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What is the St. Louis Cardinals' interest in free agent starter Jon Lester?

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This rumor has legs until they're cut out from underneath it.

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

A week ago, Jim Bowden of ESPN tweeted that the St. Louis Cardinals had expressed interest in free agent starting pitcher Jon Lester. The rumor was hard to believe. Inquiring about a top-shelf free agent pitcher would be out of character for the Cardinals. Sure, there were the rumors about A.J. Burnett way back when he was testing the free-agent waters after leaving the Marlins, as well as Jason Schmidt, and, before those two top-of-the-line starters, there was Mike Hampton. But the Cards have not been willing to give free agents the years or money to sign with St. Louis over the last two front-office regimes—especially with general manager John Mozeliak at the helm.

This is not to say that the Cardinals haven't demonstrated a willingness to pay pitchers a lot of money over several years.

In April of 2005, with Chris Carpenter under contract for $2 million, the Cards inked the righty to a two-year extension worth $13 million that created what was, in effect, a guaranteed three-year contract: $5 million in 2006, $8 million in 2007, and a 2008 club option worth $8 million (with a $1 million buyout). After Carpenter won the Cy Young award in 2005 and the Cards won the World Series in 2006, St. Louis extended him again, during the 2006-07 Hot Stove and guaranteed the following the salaries by year: $8.5 million in 2007, $10.5 million in 2008, $14 million in 2009, $14.5 million in 2010, and $15 million in 2011, with a club option (with $1 million buyout) worth $15 million for 2012.

The extension was a guaranteed five-year contract, worth $63.5 million. Carp represents an illustrative anecdote of how risky long, high-dollar contracts for pitchers can be. Over the term of St. Louis control, the righty made 101 starts and notched 686 1/3 innings while putting up 13.3 rWAR and 13.5 fWAR. Due to the time Carpenter missed to injuries, the Cardinals paid a premium for the production he provided during the five-year deal.

The Carpenter extension was entered into during Walt Jocketty's tenure as general manager, but Mozeliak has entered into a similar deal, signing a pitcher with an injury history to an extension before he pitches an inning in the final year of his then-current contract. Prior to the 2013 season, the Cardinals signed Adam Wainwright to an extension that was five years in length and worth $97.5 million, and they did so with one season between Waino and ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) replacement surgery. When combined with Wainwright's previous contract extension, the effect of the deal was to guarantee Wainwright a salary of $109.5 million over six years.

To sign free-agent Lester to a contract would be an even larger commitment than what the Cardinals made to Carpenter and Wainwright because the southpaw is on the open market, which FOX's Ken Rosenthal describes as so robust that it is everything Lester's agents had hoped it would be. Given Peter Gammons's consistent reporting that Lester's team wants to have a contract signed before baseball's Winter Meetings, which start December 7, this makes sense that the bidding has reportedly started:

David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Lester has also met with the Braves in Atlanta, which Jon Heyman dubs his "adopted hometown." According to ESPN, the Giants also may have interest. Apparently neither National League team has made an offer.

So the lay of the Lester free agent land has changed since Bowden first reported the Cardinals were interested. This is the point in the free-agent feeding frenzy at which the Cards typically bow out, which we learn about after the player signs elsewhere. But this Hot Stove is different, at least according to what Peter Gammons heard earlier this week:

[W]hile on Sunday, two National League general managers said they heard it was close to happening, Lester’s agents still has not heard from the Yankees. The plan is to visit St. Louis the week after Thanksgiving, then perhaps decide at the end of that week before the winter meetings convene in San Diego.

The bidding has commenced and the plan is for Lester to visit St. Louis next week. If the offers are too rich for the Cards' taste, a simple phone call would suffice; there's no need to waste either party's time by bringing Lester to St. Louis for a meeting. Perhaps this is Mozeliak attempting to further drive up Lester's price tag for the Cubs (as some have suggested); or, maybe the Cardinals are really making a push to ink Lester. Such a move would be St. Louis ownership pushing all its chips into the middle of the 2015 table.

Update:

Perhaps such a phone call has been made. But Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch tweets that no such meeting is happening.