A dark-horse candidate is emerging in the Jon Lester Sweepstakes.

No, it’s not the Yankees or Dodgers or Cardinals. It’s the Pirates – which has made Scott Ferrall, a lifelong Pittsburgh fan, all kinds of happy.

Are the Pirates a legitimate player to nab Lester?

“I’m not sure if they are or aren’t,” Boston Globe writer and MLB Network correspondent Nick Cafardo said on Ferrall on the Bench. “I received a couple of comments from GMs yesterday about, ‘Hey, watch out for the Pirates. They might get in on this thing.’ I think (they’ll) certainly explore it. Where I think it runs its course is trying to re-sign Lester. Do they really want to give up two or three prospects for a rental? Because I would be shocked if they could offer him six, seven years at $23 to $25 million a year to get him signed. I think they’re one of the teams in, but I’m not sure they can get it done.”

Well, they may want to. The Pirates came within one game of the NLCS last year, and this year they are 57-49 and just one game back of Milwaukee in the NL Central entering play July 30. With Francisco Liriano back from injury – he finished with 11 strikeouts in a 3-1 win over the Giants on Tuesday – the Pirates might be the best team in their division.

So maybe it is worth renting Lester for a run.

“Yeah, this guy’s a proven postseason pitcher,” Cafardo said. “He’s a money guy, no question about it. He would definitely put them over the top (in their division) and certainly make them one of the teams to beat in the playoffs, no doubt. I guess it depends on how much they want to give up. They have a good farm system and they have some good players in there. The Red Sox need outfielders. I think that’s why we hear Josh Bell’s name mentioned. So I think there’s a fit there. But we know what Pittsburgh’s financial situation has been in the past, and we know that they don’t put out a lot for free agents. If they want to step out of that, in this case, I think it would be a worthy venture for them.”

On the flipside, what are the Red Sox thinking? Sure, Boston (48-59) is out of contention this year, but Lester is a 30-year-old lefty with elite stuff. He’s 10-7 with a 2.52 ERA and 149 strikeouts in 143 innings this season.

Why would the Red Sox not want to re-sign Lester? Did they low-ball him this past offseason?

“Well, they may have,” Cafardo said. “Obviously four years at $70 million isn’t going to get it done for Jon Lester. We know he’s going to be one of these six- or seven-year guys at $160-$170 million. I don’t think it’s the money that scares the Red Sox away. It’s the years. They’ve done plenty of research on players over 30, especially pitchers, and they know it’s probably not the greatest thing to do – to sign a pitcher over 30 to a long-term deal.”

“Having said that, they do know him,” Cafardo continued. “He’s been very healthy. He’s a guy who beat cancer when he was a young player with the Red Sox. He’s a 200-inning guy. He’s a 30-start guy. He’s a money pitcher in the postseason. All those things would lead you to believe they’d want him back. But they’ve been burned on so many long-term deals, and they’ve been very fortunate to get out from underneath some of those deals where they’ve traded them off to the Dodgers a couple years back. Since then, they’ve really watched their contracts.”

Sometimes that strategy has proven effective; sometimes it hasn’t.

“They didn’t go there with Jacoby Ellsbury, and I think that really hurt them this year because they weren’t able to replace Ellsbury properly and their offense really went down the toilet pretty fast,” Cafardo said. “So they have plenty of examples, pro and con, and they’re deciding to dig in on this one. They feel that somehow they can replace Jon Lester, either in the offseason or with a trade.”


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