MLB Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox Can’t Play Around With John Lackey

John Lackey won't pitch for the league minimum in 2015

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Red Sox have a big decision to make concerning a top-of-the-rotation starter.

John Lackey is in the final year of the five-year, $80.4 million deal he signed with Boston in December 2009, with a club option for 2015  at the major league minimum because the 35-year-old pitcher was sidelined for the entire 2012 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

The Red Sox will likely exercise that club option at the end of the season, which will put Lackey in line for a $500,000 paycheck next season, as they should. Gaining a starter of Lackey’s caliber at that price is a general manager’s dream.

But here’s the thing — Lackey won’t play for that price in 2015.

And here’s another thing — the Red Sox can’t afford to lose Lackey in 2015 — assuming the team’s plan is to compete — especially if fellow starter Jon Lester leaves for greener pastures when he becomes an unrestricted free agent this winter.

Whether or not it’s Lackey’s duty to honor his deal, as my colleague Steve Buchanan alluded to, is a conversation for another day. Lackey won’t honor that clause of the deal, and the bargaining chips are in his court.

The majority of the chips come in the form of teammates, particularly the four carryovers from the 2011 Red Sox in Clay Buchholz, Lester, David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia.

At face value, there are no silver linings to come of Lackey’s 2011 season, in which he went 12-12 with a 6.41 ERA in 28 starts. But while fans bashed him for his lackluster performance, the media bashed him for the way he acted toward them and armchair spouses bashed him for divorcing his wife of three years as she battled cancer, Lackey was among the most respected figures in the Red Sox clubhouse. Pitching with virtually no UCL in his right elbow, he went out there every fifth day and competed, giving the team 160 innings when most pitchers would’ve elected for Tommy John surgery.

While Lackey missed all of 2012 after finally going under the knife following the 2011 season, a case could be made he tried to avoid surgery at all costs — or at least delay the procedure.

Could the Red Sox have received better than the 9.13 ERA over the five starts Lackey pitched in September 2011, when the team went 7-20, blowing an 8.5 game AL Wild Card lead to miss the playoffs entirely? Who knows. But given that the likes of Kyle Weiland and Andrew Miller were being trotted out there during that disastrous month, it’s likely a stone best left unturned.

Count on the other 21 members of the clubhouse to vouch for Lackey as well. Since breaking into the bigs with the Anaheim Angels in 2002, Lackey has built a reputation of being one of baseball’s premier clubhouse guys.  He would run through a wall for his teammates or give the shirt off his back.

If his teammates won’t speak for him, his numbers will.

In the never-ending collection of numbers that are baseball statistics, there’s few measurables, metrics, or averages more important than innings pitched. And Lackey is the prototype of a guy who gives you innings. He gave the Angels an average of 199 in seven full seasons in Anaheim. He gave the Sox 160 in 2011 despite his struggles with injuries and performance, after giving 215 in 2010, his first year in Boston. He leads the Red Sox in 2014 with 87.2 innings over 13 starts, on pace to hit 230.

Who replaces that output in 2015 for Boston in place of Lackey? Buchholz and Felix Doubront could, but both remain a mystery. Brandon Workman and Rubby De La Rosa could take that role, but not enough has been seen of those two against major league hitting to make that statement.

The kids are all the hype right now, but Matt Barnes and Anthony Ranaudo have yet to throw a pitch in the majors. Henry Owens has yet to throw a pitch above Double A.

Factor in the increasing possibility of Lester — who has averaged 205 innings since 2008 — being in another uniform on opening day 2015, Lackey’s value to the Red Sox increases ten-fold.

The Red Sox getting John Lackey for $500,000 in 2015 is a dream scenario. But it’s not a reality. If Ben Cherington exercises the team option, Lackey won’t pitch. If Lackey doesn’t pitch, the Sox will have a hard time competing in 2015, which is why the two sides need to come together and meet in the middle.

The Sox can hold firm and make Lackey honor his deal. But it will cost them wins.