Red Sox

What Is John Lackey’s Play?

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
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John Lackey (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

John Lackey (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

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BOSTON (CBS) — The John Lackey Redemption Tour veered ever-so-slightly off its intended path this weekend, and it stands to reason that Lackey himself was the one spinning the steering wheel.

Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal wrote on Monday that Lackey would consider retiring after this season, because playing for $500,000 next season would not be worth it. Lackey is due to make that $500,000 because of the clause in his contract which stated that Lackey would make the minimum salary in 2015 if he missed significant time due to surgery on his elbow, an existing condition of which both parties were aware when the deal was signed in December 2009. Lackey missed all of the 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery, thereby activating the option year in 2015.

What neither side could have predicted was just how strong Lackey would come back from that surgery. In 42 starts since the beginning of 2013, Lackey has a 3.41 ERA, striking out 237 batters while walking just 57. He’s now earning every dollar of the $15.25 million he’s being paid, and in fairness, playing for the league minimum next year would be a bit unreasonable for Lackey.

But leaking retirement contemplations to Ken Rosenthal is a pretty weak move. That is of course unless you think Rosenthal not only came upon this realization himself a month and a half before the trade deadline but also suggested on his own that Ben Cherington and the Red Sox should offer a fair-paying two-year extension to Lackey. It was undoubtedly fed to Rosenthal by Lackey or someone close to the pitcher, which is fine. But what is he getting at? What is that Lackey truly wants?

If he does indeed want a two-year contract extension, he’s picking an awfully selfish time to do it. The Red Sox are 28-35, 10 games out of first place in the AL East and six games out of a wild card spot. Cherington and members of the front office are trying to come up with solutions to fixing this problem right now before it spirals further out of control. They are not focused on their 35-year-old pitcher’s future desires at the moment.

Lackey, however, is rightfully looking out for No. 1. And it’s likely he used the media to let Cherington know: If we’re going nowhere this season, you better trade me before July 31. You owe me.

On that, Lackey has somewhat of a point. It’s easy to understand why he may want an opportunity to earn one last contract in the game. Given the way pitchers manage to cash in every winter, it’s reasonable to believe a two- or even three-year deal would await him in free agency.

On the other hand, Lackey signed a contract. He can’t stomp his feet and pout because one of the provisions in that contract ended up playing out. He signed this thing when he was a free agent — emphasis on free. If a better offer was placed in front of him, he was free to sign it. The fact that he signed this contract with the Red Sox indicates that it was indeed the best option for the then-31-year-old.

Could the Red Sox have dumped Lackey when he missed an entire season and collected $15.25 million? Of course not. Do you think the team might have liked to keep that money, rather than pay it to the guy on the DL who was chilling and sipping brews in the clubhouse in 2012, or the guy posting a 6.41 ERA in 2011? Of course. But that’s not the way contracts work. The team can’t pick and choose when it honors the deals, and players can’t either.

And in this case, it ended up working out very well for both parties. Lackey got to redeem himself, get in shape, and win back the fans. He also had a much bigger victory — the clinching Game 6 of the World Series — which helped to deliver another championship to the Red Sox.

So what’s the problem?

It is, I guess, that Lackey is pitching well and the Red Sox are playing poorly. If the Sox were buzzing along in first place, contending for back-to-back titles, next year’s $500,000 salary would be far from the forefront of Lackey’s mind. But it’s clear that Lackey is starting to see this season as a wash, and it’s time to plan ahead.

So he’s letting it be known — if the Sox remain far out of contention over the next 50 days, the team is much more likely to benefit by trading Lackey for whatever is out there, because the pitcher doesn’t so much feel like working on the cheap next year.

Is it selfish? Sure, but baseball has always been an individual game. If you don’t look out for yourself, who will? Certainly, it won’t be executives.

What Lackey may not have realized by (presumably) feeding this information to Rosenthal is that he greatly weakens the Red Sox in negotiations, as other teams now know the situation. What GM in his right mind is going to give up prospects worth anything, knowing that the Sox are going to be desperate to move Lackey? Addressing the situation behind closed doors, far away from the recorders and the microphones of the media, would have been a more productive strategy for Lackey.

If anything, the recent development in the Rosenthal story is sure to complicate matters. It is clear that the 2014 squad is not the bubble gum and lollipops group that cruised through 2013 without so much as hitting a speed bump. There are problems on this year’s roster, and Lackey sneakily going public with his feelings is likely to rub some teammates the wrong way. It also might lead to some uncomfortable questions in the postgame press conferences, both to Lackey as well as his manager and fellow Red Sox. This alone can’t turn 2014 into 2012 all over again, but it may very well be the type of problem that the Red Sox surely don’t want in their clubhouse.

And really, it all comes back to the fact that Lackey signed a contract, one that paid him handsomely for five years, and now that he’s milked it for all it is worth, he’s not much a fan of it any longer.

Fangraphs’ David Cameron provided an interesting look at the “Lackey Clause” in February 2013.

“Historically, the risks and rewards of signing a premium pitcher to a long-term deal have been slanted too far in favor of the pitcher, and the Lackey Clause might be one small way of balancing the risk between the two sides,” Cameron wrote. “We may find that it set the stage for an interesting, innovative way for teams to enter into better long-term deals with starting pitchers overall. … It may very well end up being a good thing for the sport as a whole.”

It was a good point, and it was the right idea. But ultimately, the Lackey Clause on paper doesn’t mean anything if it gets overruled by the Lackey Clause in the veteran’s own mind.

Read more from Michael Hurley by clicking here, or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

98.5 The Sports Hub’s Felger & Massarotti discussed the latest with John Lackey Tuesday afternoon:

Lackey Is Leveraging The Red Sox

Felger & Massarotti

MORE SPORTS COVERAGE FROM CBS BOSTON

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