Should the Red Sox extend John Lackey?

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

John Lackey is getting up there in years, but he looks as good as ever on the mound. Does Boston's team option give them exactly what they need to keep the starter in Boston for the final years of his career?

Go back in time two years and show this headline to any Red Sox fan. Can you imagine the reaction? It's hard to figure what they'd find less believable: the idea that you'd traveled through time to show them the headline of an article on a baseball blog, or that John Lackey was not only still in Boston, but that there were those interested in keeping him there longer.

This, however, is the world we find ourselves in. Sadly, no, not one with time travel, but at least one where the former pariah of Fenway has established himself as one of Boston's most reliable starting pitchers and, yes, would be welcome to extend his stay if he were so inclined.

Obviously, when we're talking about extending anyone right now, the focus will fall on Jon Lester. The contract situation of Boston's top southpaw has been in the spotlight for months now with little progress having been made as free agency draws closer and closer. It's the sort of deal that's going to be difficult to hammer down, with the Red Sox seemingly wary of top-dollar long-term deals, and Lester the sort of pitcher who will likely be deserving of one come the offseason.

With John Lackey, on the other hand, the Red Sox have a serious advantage: a 2015 club option set at the major league minimum salary, triggered when Lackey missed some of 2011 and all of 2012 after undergoing Tommy John Surgery.

As is, John Lackey isn't set to see any financial return for his renewed success until after the 2015 season, at which point he will be 37 years old. Not only can he not expect to see any really long-term offers at that age, but it's a full year in which he could easily see his performance drop off a cliff. If Lackey struggles in 2015, he will go on the market as an old pitcher seemingly in decline. If he succeeds in 2015, he will go on the market as an old pitcher who could decline at any moment.

This all sounds like a great reason not to extend him under any circumstances. But for a Red Sox team for which it's not the overall price of a contract, but the average annual value which reigns supreme, Lackey represents an interesting opportunity.

Say that Lackey could only hope for a two-year contract upon hitting the market at age 37. If he were to command a contract similar to R.A. Dickey's two-year, $25 million extension, then the Red Sox could very nearly match that by reworking his option year into a three-year extension (covering 2015, 2016, and 2017) at $8 million per year. They might even be able to get that number down slightly given the risk involved in committing a year before Lackey is set to hit the open market. John Lackey would walk away with the same amount of money, he just wouldn't have to fade that 2015 decline.

Not only would this serve to keep Lackey from said open market, it would also help to bring the year-to-year risk for the Red Sox into the sort of range where, frankly, a complete failure is not so bad. Consider that they were willing to commit $5 million for two years to Jonny Gomes, effectively a short-end platoon bat. The risk we're talking about with Lackey isn't much higher than that. But if Lackey performed well in 2015, hit the open market, and maybe inspired some small bidding war, we could be looking at twice that in terms of average annual value in 2016.

The key here is whether or not $8 million, give or take, throws a significant wrench in the plans of Ben Cherington and co. for 2015. If so, then they'll likely elect to just exercise his league minimum option and, if he performs well, try to bring him back at the end of the season. If not, though, there's still no rush. Boston's leverage in this is wrapped up in a 2015 which currently projects to earn John Lackey a (relatively speaking) negligible amount of money. Until he's started missing out on potential earnings from that season--basically, until April 2015--that won't change any.

Of course, this all depends on Lackey even wanting to extend his career. With another World Series to his name, having proven himself once more, it's possible he just decides he's had enough. But if the drive to compete is still there (and the allure of tens of millions of dollars can't hurt), the Red Sox are in a pretty good position to lock in his valuable arm for those last years of his career at a relatively low price per annum.

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