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Henry Owens, John Lackey, and the future of the Red Sox starting rotation

How Henry Owens emergence and John Lackey's contract could allow the Red Sox to let Jon Lester walk.

Jared Wickerham

Much has been made of Jon Lester's expiring contract. In fact, the last piece I wrote for OTM was on that very topic. It's my considered preference the Red Sox should re-sign Lester. It's probably the Red Sox considered preference they should re-sign Lester as well, and it seems Lester's considered preference he re-sign with Boston. As GM Ben Cherington noted in a recent interview on WEEI though, the devil is in the details. Whether that's the pitcher's desire for an opt out, some player option seasons, an extra season on the deal, or the team pushing to keep the deal shorter, there is so much to have a difference of opinion about that it's kind of amazing contracts are ever signed at all.

Details or not, the Red Sox are facing a future without Jon Lester and it doesn't seem to bother them. Why might they not give Lester that extra season or that opt-out, or that whatever he wants to get his John Hancock on the parchment and have a happy press conference? There are even more reasons to not do a deal than there are to do one, but here are a few that stand out to me at this point in time, as well as a possible scenario that the Red Sox might have in mind.

Have you played 2048 yet? It's an amazing time-suck so I don't recommend starting, but the gist of the game is this: you move little numbered squares around within a four-by-four box trying to bump similar numbers together. When you do that the two squares turn into one and number inside doubles. The goal is to eventually turn twos and fours into 2048 before filling up all 16 total spots. The Red Sox are faced with a similar issue. They've got only so many spots in the rotation and they're trying to maximize the value they get out of each spot. Signing Lester means one less spot (a good or bad thing, depending on how you view that) and fewer resources to spend on the other spots. This brings me to John Lackey.

482086585Photo credit: Rob Carr

Right now Lackey is pitching more or less like he pitched last season, which is more or less like he pitched when he was healthy with the Angels. If this is more or less who Lackey is, and there are no outward signs that it isn't, the Red Sox are in a potentially strong position going forward. It's been reported Lackey's contract contains a clause which grants the Red Sox an extra season at the end of Lackey's deal for the major league minimum salary (a bit more than $500,000) if he misses time with a pre-existing elbow injury. Well, as you're aware, Lackey had Tommy John surgery. I'm no lawyer, but that sounds like it qualifies (and other, smarter people have said that it does), meaning the Red Sox will have John Lackey next season for the major league minimum salary.

That presents an opportunity which Ben Cherington specifically mentioned in that WEEI interview, which is essentially to rip up Lackey's current contract and sign him to an extension. A three year, $30 million extension might be something that benefits both club and player. Normally this would be a non-starter for a player pitching as well as Lackey is, but because the club will effectively pay him nothing next season, it might be something Lackey would consider. He'd get $10 million a year when he was going to get nothing and he wouldn't have to pitch a whole season with the risk of getting injured again hanging over his head. The club would get a number two starter for $10 million a season. I'm spitballing here, so maybe it's three years, $40 million, or less. I don't know. A few million here or there, but you could easily see where this goes.

Meanwhile, left-hander Henry Owens is burning up Double-A. He's pitching so well there's already talk of him getting a major league start this season, which likely won't happen as Owens isn't on the 40 man roster yet, doesn't have to be until after 2015 for Rule 5 purposes, and there are numerous highly touted arms ahead of him in line that are. Either way, the scouts and stats agree on Owens. He's very good. He might not be an ace, but he's on track to be a number two starter at his best. Oh, and hey, did you guys hear the Red Sox might be losing a number two starter this coming off-season? Unlike Lester, Owens will make the major league minimum when he comes up and (essentially) for his first three years.

In the abstract it would be better to have a rotation with Lester, Lackey, and Owens, but as my 10th grade literature teacher would tell us every test day, you can't always get what we want, but if you try, you'll get what you need. (For him that was a lit test, for the Red Sox that's a number two starter. I like the Red Sox way better.) There are real risks to any pitcher, whether he be in Double-A or the majors. But if Jon Lester won't sign the contract the Red Sox want him to, they do have other options, and those options are good options. In real world terms, those options might be better, safer, and allow for a stronger roster than to pay $100-plus million over the next half decade or more to a pitcher for his mid-30s.

I still want the Red Sox to re-sign Lester. I like Lester as a pitcher and in the clubhouse. I like rewarding our own players. I think it sends a good sign to other players that good, hard work will be noticed and rewarded. I think it sends a good sign to the fans. And I think Lester will be a good pitcher over the next five or so seasons. But having Lackey on the cheap for three seasons combined with the emergence of Owens means the Red Sox aren't over a barrel if Lester and Boston part ways. It means they can mitigate risk as much as a team can when dealing with pitchers, and it means they can spend that $100-plus million elsewhere on the roster on a free agent or on an extension for a star acquired in trade. They have options, and Lackey and Owens are as strong a backup plan as any.