The Red Sox Should Not Trade John Lackey

The Boston Globe is reporting the San Diego Times Union Leader Tribune Gazetteer Times Post (silly newspaper mergers) says the San Diego Padres have had internal talks about possibly maybe potentially considering trading for John Lackey if IF! the Red Sox pick up just about all of the $45.75 million left on Lackey's deal.

[Cue fireworks]

[Cut to people dancing in Kenmore Square]

Since arriving in Boston two seasons ago, Lackey hasn't done much to endear himself to the fan base. His success in Anaheim with the Angels coupled with the $82 million contract he signed to come to Boston created what we in the biz call expectorations. No, wait, that's Matt Garza. I'm thinking of expectations. Lackey wasn't terrible last season, his 4.40 ERA translating to an ERA+ of 99 (i.e. 1% below league average), but it was his worst season since he was a 25 year old six years ago.

And yet it barely registered on Ye Old Crap Scale compared to this past season. In 2011 Lackey's ERA jumped to 6.40, an increase of almost 50%. His ERA went from 1% below league average to 34% below. The gratuitous eye rolling didn't help matters either. Mostly though, it was his pitching, which was so bad I have to coin a new term for it: supercrap. It sounds like a movie written by Judd Apatow, but directed by William Shatner.

Bad as Lackey's was, ERA isn't the best predictor of the future. Considering that Lackey's ERA was way above his established norms, you could make a case for holding your nose and looking deeper into the numbers to see if maybe somehow there might be some silver lining hiding in that thick stench of baby diapers and old cheese. So, grab a clothespin. I promise we'll do this quickly.

Lackey's numbers tell two stories. The first is of a pitcher who has been in decline for some time. His K% (the percentage of strikeouts divided by total batters faced) fell for basically the fifth year in a row. The same is true of his K/9, while his walk rates have been on the rise for a while.

The second shows Lackey got maybe a bit unlucky and/or there may be some room to expect growth. Lackey's FIP last year was 4.71 and his xFIP was 4.70 so at least according to those metrics, he wasn't as bad as his 6+ ERA would lead you to believe. Not that a 4.70 ERA would be anything wonderful, but compared to the most recent version of Lackey that took the mound for the Red Sox he'd look pretty good.

Over the last two seasons Lackey has gone from an above average pitcher to an average one to a terrible one. He is owed $45+ million over the next three seasons and the Red Sox will have to pay that bill whether Lackey pitches in Boston, San Diego, or Japan for the Nippon Ham Fighters next season or buses tables at the Sizzler. Nobody is going to take on anything resembling a significant portion of that contract. If the Red Sox want to get rid of Lackey, that's exactly what they'll be doing; just getting rid of him. They will get nothing useful in return and they will get no relief from his salary.

But when looking at the state of the Red Sox starting staff next year, giving away pitching, even pitching in the loosest sense such as in this case, should give pause. Yes, Lackey was horrible. He was, in a word, supercrap and he may continue at that level next season. But he may not. Hard as it is to remember, Lackey is traditionally a well above average pitcher and he's at an age where most guys with his track record don't just fall off the table.

If Lackey is hurt he should stay with Boston and rehabilitate with an eye towards returning at some point in the next three seasons as an asset. If he is healthy, maybe a fresh start to the year, one with fewer personal problems (hopefully) would be an elixir. Maybe the time spent this off season will be put to good use looking at video and figuring out why he hasn't had the level of success he's accustomed to.

With Daisuke Matsuzaka out for almost all next season at best and Clay Buchholz returning from a broken back, the Red Sox aren't in position to give away pitching, even pitching as bad as John Lackey was last year. They need more starting pitching for next season, not less.

Lackey may end up as a complete and utter zero. It's as likely an outcome as any, sadly. But even if that happens it won't be like the team missed out on salary relief and/or a minor league prospect. Cutting John Lackey tomorrow would net the same level of salary relief and improve the minor league system similarly.

But, if Lackey can wind the clock back just one year, he could be a valuable asset to the team. Oh, sure, it won't be close to what he's being paid, but that ain't happening so divest yourself of that thought now. If Lackey can be a league average starter next season, he could be exactly what the Red Sox need to find. Since they're paying his salary anyway, well, why give away that lottery card for nothing?

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