Buster Olney's tweet that said the St. Louis Cardinals told Jon Lester's people that they were only willing to go to $120 million for the pitcher's services is interesting and has created a lot of social media buzz.
After all, it offers a very rare view inside the secretive world of the Redbirds' front office.
But the speculation that the Redbirds are out of the bidding on Max Scherzer because he's expected to get more than the $155 million Lester eventually got from the Chicago Cubs is quite a gamble of a deductive leap.
While it is entirely possible that Scherzer will end up costing beyond what the Cardinals are willing to bid for him -- if they're willing to bid at all -- that doesn't have anything to do with Lester.
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It is much more likely that a team would assign a different maximum bid to every single player it considers. Players aren't necessarily interchangeable parts. They all offer different assets and different risks to a team.
Why would Scherzer be more valuable to the Cardinals than Lester?
Well... First, he's got a lot less miles on his pitching arm. Although both players are about the same age, Lester has pitched 1,596 innings in his career compared to 1,239 for Scherzer. That's about a season and a half of work for a healthy starter. So there's less wear and tear on Scherzer's arm and he's less likely to suffer a major injury.
Second, Scherzer has more marketability in St. Louis than Lester because he's from here. A lot of local folks are excited by the idea of Scherzer wearing the Birds on the Bat. They'd buy tickets, specifically, to watch him pitch. Lester is also a very good pitcher. But when his career is over he's going to be remembered by most as a member of the Boston Red Sox, a team he professed a desire to be a member of for life. That is, before the BoSox low-balled him and then traded him. But, still, most people figured he'd go back to Fenway Park anyway as a free agent. I suspect that on opening day in 2025 the chances that Scherzer would be throwing out the first pitch at Busch Stadium are much greater than the odds of Lester if the latter would have signed here and retired a Redbird. While Cardinals fans would embrace him, he'd always be remembered for winning the deciding game of the 2013 series against St. Louis -- even if he eclipsed the feat here over the course of his contract.
Another important reason is that the Cardinals might just like Scherzer's talents better. He's a dominating power pitcher. A stopper who can pile up strikeouts by the bushel basket. Lester averages 196 whiffs a season. Scherzer is near the top of the strikeouts per inning chart, averaging 222 per season.
In the end, it's all about assigning a dollar sign to the muscle, as Branch Rickey used to say. That is, it's about figuring out what an individual player is worth. It's NOT about standing on a street corner with a brief case full of money saying that you've got a suitcase with $120 million to spend, so who wants it?
I wouldn't expect the Redbirds would go far beyond the $150 million range over six years, for Scherzer. But that wouldn't really be that much of a budget stretch over $120 million. The Cardinals aren't going to offer Scherzer $30 million a season for five years. They'd offer the $150 over six seasons. So, for the first five years it would be $1 million more than Lester's $120 million and then there would be an extra $25 million season at the end (assuming equal installments and no signing bonus.) By the time that last installment became payable, Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina's contracts would be a distant memory.
If the Lester revelation is an indication that the Birds do, in deed, believe they need a front of the rotation starter, the real question need to ask themselves is if they would be better off spending more money on Scherzer or a smaller amount of cash and a stockpile of talent in a trade for Cole Hamels or David Price.