosephGetty Images/USA Today SportsJarrod Dyson and his aggressive Royals are set to take on strong-armed catcher Caleb Joseph.
ST. LOUIS -- Ten key matchups in the AL and NL Championship Series that begin Friday and Saturday, respectively:

1. The Orioles vs. the Kansas City running game: This is like a steel-cage match within the main event. The Royals have run aggressively in the postseason, with 12 stolen bases in 13 attempts, including seven in their wild-card game against Oakland. Terrance Gore and Jarrod Dyson are setting new standards for brazenness.

But the Orioles are excellent at controlling the running game, and with the layoff before the start of the ALCS on Friday, you can bet O's manager Buck Showalter and his staff are preparing for the Royals' roadrunners. They already have some great countermeasures in place, such as:

Chris Tillman: Nobody steals against him because he delivers his pitches to the plate so quickly. Opponents have tried to steal 13 times on him over the past two years and have been successful twice. To repeat, that's two steals in 13 attempts.

Caleb Joseph: The catcher has a great arm, and during the season he threw out 23 of 57 baserunners.

Wei-Yin Chen: He has allowed just nine steals (in 13 tries) over the past two years.

The Royals' best chances may come against the Baltimore bullpen, using Gore and Dyson. Teams try to run on Darren O'Day because of his unconventional delivery (10 steals in 15 attempts over the past two seasons), and there have been only six attempts over the past two years against Andrew Miller (with four steals).

No team stole more bases than the Royals did during the regular season, while only seven teams allowed fewer steals than Baltimore.

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Victor Martinez and Russell MartinGetty ImagesFree agents-to-be Victor Martinez and Russell Martin should be in demand this offseason.
Lockers are being cleaned out these days, first in Oakland, then Pittsburgh, Detroit and Anaheim. Goodbyes are being said, perhaps temporarily or maybe for longer than that.

Victor Martinez's season is over, and maybe his time with the Tigers is finished as well. Russell Martin got a standing ovation in the last inning of the wild-card game last week as the Pirates' season waned to a close, and the fans chanted his name, but nobody knows if he'll be back.

Both will be highly coveted this winter, and with multiple suitors, and while the Tigers and Pirates are expected to pursue their respective veterans, the bidding could be extraordinary.

Martinez is coming off a season in which he was arguably the best pure hitter in the majors, batting .335 with 32 homers, 103 RBIs, 70 walks and 42 strikeouts. Nobody had a greater ratio of walks to strikeouts, and it wasn't even close. Martinez will turn 36 in December and will be viewed as a DH-only player by some teams, at a time when the industry generally is veering away from full-time DHs.

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Jordan ZimmermannPatrick Smith/Getty ImagesJordan Zimmermann was dominating the Giants, but was pulled with two outs in the ninth.
LOS ANGELES -- If there’s a common denominator in the first extraordinary week of the playoffs, it is this: There is no perfect time for a manager to pull his starting pitcher.

On one day, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly was criticized for leaving Clayton Kershaw in the game too long, and the next day, he was questioned about perhaps pulling Zack Greinke too soon.

Ned Yost called for relief for James Shields after 88 pitches and would’ve never been forgiven by the Kansas City fan base if the Royals hadn’t come back to win their wild-card game against Oakland. On Saturday, Matt Williams may have unwittingly contributed to the list of longest games in history by removing Jordan Zimmermann after just 100 pitches and a stretch in which he retired 20 of 21 batters.

Generally, there are a few things are at play here

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Josh DonaldsonBob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsIf a teardown of the A's happens, Josh Donaldson is likely to go.
PITTSBURGH -- When you hear Ralph Branca tell the story of Bobby Thomson’s historic home run, he offers a full appreciation of that moment, but the hurt is still there. Dennis Eckersley bears the same tone when speaking of Kirk Gibson’s home run, that small ache about a swing that changed lives.

This is what lies before the Oakland Athletics, whose wild-card game loss to the Kansas City Royals Tuesday night was a microcosm of their season -- the great start, the enormous lead right in the middle, the collapse, the late revival, and then a finish that will forever haunt them.

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Final-day decisions for playoff contenders 

September, 28, 2014
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Pittsburgh PiratesJustin K. Aller/Getty ImagesDespite a loss Saturday, the Pittsburgh Pirates remain alive for the NL Central crown.
This final day of the scheduled regular season should be something that Major League Baseball dreamed about, because even after seven weeks of spring training and 182 days of play, six teams -- 20 percent of the clubs -- don’t know where they will be Monday:

• With a St. Louis Cardinals loss and Pittsburgh Pirates win today, there would be a playoff game to decide the NL Central in St. Louis.

• With a Detroit Tigers loss and a Kansas City Royals win today, there would be a playoff in Detroit.

• With an Oakland Athletics loss and a Seattle Mariners win today, there would be a playoff game in Seattle.

The value of the second wild-card spot and the one-game wild-card game has fully manifested. The Tigers and Cardinals are desperately trying to avoid that one game play-in, and if they win today, they’ll get a few days off. The Pirates and Royals -- both long shots to win their respective divisions a week ago -- now have a real chance to avoid the one-game play-in game and are pushing to the finish line.

And the Mariners are somehow still alive, even after losing every game Sept. 20 through Sept. 24 and experiencing a near total collapse of their pitching. Somehow, Oakland still hasn’t clinched, despite needing just one more victory to avoid the greatest collapse in baseball history. The Athletics have a lot at stake, anyway, and are facing historical infamy.

But having to put everything on the line today will cost each of these teams, so even for those that succeed, the burden moving forward will be even greater

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10 days, 10 burning questions 

September, 19, 2014
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Jon Lester, Matt Shoemaker, and Norichika AokiAP ImagesA trio of key cast members for the production of the season's 10 final days.
KANSAS CITY -- Ten days left in the regular season. Ten burning questions.

1. Will Oakland pull out of its flat spin?

The Athletics have surrendered 15.5 games in the standings to the Angels in 39 days, which might otherwise seem impossible if you weren’t watching the Athletics play. Oakland faced a possible sweep Thursday, with Nick Martinez on the mound for the Rangers -- this is a pitcher who allowed 52 walks in 122 1/3 innings going in. After Texas scored four runs in the top of the first against Sonny Gray, the Athletics saw a total of 19 pitches in the first two innings against Martinez.

When stuff like this is happening

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The secret to Posey's hot streak 

September, 7, 2014
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Buster PoseyLeon Halip/Getty ImageGiants backstop Buster Posey homered off David Price Saturday, his 20th of the 2014 season.
DETROIT -- Tilted back in his chair in the visitors clubhouse at Comerica Park on Saturday morning, San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy started to explain Buster Posey's recent hot streak by talking about his history as a great hitter, about a swing that has always been simple and effective.

But in the midst of that, Bochy veered and focused on a tangible change that Posey has made. Bochy said he might’ve gotten too passive in his plate appearances earlier this season, perhaps getting himself in a hole in the ball-strike count.

As if to demonstrate the point, Posey came to the plate against David Price, a pitcher who issues few walks and fills the strike zone with fastballs, and Posey jumped on a first pitch for his 20th homer of the year, the fifth run in San Francisco’s 5-4 victory on Saturday.

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David PriceAP Photo/Kathy WillensDavid Price is at the apex of his career, but may be switching uniforms before the end of 2014.
DETROIT -- David Price's focus is on doing the best he can for the Tampa Bay Rays, he said here Saturday. But every day, there are reminders that he could be in his last hours with Tampa Bay.

Players on other teams text him daily to ask whether he’s heard anything about an impending trade. Sometimes, they’ll be more direct, as Detroit reliever Joba Chamberlain was Saturday, in approaching Price on the field to chat about the constant rumors.

Price’s answer is consistent: He doesn’t know anything. He doesn’t have a special pipeline into the trade talks the Rays have had. He starts against the Detroit Tigers on "Sunday Night Baseball" (8 ET, ESPN and WatchESPN) believing that he is throwing the ball as well as he has at any point in his career, but not knowing whether this might be his last start for the Rays, or the first of another four months’ worth of starts for them.

The folks he works for -- most notably, GM Andrew Friedman -- probably don’t know the answer, either. The Rays have won nine of their past 11 games, and have crawled back to within 8.5 games of first place in the American League East. Close enough for hope, but far enough away for the Rays to strongly consider trading the former Cy Young winner.

Price’s situation probably gained some clarity with the trade of Jeff Samardzija, who was the other big-time starter available on the market. That deal firmly established an acceptable asking price for David Price.

A lot of folks in the industry believe that the Oakland Athletics paid heavily for Samardzija and Jason Hammel, surrendering superstar prospect Addison Russell as well as former No. 1 pick Billy McKinney. Friedman can now use that deal as a way to shape any proposals for Price, because while rival officials were well aware that Samardzija has thrown about 6,500 fewer pitches than Price, Price is still widely regarded as the better pitcher, having had his success in the AL East.

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When Tony Gwynn spoke up 

June, 17, 2014
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Tony GwynnAP Photo/Michael S. GreenTony Gwynn wasn't just outspoken as a player, he was as a doting father.
Memories of Tony Gwynn kept welling up Monday, as the reality of his death sunk in. He was one of the best hitters ever, yes -- he hit over .300 in his last 19 seasons, which is unfathomable -- and he was such a good person, as borne out by the overwhelming response to the news.

But there were a lot of sides to Gwynn. He was gregarious, yes, but he also had strong opinions and was unafraid in expressing them; he mentioned to me many times that he believed he had earned the right to speak his mind. And he did.

If only the rest of the industry had been as outspoken as Gwynn about the issues of performance-enhancing drugs. With just about everybody in the sport remaining quiet, Gwynn was talking about this in the mid-'90s. He went on the record with Bob Nightengale for a Los Angeles Times story -- in 1995:

From Bob’s story:
Said Padre all-star right fielder Tony Gwynn, "It's like the big secret we're not supposed to talk about, but believe me, we wonder just like the rest of people. I'm standing out there in the outfield when a guy comes up, and I'm thinking, 'Hey, I wonder if this guy is on steroids.'

"I think we all have our suspicions who's on the stuff, but unless someone comes out and admits to it, who'll ever know for sure?"

To repeat: That was 1995.

By then, Gwynn had won five batting titles and had finished in the top 10 in the MVP voting five times, and he had scored the winning run in the 1994 All-Star Game. Because he and Frank Thomas and a very small handful of people in the game spoke out, nobody can whitewash history and pretend that this problem sneaked up on the sport.

Gwynn would tell stories about going into the weight room of the early '90s Oakland Athletics -- the Athletics of Jose Canseco -- and being stunned by the charts detailing how much each player was lifting in his weight work.

In 2003, when I was working for the New York Times, Gwynn was blunt in what he saw as the high impact of amphetamines in baseball.

From that story:
"People might think there is a steroid problem in baseball, but it's nowhere near the other problem; the other, it's a rampant problem," said Tony Gwynn, the former San Diego Padres outfielder who estimated that 50 percent of position players regularly use amphetamines, commonly called greenies.

Even so, players appear to be much more tolerant about the use of amphetamines than of steroids, recent interviews with players and executives indicate. Gwynn said, "Guys feel like steroids are cheating and greenies aren't."

More, about a move among the White Sox's younger players to push for testing:
One White Sox player said some teammates felt nervous discussing their debate because union officials had implied that if the boycott went forward, the players association would ostracize them.

[Tom] Glavine denied that anyone had been threatened. "All I can tell you is the program we came up with that was inevitably enacted was a combination of everything -- a combination of guys wanting a lot, of guys not wanting anything -- trying to get somewhere in the middle," he said. "The program that we actually came up with was actually stronger than the initial proposals that were drawn up."

But Gwynn, when asked why players have not pushed the union harder for more aggressive drug testing, said: "They're scared to say something, they're scared to be looked upon by the union as something other than a conformist. No one wants to be in that position, it's a tough position to be in. I think players think, 'I know I'm clean and I want testing,' but as far as the group and going to the union guys for more testing, they're not going to do that.

"The young players aren't going to say something, because they're young and trying to get established, and the old guys are like, 'I just want my pension; I don't want to do anything messing with my pension.' The guys in the middle are like, 'Let somebody else worry about it.'"

And more from Gwynn:
Gwynn told a story to illustrate his sense of how desperate some players are to improve their performance. When San Diego was on the road during one of Gwynn's final seasons, he walked into a visitors clubhouse and found the floor littered with amphetamines.

"There were a bunch of pills lying all over the floor," he said. "There had been another team in there just before us, and evidently, they'd left these greenies behind. Our guys were like, 'Hey, wait, wait, don't throw those out.'"


Gwynn seemed to know everybody, and he treated everybody the same, whether it be a clubhouse attendant or a reporter or another player; he once mentioned to me that his father insisted his children be respectful to others, and Tony learned well.

Tyler Kepner mentioned this in his story about Gwynn:
I was a teenager when I first interviewed Gwynn, working for a small magazine I published from home. This was not Sports Illustrated or ESPN. He had no special reason to be nice. But every time the Padres came to town, Gwynn would greet me warmly.

He noticed things others would not. One time we spoke, I was wearing a Vanderbilt golf shirt. Gwynn noticed the logo and asked if I went there. When I said yes, he lit up. The Padres beat writer Buster Olney, of The San Diego Union-Tribune, also went there, Gwynn said excitedly. “You’ve got to meet him!” he said.

Pause for a moment to consider how rare this is. Few players would bother to notice a detail on a reporter’s shirt. Few would know which college the team’s beat writer had attended. Fewer still would then offer, with genuine enthusiasm, to play matchmaker.

But that was Gwynn. When our interview ended, he went back to the clubhouse, found Olney and brought him to the dugout to meet me. A few years later Olney was writing for The New York Times, and he recommended me for a job. Gwynn had set me on my career path.

Yep. This was Tony. Only Tony would do something like that.

Tony Gwynn #19 of the San Diego Padres
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesTony Gwynn was a great hitter, but also won five Gold Gloves on defense.

Because he was such a great hitter, I don't think he got as much credit as he might have for his baserunning -- he stole 56 bases in a season, and 319 in his career -- or for his defense. Standing flat-footed, Gwynn didn't have a particularly strong arm, but he perfected his use of his body in building momentum into his throws, especially as he chased down balls close to the right-field foul line. He was awarded a Gold Glove in five seasons in his career.

Ozzie Smith told Rick Hummel: Gwynn was just as proud of his defense.

When I covered the Padres, Gwynn’s son was around Jack Murphy Stadium a lot -- a quiet 10-year-old but always on the move, clambering around the clubhouse, playing around on the field. Years later, he reached the big leagues, and he was referred to as Tony Gwynn Jr.

But the first time I saw him in a clubhouse after he reached the big leagues, when he was with the Brewers, I apologized. I had to call him Anthony, I told him, because that's what his dad always called him.

More on Gwynn

• The Phillies hung Tony Gwynn Jr.'s jersey in their dugout Monday night.

• Tony Gwynn was a father figure to Stephen Strasburg, as Adam Kilgore writes.

• The Orioles' Adam Jones grew up in San Diego and was recruited by Gwynn for San Diego State.

Barry Bonds -- who had a close friendship with Gwynn -- learned the news about Gwynn from Nightengale, and was hurt.

• Paul Molitor remembered him as an innovator.

• The Mariners paid tribute to Gwynn Monday.

• Fans visited Gwynn’s statue.

Notables

• The Royals hammered Justin Verlander Monday night in the first game of a three-game series between the division rivals, and reduced Detroit's lead to a half-game.

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Victor MartinezOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesVictor Martinez's focus and consistency have been refined over 5,732 career plate appearances.
DETROIT -- Victor Martinez's walk from the on-deck circle to home plate is deliberate, a steady and unhurried amble. His walk-up music finishes, the pitcher, catcher and umpire wait, but Martinez will not be rushed. Ever. He gets in the box when he is ready, when he is prepared for the at-bat to begin. If the pitcher pushes the pace, Martinez will simply step out.

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus says he has never been around a player with more focus on each pitch of each at-bat -- and this was not always the case. Martinez says that early in his career with the Indians, he grew to hate the feeling that he had given away an at-bat, that he had not been as prepared as he should have been.

As a catcher, he had a feel for how pitchers worked, for their pace, and he would watch Ichiro Suzuki prepare for each at-bat, stretching, bending, stepping out of the box for a practice swing.

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Anibal SanchezJesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsAnibal Sanchez allowed 25 stolen bases in 26 attempts during the 2013 season.
BOSTON -- From the first day of spring training, the Detroit Tigers players say, Brad Ausmus talked about the running game.

But not only the running game of the Detroit baserunners, who were told to look for opportunities to take a base when they see it. Ausmus also wanted his pitchers to think more about the running game.

When pitchers threw their bullpen sessions in the spring, about a third of their work was done from the stretch, Alex Avila recalled. They simulated situations in which there was a runner at first, or first and third. They worked on varying their delivery times to the plate and on throwing to first base.

Last year, opposing teams ran aggressively against the Tigers. Detroit allowed 128 steals in 157 attempts, a staggering rate of 81.5 percent, which ranked 29th in the majors. Only two teams allowed more stolen bases.

This season, the Tigers have allowed 27 steals in 42 attempts, and their 35.7 percent rate of nabbing runners ranks fifth in the majors.

The pitchers have bought in to slowing down opposing runners, said Ausmus. That includes Anibal Sanchez, particularly, after he's had a lot of trouble with stolen bases in the past. Last year, Sanchez allowed 25 steals in 26 attempts.

This year, Sanchez's numbers aren't much better (six steals allowed in seven attempts), but Avila feels he’s throwing better, and has put in the work to improve. “Throwing out runners is a two-way street,” said Avila.

The Tigers added Rajai Davis and Ian Kinsler during the offseason, and so it was inevitable that Detroit would run more and steal more bases. The Tigers’ baserunners generally have a green light to run, other than when they get a hold sign from the bench, and Torii Hunter believes the Detroit baserunners are assuming a natural aggressiveness.

Detroit leads the AL in steals with 36 -- one more than all of last season, when the Tigers finished last in MLB.

More on the Red Sox, Tigers

• The Boston Red Sox players have a strong sense of what it takes to win, after going from worst to first last season, and there is deep unhappiness with the team’s situational play right now. They feel like they should be taking advantage of those opportunities to move runners in close games, given the team’s dip in power production this season, and given Boston’s own strong pitching. The Red Sox currently rank 15th in runs, after leading the majors -- by far -- in 2013.

• The sands in the hourglass continue to slide away in the time remaining for the Red Sox to sign Jon Lester to a long-term extension. Clayton Kershaw set the very top of the market when he got a $215 million deal in the offseason, but the fairer comparables for Lester might be Cole Hamels, who got $144 million from the Philadelphia Phillies a few months before he was set to hit the market as a free agent, or Matt Cain, who got a five-year, $112.5 million extension in the spring before his free-agent fall.

The Red Sox offered Lester $70 million over four years earlier this year, and while Lester has mentioned that he’d like to stay in Boston, there is typically a time in the baseball calendar when it makes more sense for a prospective free agent to simply wait until he can hit the market.

If Boston intends to make a stronger offer to the 30-year-old Lester, who is off to the best start of his career, then it makes absolutely no sense to wait before presenting the upgraded proposal.

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Scherzer & Sandoval & LesterUSA TODAY SportsMax Scherzer and Jon Lester are off to great starts in "prove it" years, while Pablo Sandoval has scuffled.
In the April leading up to CC Sabathia’s free agency in 2008, his ERA after four starts was 13.50. Months later, he got the biggest contract ever for a pitcher -- $161 million -- after he had bounced back, and then been traded to Milwaukee and led the Brewers into the postseason.

All of that is a long way of saying that it’s still very early, and there is plenty of time for the members of the prospective free-agent class of 2015 to place themselves on the road to really big dollars.

But the sample size is growing.

A rating of the first part of the season for free agents, on a scale of 1 to 10:

Max Scherzer: 10

Nobody bet more on himself than Scherzer

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