The Jon Lester Sweepstakes created an enormous buzz at this year’s action-packed winter meetings in San Diego. Why, I’m not sure, because it was perfectly clear to me the Cubs and Red Sox were the only teams that the star lefty seriously considered. The San Francisco Giants thought they had a shot, but that was just being naive. I guess the more intriguing topic was Lester’s decision to spend the next six years on the North Side of Chicago instead of his beloved Beantown. The reasons were numerous.
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The game’s top free-agent pitcher, Jon Lester is extremely loyal to Theo Epstein, Chicago’s chief executive who ran the show in Boston when the ace enjoyed success there. Another determining factor was the presence of Joe Maddon, a player’s manager in the same mold as Terry Francona, the southpaw’s former skipper with the Red Sox. But when Epstein engineered the trade to acquire veteran catcher Miguel Montero, I believe the move convinced Lester to take his talents to the ivy-covered walls of Wrigley Field.
I know the Red Sox have a fine young catcher in Christian Vazquez. And the Cubs incumbent receiver, Wellington Castillo, swings a powerful right-handed bat. But both players lack experience, and Castillo is not known for his defense or ability to frame pitches. Montero, on the other hand, is a two-time All-Star who would put any established pitcher at ease to do his thing. The 31-year-old Venezuelan is also a solid leader and can deliver some offensive power from the left side of the plate.
“He’s just a perfect fit for us,” says Epstein of Montero, the former Arizona Diamondback. “He calls a good game and can get vocal out there.”
Epstein’s endorsement seemed to tip the scales for Lester, who agreed to terms with the Cubs about a day later.
The annual meetings have become both a social and business event in recent years. It’s an affair where movers and shakers tend to relax over cocktails, smoke cigars and lay the groundwork for possible future transactions. This year’s gathering had unique energy, however, and the activity that exploded on the final day was unprecedented.
I wasn’t surprised to see Yeonis Cespedes hit the road, but I never expected him to end up in Detroit with the dangerous Tigers. The Cuban slugger in the same lineup with Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez is a scary thought for opposing pitchers. So, despite the fact the Chicago White Sox have definitely become legit — especially after reportedly landing Melky Cabrera for three years and $42 million on Sunday — Los Tigres are still the team to beat in the American League Central.
As for the Kansas City Royals, the Wild Card team from that division and current AL champs, the situation is a bit unsettled. The club inked Kendrys Morales to a two-year, $17 million deal to replace Billy Butler as the designated hitter. But I assumed that Ervin Santana, a former Royal, would be added to fill the spot vacated by James Shields in the starting rotation. Instead, the veteran Santana decided to accept a four-year package with the Minnesota Twins.
Francisco Liriano made the smart move in accepting a three-year, $39 million package with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The port-side Dominican hurler saw his career rejuvenate with the Bucs the last two seasons, thanks in part to the guidance of pitching coach Ray Searage. In the “Top 10 Latino free agents” I listed in this column prior to Thanksgiving, it was mentioned that Liriano was leaning toward signing with his former team, as did Martinez with Detroit. I also predicted the destinations of Nelson Cruz and Hanley Ramirez.
The suitors seem to be shrinking for Asdrubal Cabrera, at least if he still insists on playing shortstop. The New York Mets don’t seem to be interested nor do the Philadelphia Phillies, a team that wants to get younger after trading Jimmy Rollins. But what about Asdrubal replacing bad boy Everth Cabrera for the San Diego Padres? If the Padres are trying to improve offensively by trading for Matt Kemp, wouldn’t it be nice to add the veteran Cabrera, a switch-hitting middle infielder who once won the Silver Slugger Award?
Finally, the market for free-agent relief pitchers seems a bit saturated, and that’s not good for guys with fading careers like Rafael Soriano and Francisco Rodriguez. That issue doesn’t seem to affect the appeal of Sergio Romo, however, who is currently entertaining offers from over a half dozen teams in both leagues. Maybe it’s the Mexican-American’s charisma or his fearless, warrior-like demeanor. The signature slider remains effective, and an improved cambio makes his mediocre fast ball look somewhat livelier. Romo’s former club, the World Champion Giants, would like to retain him. But interest among East Coast teams is strong, especially in the American League. And if the money is right, a change in scenery might not be a bad idea. My advise: Go for that pot of gold, amigo!