Editor's note: Each day this week, Tony Lee will offer an inside scoop on Jon Lester's rise from a small town in the Great Northwest to heroic ace of the Boston Red Sox. On Monday, Lester's rise from high school baseball was covered.
Jon Lester’s high school years were rather straightforward, at least from an athletic standpoint. He dominated opposing hitters, garnered national attention and, despite being passed over in the first round of the 2002 amateur draft, had first-round expectations heaped upon him as he headed off for professional ball.
His first dip into the pool, however, was a bit tenuous.
Lester and the Red Sox, who took him 57th overall, had a prolonged contract negotiation before the lefty was given the largest signing bonus — $1 million — among second-round selections. Because of the length of the bargaining sessions, lasting into August, his season was a virtual wash. One game, two-thirds of an inning, five hits, six runs.
Although short-season ball wouldn’t have yielded much more, that was it for Lester's first year. The superstar southpaw from outside Seattle had a sputtering start to his minor league career. But at least the 18-year-old was given a chance to get his feet wet, step back and then reload.
In 2003, Lester had a 3.65 ERA in 24 games (21 starts) at low Single-A Augusta and became embroiled in the first of many rounds of trade rumors. It was the Texas Rangers who were after Lester in a package with Manny Ramirez that would've sent Alex Rodriguez to Boston.
Fortunately for Red Sox fans, the course of history as we know it was never altered that offseason, and Lester took a significant step forward at high Single-A Sarasota in 2004. Although the ERA rose slightly to 4.28, the peripheral numbers that really matter began to take shape.
It was around that time that former director of amateur scouting Jason McLeod advised general manager Theo Epstein, "Whatever you do, don't trade Jon Lester."
Lester went from striking out six guys every nine innings to fanning nearly 10. He yielded just 82 hits in 91 innings. It was the precursor to greatness, and much of what took Lester to the cusp of the major leagues over the next year was what took place in his head. He had to learn to accept the bumps in the road, a lesson that would prove to be invaluable later on in his life.
"It's easy to remember the good [outings] but it's hard to forget the bad ones," Lester said of his maturation in his breakout 2005 season at Double-A Portland. "So if you had a bad start [in Single-A], it'd wear on me for a couple days, then you'd forget about it and go back out. This year, I've gotten better. If I have a good start or a bad start, you go in the shower and wash it down the drain. New day the next day — you've got to keep working."
While only 21, Lester led the Eastern League with 163 strikeouts and a 2.61 ERA that year. He was 11-6 and named the Pitcher of the Year in the circuit.
Now, when targeted in another trade package, it wasn't as an intriguing lefty that could develop into something down the road, it was as a bona fide standout with the potential to alter a major league rotation. This time it was the Florida Marlins, who were trying to get Lester included in the Josh Beckett deal.
McLeod's words seemed to make a difference. Lester was never allowed into the deal and when he went to camp the following spring, he had his sights set on the big club.
Anyone who saw the 2006 Red Sox in action knows that there was ample opportunity for young pitchers to get a chance. The injuries were everywhere among the staff. Anyone who saw Jon Lester in action around that time knows it was hard to keep him down.
The Red Sox would learn all about it, in more ways than one.
Check in Wednesday for more on Lester reaching the majors, his subsequent battle with cancer and his memorable return to a starring role with the Red Sox.
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