Can John Lackey Play Up To Contract With Boston Red Sox In The End?

By Thom Tsang
H. Darr Beiser-USA TODAY Sports

It sounds impossible, doesn’t it — how could John Lackey, whose contract was largely considered to be an albatross for the Boston Red Sox as early as April of this season, end up actually playing up to his contract?

I mean, consider the circumstances. We’re talking about a 35-year old who was probably well overpaid in the middle of his prime at five years and $82.5 million despite his best years having been behind him, who then put up ERAs of 4.40 and 6.41 in his first two seasons with his new team … before losing an entire year to Tommy John surgery. With basically nothing going his way, it’s a miracle that he even had an effective 3.2 fWAR age-34 season.

But surely, with just one year left on his deal, there’s nothing that he could possibly accomplish that would make the Red Sox not end up losing money at the end, right?

Well … maybe not. Firstly, his contract ending at the end of 2014 is actually something of a misnomer, as his lost season in 2012 where he was paid $15.25 million to rehab his elbow actually triggers a vesting option for the Red Sox that allows them to retain him in his age-36 season in 2015 at $500,000 (basically the league minimum).

So barring retirement, that immediately give him an extra year to make up for lost ground as far as how much value the team has actually lost over his four years in Boston thus far. And just how much is that? It’s going to obviously skewed given his missed season, but let’s take a look at a few numbers anyway:

2010: 3.9 fWAR, $15.6 million value, $18.7 million salary
2011:  1.6 fWAR, $7.4 million value, $15.95 million salary
2012: N/A, N/A, $15.25  million salary
2013:  3.2 fWAR, 15.9 million value, $15.25 million salary

So … the good news for Boston is that Lackey actually outperformed his annual salary for 2013.

The bad news? It’s the first time he’s done it over the course of the contract, meaning the Red Sox are still down some $26.25 million worth of on-field production. To put it in perspective, given the veteran’s combined salary of $15.75 million over the next two seasons (including the 2016 option), he could have to put together approximately 8.5 wins worth of production based on 2013 positional value — not impossible, but I wouldn’t bet on it in his age 35 and 36 seasons.

Status quo, on the other hand, might be eminently more achievable. If he were to maintain a 3.2 fWAR per-season average over 2014 and 2015 (which will largely be based on if he can throw close to 200 innings), he will be worth approximately $31.8 million over those years, meaning that the Red Sox would only be down $10.2 million or so over the course of the deal.

That in itself would have been pretty impressive, but one thing that it doesn’t take into account is that he’s been very good during the postseason, going 2-1 in three starts with a 3.26/1.09 ERA, .219 BAA and 20 strikeouts over 19.1 innings. Is that enough to make up the $10.2 million?

It’s a stretch even if one were to value postseason wins more, but here’s the thing — he also has a chance to complete the Red Sox’ surprising season by clinching the World Series on Wednesday.

And how much is a World Series-winning performance worth? Some of it is tangible, and much of it is not, of course; but if Lackey manages to complete his redemption tour for not only himself, but for his team, you might be hard-pressed to find a teammate of his or a Red Sox fan who will say that the not-so-great deal wasn’t ultimately worth it in the end.

Thom is an MLB writer for Follow him on Twitter @BlueJaysRant, or add him to your network on Google

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