OAKLAND — Billy Beane considers Jon Lester a proven ace who can carry a pitching staff through the playoffs, just like he did last fall. The general manager acquired Lester to make sure Oakland gets there first.
The baseball-leading, small-budget A’s won the mighty Lester sweepstakes Thursday, acquiring the left-hander and outfielder Jonny Gomes from the Boston Red Sox for slugging outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.
“Once again players like this really don’t come along too often,” Beane said. “When you get a guy who’s a legitimate No. 1 starter in the middle of the season and we currently sit in first place, we’re excited. … There’s no looking ahead. The way the playoff system is now, you want to win the division.”
Oakland, with the best record in baseball at 66-41, also received cash from Boston in another blockbuster deal by Beane. The Red Sox also receive a draft pick.
“I believe that the deliberations leading to the two trades we did today were deeply analyzed, thoughtful and value-added,” A’s owner Lew Wolff said in an email. “The best trades are when all parties have potential benefits, and what Billy accomplished is an example of such a win-win. The calls I have received from other owners were very complimentary.”
Lester is 10-7 with a career-best 2.52 ERA in 21 starts in another outstanding season. He has allowed seven earned runs in his last eight games with 54 strikeouts and nine walks. But the Red Sox put him on the trading block because he can become a free agent after the season — and Beane isn’t ready to commit to re-signing the lefty.
Lester, 30, was sought by many teams, including Pittsburgh and the Los Angeles Dodgers. The three-time All-Star originally was scheduled to start Wednesday night for the slumping Red Sox, who instead scratched Lester ahead of Thursday’s non-waiver trade deadline.
After winning their third World Series in 10 seasons last year, with Lester getting two of the four wins with a 0.59 ERA against St. Louis, the Red Sox are last in the AL East with a 48-60 record. They had Thursday off after losing for the eighth time in nine games to drop 13 games behind first-place Baltimore.
While the Red Sox look to next season, the A’s are determined to take the next step after losing in each of the past two Octobers in five-game division series to Detroit. Oakland was off Thursday before returning home to begin a weekend series with Kansas City on Friday night.
Lester is scheduled to start Saturday’s game against the Royals.
“Well I am awake,” Friday starter Sonny Gray posted on Twitter when the trade news broke early Thursday. Oakland later sent lefty Tommy Milone to the Twins for outfielder Sam Fuld, who will help fill a void in center field with Coco Crisp and Craig Gentry sidelined.
Beane believes in starting pitching depth, and the A’s sure have it. Lester joins Gray (12-3), Scott Kazmir (12-3) and recently acquired Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, obtained in a July 4 trade with the Chicago Cubs.
Gomes, a fan favorite who grew up in nearby Petaluma, provides a veteran presence who was invaluable during the A’s run to the AL West title in 2012. He also was a respected clubhouse leader in Boston, which signed him as a free agent before last season. He is hitting .234 with six homers and 32 RBIs in 78 games.
For Boston, this marks another big move of a starting pitcher to the Bay Area after Jake Peavy was traded to San Francisco on Saturday for two pitching prospects. The Red Sox traded John Lackey to St. Louis later Thursday.
The 28-year-old Cespedes won the past two Home Run Derby titles at the All-Star game. The Cuban left fielder is in the third season of a $36 million, four-year contract he signed before spring training 2012. Cespedes is batting .256 with 17 homers and 67 RBIs.
“He’s a tremendous talent, we’ve had a tremendous amount of success since he’s been here,” Beane said. “It is difficult. But if you’re going to separate yourself from everybody else and try to get a player like Lester, you have to do something that’s unique.”
Speculation had centered on the Red Sox seeking prospects to add to their already deep farm system. That would have given them more young players to use in another deal for an established player, possibly a power-hitting outfielder.
They got that in Cespedes, whose 17 homers is the exact number hit this season by the nine Red Sox players who spent time in the outfield. And Gomes’ six were the most.
Lester has said leaving the Red Sox doesn’t rule out a return to the team next season. He had said he would take a hometown discount to stay in Boston, but the team’s four-year, $70 million offer in spring training fell far short of what he could get on the open market.
Lester leaves his only pro baseball organization. The Red Sox drafted him in the second round in 2002. He made his major league debut June 10, 2006, and got a no-decision in a 7-4 loss to Texas.
In his nine major league seasons, Lester is 110-63 with a 3.64 ERA. He’s also a proven postseason star with a 3-0 record in his two World Series. He pitched 5 2-3 shutout innings against the Colorado Rockies in the clinching fourth game in 2007.
“In Lester’s case, we’re also dealing with a guy who’s one of the best at his position in the game,” Beane said, “and has been for a long time. It was just too good an opportunity to pass up.”