There have been a lot of nice things said by ace starter Jon Lester about the Red Sox since being traded to the Athletics, and that shouldn't be a surprise. There's no reason to think he didn't absolutely love his time in Boston, as he has said both before he left and since he has gone.

Still, it's quite a leap from loving his stay in Boston to being likely to return there this winter as a free agent. The reality is, it's probably the opposite. The strong belief around the game is that Lester is likely to sign somewhere other than the Red Sox.

Most folks around baseball would be surprised if Lester and the Red Sox could agree on a contract at a time other teams will be bidding hard for him. After all, the two sides couldn't come close to doing it when they had a clear shot at contract. A return by Lester to Boston was dubbed a "long shot" by league officials who have familiarity with the situation.

The Cubs and rival Yankees, among others, look like much more likely landing spots for Lester at this time, in fact. The Yankees have admired Lester's guts and clutch pitching for years (and especially that career 0.43 World Series ERA) and would surely make a play for the former Red Sox ace. Meanwhile, folks around the game suggest Lester's old friends Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, who picked Lester for Boston and are now running the Cubs, are extremely likely to be in there pitching, as well. Epstein and Hoyer "absolutely love" Lester, is the word from one official who knows Chicago's top execs well.

The Cubs are maybe a year away from contending, but they showed a willingness to spend more than $100 million for Cole Hamels and Masahiro Tanaka (before the Yankees signed Tanaka). Of course, the Yankees and Cubs are just two of many who may make a play for this marquee free agent.

The Red Sox obviously need pitching after trading or losing five of the six starters who started at least 10 games for them in their championship season of 2013, but one rival exec, speaking of Lester, stressed that Red Sox owner John Henry is "risk averse" when it comes to long deals, especially for pitchers. Boston's current front office seems to be of a similar mind considering their recent free-agent forays have been for three years or fewer. Lester should be able to command at least six years, and very likely seven, as a free agent.

Lester, off his big season, is expected to be able to command $150 million or more as a free agent -- which is more than double Boston's initial offer to him back in spring. Boston's opening bid of $70 million for four years was just that, but they never got higher since, as one person put it he "cut things off," referring to the talks.