So who would have guessed last October that the central figure of Trade Deadline Week 2014 would be . . . Jon Lester?
But that's where Lester and the Red Sox find themselves all of a sudden. And even though they're likely to wait until the last 24 to 36 hours before Thursday's deadline to make a final call on where (and whether) to deal their ace, multiple teams report the Red Sox have the auction blocks in place.
And, at this point, why wouldn't they? All these factors are telling them they'd be insane not to see what somebody might be willing to offer for a proven 30-year-old warrior who has given up a total of seven earned runs in his past eight starts:
• The starting-pitcher market is a wasteland. With the Rays unlikely to move David Price, with the Phillies' inflated asking price for Cole Hamels and with Cliff Lee's elbow and money issues, there's no available starter even close to Lester in either stature or impact.
So the Red Sox have contacted every contender that's looking for a starter and let all of them know Lester could be available for a two- or three-player package fronted by at least one upper-echelon prospect. So just take all those Price-to-the-Dodgers/Mariners/Cardinals rumors and substitute Lester's name, and you'll be right on target. But while the asking price remains monstrous, it isn't quite what the Rays were asking for Price, either. "In the end, it has to be less," one rival executive said, "just because he's a free agent, and the other guy [Price] is not."
• He can still sign with the Red Sox. Lester did the Red Sox a big favor Friday night by saying publicly that he would "understand" if they traded him and that he'd be willing to sign with them next winter if they did. Without those words, the Red Sox would have had to weigh the potential ramifications of moving Lester on both their fan base and clubhouse. But now they're virtually free to do what they have to do. After months of conversation, they know essentially what it would take to sign him -- whether that's now or next winter. If he's traded midseason, they wouldn't lose their first-round pick if they re-signed him. And ultimately, they can spin this deal by saying they got much more back than the draft-pick compensation they'd have gotten if they held onto him.
• Their dreams of contending are over. By losing five in a row last week to the Blue Jays and Rays, the Red Sox removed themselves from that dreaded middle ground and essentially told their front office, pretty much once and for all, it was time to sell. ESPN.com's standings page now gives them a 1.5 percent chance of making the postseason. And for a front office as analytical as this team's, that's a clear signal to jump to the head of the sellers' line. So other clubs report the Red Sox are now shopping Lester and pretty much everyone else on the roster who can be a free agent ( Andrew Miller, Craig Breslow, Burke Badenhop, Jonny Gomes, Stephen Drew), with the exception of Koji Uehara. But they've told clubs they don't feel pressured to move any of them unless they get "value" back. And not surprisingly, the two players on that list they've priced the highest are Lester and Miller. Officials of two clubs report the Red Sox have asked for one of their top prospects, plus a lesser prospect, just for Miller. So clearly, they're selling with purpose, not just to say they did.
It makes so much sense, in other words, for the Red Sox to deal Lester in the next three days that logic tells you it almost has to happen. But that doesn't mean it isn't risky if they have any hope at all of re-signing him.
For one thing, to bring him back next winter, dealing him would mean they probably have to win the free-agent bidding war. And remember, that bidding war is almost certain to include the Yankees. So whatever the Red Sox thought they could sign Lester for a few months ago, the cost just went up.
And there's something else to consider: At the moment, the only team Lester has ever played for is the Red Sox. And some players, one NL executive theorized, "don't want to have another team on the back of their baseball card. If they stay with one team their whole career, that means something. And if they go somewhere else, maybe their eyes get opened to something else, to other places and other ways of doing things."
"If they really want to keep him," an AL executive said, "they'd keep him now and give him a qualifying offer."
But what people around the sport really think is that this is a front office that already knows ownership isn't willing to commit to Lester for the years and dollars he's looking for. So it's time to make the best deal that's out there. And that time, stunningly, has arrived -- in the final hours of Trade Deadline Week 2014.
"I don't know how that happened," Byrd told ESPN.com. "You know, it's weird. If you have a 20-team no-trade, there's some thought that goes into it. But . . . somehow, it just worked out this year to where those were two of the four teams."
Byrd said the other two clubs on his list -- Toronto and Tampa Bay -- are on there because they play on artificial turf. But in the case of Seattle and Kansas City, "I'm not sure why I picked those two teams," he said.
"With Seattle, I know they went and got [Robinson] Cano last year, but I don't think anybody in baseball saw them being where they are," Byrd said. "And Kansas City, I didn't think they'd trade for me because they've always had outfield depth in their organization. So it's just one of those things where I kind of lucked out. So I can control my destiny just a little bit."
Sources say the Phillies are actually having more difficulty trading Byrd than they had anticipated. The Royals appear to have backed off, at least in part because he's under contract for $8 million next year and could want his $8 million option for 2016 picked up before he'd approve a deal. And the Reds, another team with interest, are reassessing their situation after losing eight of nine since the All-Star break.
So that leaves Seattle, which is still looking for a bat, and possibly San Francisco. The Giants are shopping for potential offensive upgrades and have asked the Phillies about Byrd, but are prioritizing second base. And while talks are ongoing, the Phillies don't appear to have a clear path to a deal with either club.
Byrd, who turns 37 next month, told ESPN.com he hopes the Phillies don't trade him this week, even if it means spending the last two months of the season on a team that's on pace for 91 losses, because "I signed over here hoping I could retire a Phillie. But I also know there's a business side."
So what would he say if Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. asked him to approve a deal to a team on his no-trade list? Byrd hinted he'd lean toward approving a trade.
"Then I have to have a conversation with my wife and with my agents [Seth and Sam Levinson], and see what's best for me, my family and what's best for this organization, because I can't be that selfish," he said. "I was blessed. Ruben came hard and wanted me here this year. He made it easy for me this offseason. So I can't be tough on him."
Still, it would be surprising if Byrd didn't ask for some sort of perk in order to waive his trade-veto rights, especially with Seattle emerging as his most likely destination. So it's no longer a certainty he gets traded at all this week.
• The White Sox had scouts watching the Yankees' system, particularly the minor league catching surplus, in the past few days. It is yet one more indication the Yankees are focused on John Danks in their search for another starting pitcher. Danks' $14.25 million salary the next two years wouldn't be as big an issue for the Yankees as it is for other clubs. But what might be a factor is that these are two teams that have had a lot of trouble matching up in recent years. In the past decade, the only significant trade the Yankees and White Sox have made was the deal that sent Nick Swisher to the Bronx -- six years ago.
• While the Yankees have looked into names like Josh Willingham, other clubs say they appear most focused this week on finding a right-handed hitting platoon partner in right field for Ichiro Suzuki, and one with no long-term salary commitments. So names like Chris Denorfia (Padres) and Justin Ruggiano (Cubs) are more likely than, say, Marlon Byrd or Alex Rios.
• The Royals also appear to have decided Rios isn't a good fit in their hunt for an outfield bat. And one team that spoke with them described them this way: "They can't take on a lot of money for anything." So it's possible Kansas City may not go bat-shopping until August, when the cost and salary commitments are lower.
• Can we call a moratorium on Troy Tulowitzki rumors this week? Teams that have checked in on him say they've been told Rockies ownership is adamantly opposed to moving both him and Carlos Gonzalez, at least for now. Instead, the Rockies are only really listening on their bullpen arms: Adam Ottavino, Rex Brothers, Matt Belisle and possibly LaTroy Hawkins, but only if they're overwhelmed.
• The Diamondbacks are telling teams they'd talk about moving closer Addison Reed, but aren't likely to move reliever Brad Ziegler. Arizona is also still listening on Aaron Hill, Oliver Perez and, for the right offer, Martin Prado and Josh Collmenter.
• Teams continue to ask the Phillies about Cole Hamels, and report that A) they will listen but B) the price is astronomical. Hamels has four years left on his contract after this season, at $22.5 million a year. And the Phillies have told teams they're willing to take on $10 million of that. But that still means any team dealing for him would be on the hook for $20 million a year. And given that, one AL executive said, the asking price is "just not realistic." While clubs basically look at Hamels as a guy the Phillies clearly don't want to trade, they remain frustrated that the Phillies don't factor in all the money that would be assumed when they ask for every team's top three or four young players. "That has to count for something," the exec said, "if you're assuming all that salary. But Ruben wants his doors blown off in order to trade him. And you don't get your doors blown off if this kind of money is attached. It doesn't work that way."
• Finally, the chances of Cliff Lee getting traded before August are now essentially slim and none. Lee has allowed 21 hits and nine runs in 10 2/3 innings in his two starts since coming off the disabled list. And scouts who jetted in to watch him say he has looked far from healthy. "He tried to reach back and there was nothing there," one said. "Every pitch was down across the board, except his changeup," said another. On the other hand, one scout said, laughing: "He went 2-for-2 at the plate, with an RBI. So I told our guys, 'Hey, if we need a bat . . . ' "