The Yankees are apparently very close to sending A.J. Burnett to the Pittsburgh Pirates, picking up $13 million in albatross contract relief and a pair of presently unnamed prospects.
Two years ago, the Red Sox signed their own A.J. Burnett in John Lackey. The Yankees had set the market for declining pitchers with ERAs in the mid-to-high 3s, and the Sox--anticipating a year with a dominant rotation of Beckett, Lester, Lackey, Buchholz, and Daisuke took the plunge.
Unfortunately, Lackey took after Burnett in performance just as he had in free agency. A disappointing debut, followed by a disaster sophomore year. Frankly, that he's now out for all of 2012 might mean we win as far as third-year performance is concerned.
So, if the Yankees can wipe their hands of Burnett for $20 million, can the Red Sox do the same with John Lackey? Should they? Let's take a look after the jump.
When it comes to John Lackey, it's hard to look at things objectively. Before he pitched an inning, he had already rubbed many Red Sox fans the wrong way with his demeanor during his time with the Angels. Of course, so much is forgiven when a former rival performs for your team, but Lackey didn't really do that. Getting off to a bad start, Lackey's reputation was too far gone for a late-season resurgence to buy him much more than a second chance in 2011.
He showed up for spring training last year in much better shape, and threw 21 solid innings. Things were looking up! Then came April 2, and nine runs in under four innings. Aside from a brief stint around July and August, that was pretty much the story of his season. With each appearance, each game lost by the third inning, we Sox fans grew more and more aggravated. Taking $18 million and not performing is one thing, but stealing every fifth game from us? That's another entirely.
Eventually--mercifully--the season ended for both Lackey and Boston. Then came the news that not only would Lackey need Tommy John Surgery, but that the team had known he would earlier in the year. An act that would usually earn a pitcher credit with the fans, however, only served to hurt Lackey's cause. If there was any chance that a healthy Lackey was a decent Lackey, after all, why did we trade the possibility of seeing said Lackey in 2012 for all those terrible days in Summer? The resentment, deserved or not, grew.
Still, however much some may be annoyed by the way that injury was handled, it's one of the things that might make this deal possible. After all, even though I've been comparing Lackey to Burnett here, there's a pretty wide gap between Burnett's performance with the Yankees last year and Lackey's 6.41 ERA. Without the excuse of an injury, it's pretty hard to imagine anyone rolling the dice with our albatross.
With the injury, however, the idea of picking up a heavily discounted Lackey might start to look pretty appealing to a lot of teams. After all, it was just a year ago that we were getting hyped up for the possibility of a renewed Lackey, riding the momentum of his strong finish into 2011. If you can discount this past year even just partially as a matter of injury, then you've got a pitcher who just put up an average ERA in a terrifically difficult division and park. He even had a 3.85 FIP and 4.15 xFIP to go with it.
Of course, Burnett came with a nice bit of hope too: just as Lackey finished 2011 with an ERA well above his xFIP, so too did Burnett. In fact, A.J. actually looks like a pretty attractive pickup for the Pirates when you see his 3.86 xFIP.
Still, Lackey fits the same mold as Burnett. Big money, big disappointment, and a big team that wouldn't mind wiping their hands of the whole situation. His results are worse, yes, but his excuse might be better, and he also comes with an X factor: the option year. The Red Sox had themselves protected in case of injury with an option in Lackey's contract that would give them one year of his services at league minimum if he missed significant time. A full season certainly seems like it would fit that bill. The Pirates are ready to cough up $13 million for two years of Burnett, so three years of Lackey could bring even more.
Of course, that assumes they want to make the deal. It may seem like a ridiculous thought, but could the Red Sox prefer to hang on to Lackey for the very same reasons other teams might pay? A year off and a Tommy John Surgery later, we could be back to the Lackey we saw around the end of 2010. No, he's not someone you'd pay $80 million to sign all over again, but the Sox have seen how hard it is to find decent pitchers. If they're only going to get $15 million in returns, then is it maybe worth kicking in another $15 to just keep him for the next three years?
If he doesn't perform well, after all, that doesn't mean a small team still wouldn't be interested on taking the gamble. He has a pretty decent history of success in the AL West, and so long as he isn't just as bad as he was in 2011, it's possible an NL team will look at him just as the Pirates are looking at A.J. Burnett.
Either way, though, with the concept proven, it would very much surprise me if the Sox didn't at least make some serious phone calls later this year.