Allen Craig is having a rough 2014 season. He's hit just .237/.291/.346 and has already struck out 77 times in 398 plate appearances. That's not an absurd amount of whiffing, but it's more than Craig's used to, and the line is even further from his norm. In spite of that, the Red Sox picked him up with a buy-low move. Considering they hope to be competing as soon as 2015, it's a move that makes sense.
This doesn't fit in precisely the same way Thursday's earlier Jon Lester for Yoenis Cespedes deal works. That's because Lester was a pending free agent, and Lackey was going to be under team control for 2015. There had been rumors from Lackey himself that he might not want to pitch for his $500,000 optioned triggered by 2011's Tommy John surgery, however, and reports from Ken Rosenthal this week that he both wanted out of Boston if Lester was dealt and wouldn't sign an extension with a Lester-less Red Sox. Given this, it made sense for the Red Sox to at least explore the market, but not to deal Lackey unless a massive return was brought back.
If Craig can return to his previous form, he more than qualifies as that kind of return. From 2011 through 2013, Craig batted .312/.364/.500 despite home games in a park that depresses offense. He's under contract through at least 2017 with an option for 2018, and his entire deal has an average annual value of just $6.2 million. The most expensive year on the whole deal is just $11 million in 2017, when he'll be 32, and his option is for just $13 million with a reasonable $1 million buyout. He won't cost much, so if he returns to form, this is a huge get for the Red Sox. If he doesn't return to form, that's pocket change for the Sox.
That potential for hugeness is enough that it's worth the risk of him not ever becoming who he was. If Lackey had decided he didn't want to keep pitching when he was going to get paid $500,000, the Sox would have had nothing in return for the loss of his services, much like they received nothing from Ryan Dempster's early retirement this spring. The difference is that Dempster's exit cleared around $13 million off the books, while Lackey's exit would have simply removed the cost of a rookie from the equation. If there was no significant return to be had, keeping Lackey around was a risk worth taking, especially with Boston's current 2015 rotation scenarios. With Craig in the mix, it becomes much tougher to say no to moving Lackey.
There are still questions that need to be asked and answered in the Red Sox lineup. With Yoenis Cespedes, Allen Craig, Jackie Bradley Jr., Shane Victorino, and Daniel Nava in the outfield, who is playing every day? Who is being traded, and when? What does this mean for Mookie Betts, who recently moved from second base to the outfield? Chances are good that, like with the rotation, we're totally in the dark as to who will be in the Red Sox lineup representing the outfield in 2015. What we do know, though, is that they have more exciting pieces for that job on the afternoon of July 31 than they did when the sun rose.