Turn back the clock to 2007. Jon Lester has recovered miraculously from his ailment. He wins the last game of the World Series. The next season he'll throw a no-hitter. John Lackey, mainstay for the Angels, has led the league in ERA at 3.01 and gone 19-9.
Jump ahead a few seasons. Lackey has left SoCal for Boston. While Lester continues to improve, going 19-9 himself, Lackey seems to have hit something of a brick wall, not pitching badly but neither looking like his old California self. Perhaps it's just the contrast of moving to Boston alongside names like Beckett, Lester, Buchholz and Papelbon. Perhaps not.
Then the great disaster begins. Boston, seemingly rolling toward a pennant, collapses so historically that it overshadows what would have been a historic collapse by the Braves. The whole team drops to zero in September, Lester and Lackey among them. The usual Boston witch hunt begins. The scapegoat is found --- it's beer and fried chicken. The perps are named, among them Lackey, Beckett and Lester. Heads roll, but Lester and Lackey are spared. Lackey's fading performance is attributed to a worsening bad arm that requires the once-dreaded Tommy John surgery, and he misses a season, a situation hailed by Boston media loudmouths.
Bobby Valentine is brought in to rebuild a zoo into a contender. It doesn't work. In this lost season, Lackey sits in the dugout, not appearing quite the clubhouse-killer that ranters have labeled him. Lester, meanwhile, continues to slide, going 9-14 at 4.82, bad even in this new age of inflated ERAs.
Enter John Farrell. The ex-pitching coach of Boston, he's fresh from a less-than-scintillating stint as Toronto manager, but Boston brings him back to add discipline to the clubhouse and to straighten out the pitching staff, both of which had degenerated under Francona and Valentine. It might work. It might not. Lackey returns and Lester remains. And Boston vaults to first place in the tight ALE, maintaining a slim lead into midseason. It's more than fans could have hoped for in April, let alone a few games from the halfway mark.
But there are problems galore. Most are injury-related, some not. Two that apparently are not are Lester and Lackey.
Lester sits at 7-4, but after a good start (with good support) of 6-0, has slid back to his late-2011 and 2012 level. No, he's worse. His ERA reflects his performance, and despite the hot start it sits at 4.57. He does not resemble an ace. He doesn't even resemble a starter.
Lackey, meanwhile, returned from his rehab as if he had taken it seriously. He casts a thin shadow that hasn't been seen in years. His pitching has been nothing short of brilliant. A horrific lack of luck and support have sabotaged his efforts. The Red Sox have seemed to save their poor batting and baserunning execution, along with awful fielding, for him alone. It's been a real character test for the guy we all were told had none by the gurus.
Yet, at 4-5, He sports a 3.03 ERA. He's done what Boston originally projected he'd do, which is give solid 6+ inning performances every fifth day. He's been a horse, something Boston needs badly with Lester's continued poor performance and the 9-0 Buchholz' fragile health. His record has been a team disgrace.
One assumes that things will average out and, should he continue on his current path, Lackey will be rewarded with more wins. The same cannot be said right now of Lester, Beckett's presumptive heir to the role of ace. Except for a hot start this season record-wise, he has not pitched well since midsummer of 2011.
Though Lester is several years younger than Lackey (who's signed through 2014), he becomes a free agent after the season. Boston's hands couldn't be more tied with the trade deadline approaching. If Lester continues along his downward path, will they want to risk resigning him for big money? Would they even consider making an early deal for less? On the other hand, contenders elsewhere probably would love to have a big, rangy lefty with a (still) good resume on the staff. The question would be whether or not Boston would get something useful back, either directly or indirectly.
Who would have thought that with the Red Sox' startling success thus far, Jon Lester would be a recovered ace only in his W/L totals, and even that would be headed rapidly south, while John Lackey, at 4-5, would be worlds ahead of him in the quality of his pitching?
Lackey should be going nowhere at this point. Lester, on the other hand, must either return to the form that made him a sensation a few years back, or Boston must seriously rethink its spot for him in their ongoing rebuild, despite his rebuild-friendly age. One thing is certain... Boston must have a replacement for him however they choose to handle things if the current trend continues. His hot start and his wins in 10-run explosions won't mask the situation forever.