Commentary

Quick strike seems unlike Epstein

Lackey presents significant risk -- and what about the offense?

Updated: December 15, 2009, 1:42 PM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

Less than a month ago, a Red Sox official dismissed a question about possible interest in John Lackey, saying that anyone familiar with the team's recent history with free-agent pitchers knew better than to ask about 30-somethings with injury risks who were looking for long-term deals.

This is a team, remember, that let Pedro Martinez walk the winter after winning a World Series. A bloodless decision that proved correct, by the way, as Martinez soon broke down.

Since Theo Epstein became general manager before the 2003 season, he has signed just one free-agent pitcher, starter or reliever, for more than three years, and that was a special circumstance -- Japanese star Daisuke Matsuzaka, who signed for six years and $52 million (plus a $51.1 million posting fee).

And how's that working out, Sox fans?

In 2008, Lackey missed the Angels' first 41 games with what was diagnosed as triceps tendinitis.

In 2009, Lackey had an MRI in spring training that revealed inflammation in his right elbow, had a cortisone shot, and missed the Angels' first 34 games.

In each of the last two seasons, he has thrown fewer than 200 innings. Bulldog, yes. Winner, yes. Durable? Well, uh …

So how is it, according to ESPN.com's Jayson Stark, that Lackey and the Red Sox have struck a tentative five-year deal worth slightly more than the $82.5 million the Yankees gave to A.J. Burnett a year ago? A deal that would pay Lackey through his 36th birthday, assuming he passed the physical he underwent in Boston Monday?

One, it means the Red Sox, as much as they like to downplay it, have boatloads of cash with which to work. You don't do something this fraught with risk unless you can absorb the potential loss, which the Red Sox can. The details haven't been revealed, and perhaps the fifth year is not guaranteed but is a vesting option, but it remains a risk nonetheless.

Second, either the Red Sox were running a stealth misdirection play all along with Lackey, or they executed a sudden change of course this weekend, when it became apparent to them that outfielder Jason Bay wasn't going to accept a deal that didn't include a fifth year, which they aren't willing to give.

All indications here are they changed course, deciding that adding Lackey gives them protection if Josh Beckett elects to become a free agent after next season, and gives them flexibility if Padres GM Jed Hoyer elects to move first baseman Adrian Gonzalez for a package headlined by Clay Buchholz. Or maybe we'll learn differently, that Epstein was stalking Lackey all along.

Making such a large commitment to Lackey, in this view, raises suspicions that the Sox already have some reason to suspect that Beckett will not be back, despite the immense respect he commands in the clubhouse. Maybe they think he'll be too expensive, after opting for security the last time around (three years, $30 million) instead of testing his value on the open market. Who knows, maybe they think he wants to go back home to Texas. Giving Lackey the deal they did would seem to drive up Beckett's price.

What Lackey doesn't do, cannot do, is give the Sox lineup the bat they still need to compete. Yes, we understand there's a shift back to emphasizing pitching and defense, but the Sox lineup, absent a couple more moves, seems to have seesawed too far the other way.

They officially cut ties with Bay Monday night, and seemingly withdrew from the Matt Holliday bidding, by coming to terms with slick-fielding outfielder Mike Cameron on a two-year deal for around $15.5 million, an industry source confirmed Monday night. Cameron's addition gives the Sox the option of installing him in center and moving Jacoby Ellsbury to left, or using Cameron and Jeremy Hermida as a lefty-righty option in left, the more likely scenario in this view.

What Cameron doesn't do is give the Sox another tough out. Third baseman Adrian Beltre is still available, and he would represent a huge upgrade defensively over the hobbled Mike Lowell (whose trade to the Rangers remains in limbo), but he has been an ordinary hitter for the last five years.

Kevin Youkilis could be shifted to third and Casey Kotchman installed at first, which again has a positive effect defensively, a downgrade offensively. Nick Johnson? Adam LaRoche? Carlos Delgado? Short of Gonzalez, which is unlikely to happen any time soon, if at all, there seems little chance the Sox can replicate some of the run-producing machines of recent years.

As for Lackey? A major-league source insisted late Monday night that the deal still wasn't done, but that sounded more like haggling over technicalities than something showing up on the medicals. Not a word emanated from Fenway Park, as Epstein maintained his policy of not commenting on a deal until it is official, the same reason you haven't heard him say a word about Lowell's pending departure to Texas.

ESPN researcher Mark Simon notes that since 1990, there have been 16 pitchers to sign deals for five years or more. Only two pitchers on that list -- Greg Maddux and Mike Mussina -- averaged 30 or more starts per season over the life of their contracts. Kevin Millwood and Gil Meche are likely to add to that number, and eventually so could CC Sabathia, Matsuzaka and Burnett, but none are a guarantee.

Almost half of those pitchers have been busts -- Barry Zito, Mike Hampton, Chan Ho Park, Darren Dreifort, Denny Neagle, Kei Igawa, Wilson Alvarez and Alex Fernandez.

In what group will Lackey fall? Care to make a prediction?

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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