John Lackey joins Boston in curious move

ALCS Game 5: New York Yankees at Los Angeles Anaheim

By all indications, the Red Sox will have John Lackey serving as their No. 3 starter this upcoming season. The right-hander inked a five-year, $85 million deal which is exactly market value for his services.

Lackey is a solid signing for the Red Sox, as long as they don’t attempt to stretch him into an ace. The 31-year old is in the mold of Josh Beckett, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis: hard-nosed, fiery people who want to be out there every day kicking butt and taking names.

Before two consecutive years with injury troubles, Lackey was surprisingly durable. In the five seasons spanning 2003-2007, Lackey finished with over 200 innings pitched four times, with the fifth just under at 198.2 innings. His 3.01 ERA in 2007 led the American League, and for the past three seasons has displayed exceptional command. Back in 2006 and 2007, Lackey was a bit jittery with command, but also displayed a strikeout rate of 8.6 and 7.9 whiffs per nine innings, respectively. Those two seasons were also the first where Lackey was sitting at 91-92 as opposed to 90-91. From 2007-2008, Lackey fell back down to his more traditional 90-91 range and saw his BB/9 decline from 3.0 (2006) to 2.1 (2007).

Lackey dialed the fastball velocity back up in 2009 back to 91-92 mph, and was able to corral it this time. Unfortunately, while his walk rate remained constant, his strikeouts dipped to 7.1, his lowest mark since 2004, the year before he vaulted himself into top pitcher status.

Looking deeper into his decreased strikeout rate, we learn from David Golebiewski that batters have gotten a far better handle on Lackey’s stuff. The contact rate of balls pitched into the strike zone has risen for five straight years, and has been over the MLB average for four straight years.

As Golebiewski notes, however, Lackey is fantastic at nabbing the first-pitch strike and is particularly adept at getting batters to swing at pitches out of the strike zone.

Another concern I have with Lackey is his injury history. We talked about his remarkable durability earlier, but that streak ended in 2008 when he landed on the disabled list to open the season with a right triceps strain. (A red flag popped up in mid-2006 when he was day-to-day with right shoulder stiffness.) A year later, he was right back to the disabled list, this time with right elbow triceps inflammation.

In the 2010 Hardball Times Annual, Corey Dawkins speaks of injuries and how to see warning flags. Well, I’m here to tell you that given his article, I’m seeing major red flags in Lackey’s recent injury history that could lead to either Tommy John surgery or a labrum tear. Fortunately, loss of command is the first indication of a severe injury looming and Lackey doesn’t have that. Keep an eye on his walk totals in 2010, though. If they’re poor or not characteristic of Lackey, a visit to Dr. James Andrews may not be far off.  (Interestingly enough, A.J. Burnett, who is a great comparison to Lackey in terms of talent and contract, was named by Dawkins as a major candidate for an extended DL stint next year.)

(Troy Patterson spoke to Dawkins and relayed Dawkins’ opinion on the recent Fireside Chats, essentially saying that he feels Beckett is at far more risk for a significant injury than Lackey.)

I’m not paying much attention to the struggles Lackey has had in Fenway Park, really. For his career, he has a 5.25 ERA against Boston, with a 5.75 ERA in Fenway. Given that the Red Sox offense has been built to Fenway in recent years, plus the fact that Fenway is more of a hitter’s park than Angel Stadium, the 0.50 ERA difference isn’t worrisome. Plus, he has shown the ability to dominate Boston: he went into the ninth inning on July 29, 2008 with a no-hitter against the club as well as several other gems to his name.

The five years is more a point of contention. Boston has always been steadfast in its refusal to commit extended years to a pitcher. This is Theo Epstein’s first five-year commitment to a free agent pitcher. Jon Lester was his first five-year pitcher, but of course, Lester is six years younger with three arbitration years factored into the contract — so really, only two free agent years were bought out.

That five-year commitment to Lackey scares me, especially when the final year will be when Lackey is 35 years old. Coupled with his injury red flags and contact numbers, and I can’t really figure out what Boston saw in Lackey. Does he have a good chance of repeating his 2009 numbers over the next five years? Yes. But there is an equal chance of something going horribly awry. It doesn’t seem characteristic of Theo to commit this risk to a pitcher. To a position player, sure. But he’s been very good on the pitching ledger, so he’s stuck his neck out a bit with this pact.

Moving away from looking strictly at Lackey, he also impacts the potential future of the club in multiple ways. Let’s take a brief spin through the scenarios.

Josh Beckett: This signing means that there’s zero chance Beckett accepts any less than five years in an extension with Boston. Lackey certainly has to be considered the worse pitcher than Beckett. If Boston is truly serious about extending Beckett, they better realize the impact this deal has on their Beckett prospects. Beckett may be more interested in playing the year out and hitting the market, chasing a six-year deal but I wouldn’t rule out a five-year, $95 million extension. Either way, any shot Boston had of keeping Beckett’s deal under five years is kaput.

Clay Buchholz/Tim Wakefield: Where does Wakefield fit in all this? He has to be considered the odd man out of the rotation at the moment. If Boston stands pat with pitching, Wakefield would become the long man and spot starter. Wakefield would provide excellent value with that, so I’m not discounting this scenario. Then there’s Buchholz. Is there any logical reason to force him out of the rotation? Nope. He’s in the rotation if he stays. Could Boston gut through one year of Wakefield in the bullpen, using Buchholz as Beckett’s eventual replacement? Sure. After all, Lackey doesn’t push anyone (Wakefield) of tremendous value out of the rotation. It’s an upgrade to the team even if you stand pat.

Don’t forget, though, that Boston has tremendous depth behind Buchholz/Wakefield. You’ve got Boof Bonser, Junichi Tazawa, Michael Bowden and a host of other candidates. To be sure, those aren’t names you clear space for. But we’re talking No. 7, 8 and 9 starters here. That’s a great amount of depth, and while it could technically be hung onto, I have to think there’s a second domino falling. And you all know the name I’m about to bring up.

Felix Hernandez: Ha! Faked you out. Adrian Gonzalez is actually next on the list, but let’s tackle Felix first. For the Red Sox to pull off a blockbuster trade, Clay Buchholz was always going to have to be included in the deal. It’s not a leap of logic, then, to wonder if something is brewing in this end. Seattle is about to acquire Cliff Lee from the Philadelphia Phillies in a three-team deal that will net Philadelphia Roy Halladay. I have nothing concrete to base this on, but it’s tremendously risky for Seattle to put all their eggs in one basket with Lee and Felix Hernandez both seeking $20 million annual deals. I would not be surprised at all if Seattle sent Felix to Boston for a deal structured around Buchholz, Jed Lowrie and others.

Adrian Gonzalez: The more likely outcome is Adrian Gonzalez coming to Boston. There has been smoke around A-Gon for eons now, and while I completely subscribe to the notion that Hoyer is likely to let 2010 play out with Adrian on the team due to a needed evaluation plus Gonzalez’s club-friendly contract, the flip side is this: Adrian is a hot commodity  now. Will he be as hot next year? He’ll be one year closer from free agency with a strong free agent class to contend with… plus additional bats available on the trade market. Prince Fielder is a possibility, for example. Right now, the signal-to-noise ratio is heavily in favor of Gonzalez. Next year, that changes.

Others: There might also be dominos that we don’t know about. Epstein may be about to strike for a different first-baseman or even third-baseman. Heck, Epstein may elect to sign Adrian Beltre and call it a day, hoarding Buchholz and slipping Wakefield in the bullpen. Let’s all not pretend we know what Theo’s thinking. All we can do is debate the various scenarios and see which one Epstein chose. I love Clay Buchholz, but I think he has to go. I don’t like this team’s offensive potential at all. Looking at this team next year, there is not one player that I can consider a verified power threat. Youkilis never struck me as someone who can keep up his power output long-term, while David Ortiz’s power is strictly best-case scenario. If things don’t break our way, we could approach 2009 Mets-level futility when it comes to power. Is Theo prepared for that?

The flip side is that our pitching and defense should be at elite levels next year. Could we get by with a relatively punchless offense? Yeah, we could, but it’ll be tough. If you told me today that Youkilis would repeat his 2008-2009 output and David Ortiz would crank 30 home runs with a .250 average, I’d go home happy. That’s a hell of a lot to assume, though. Just like it’s a lot to assume that Adrian Beltre can rebound to 2007 levels, assuming we sign him. Plus, as much of a fan of Cameron as I am, it’s a lot to assume his usual .270/20/70 from him.

I’m trending towards pessimism when I evaluate this offense, and I admit that. I’m just not overwhelmed… or just plain whelmed by this offense, even including Beltre. The offense has the potential to be “solid,” and that should be more than fine over the next two years given our pitching and defense. After two years, though? Not pretty.

To tie everything in a nice little bow, I’m not a fan of the Lackey signing. I am, of course, excited to see what he can do in Boston and will root for him. Strictly from an analytical perspective here, I do not understand the deal. It flies in the face of everything Theo seems to value: Not marrying himself to a pitcher long-term — especially one that is entering his age-31 year, and one with red flags all over the plate statistically and physically.

It’s for this very reason that I think something else is on the ledger involving Clay Buchholz. At that point, the Lackey deal makes more sense, as Lackey then becomes that much more important to the success of the rotation.