Tuesday December 15th, 2009

The Red Sox are reportedly close to finalizing a deal with free agent Angels ace John Lackey said to be comparable to A.J. Burnett's contract with the Yankees, in the neighborhood of $85 million over five years. The deal could help restore balance to both the American League East, which the Yankees won handily this past season, as well as the AL West, where the Angels would feel the loss of Lackey acutely.

The Red Sox rotation behind Jon Lester and Josh Beckett struggled mightily in 2009. In the 98 games not started by Lester or Beckett this past season, Red Sox starters went 36-36 with a 5.40 ERA, and 1.57 WHIP. With Clay Buchholz having emerged as a legitimate mid-rotation starter in August and Daisuke Matsuzaka having made a strong comeback in mid-September, the Red Sox already had hope for improvement in their rotation heading into 2010, but the addition of Lackey, easily the best starting pitcher in a weak free agent market, ramps that improvement up from modest to drastic. That Lackey might be only the third-best starter in the Red Sox's rotation is a testament to the depth and strength his signing gives Boston's staff. Indeed, the Red Sox's rotation suddenly looks like the best in baseball's best division, at least for the moment.

Having posted a good-but-not great 3.79 ERA (118 ERA+) in just 339 2/3 innings over the past two seasons, the latter figure due to his starting both seasons on the disabled list with arm aches, including elbow inflammation this past spring, Lackey is more of a No. 2 starter than a proper ace, but that makes him particularly well cast as the No. 3 in Boston. Concerns about those DL stays linger, but Lackey returned in mid-May in both 2008 and 2009 and pitched into the playoffs without reoccurrence of his discomfort both years, throwing a cumulative 196 innings in 30 starts between the regular and postseasons in '09. In the five seasons prior to 2008, he averaged 210 2/3 innings a year in the regular season alone, establishing a reputation as a horse that his early-season aches have yet to fully undermine. He also arrives in Boston as a strong postseason performer, having famously pitched and won Game 7 of the World Series as a rookie in 2002 and having bettered his career regular season ERA in his 12 postseason starts.

As what amounts to Brad Penny's replacement in the Boston rotation, Lackey represents a significant upgrade for the Sox, but he might be replacing more than just Penny. Josh Beckett will be a free agent after the 2010 season and has been inconsistent in his four years in Boston, posting a cumulative 4.05 ERA, making just 27 starts in 2008, and contrary to his reputation, posting an underwhelming 3.88 ERA in the postseason, including a 7.71 mark in four starts over the past two Octobers. With a great deal of roster turnover on the horizon for the BoSox, Lackey could well prove to be a preemptive replacement for Beckett. Lackey's five-year deal would coincide perfectly with Lester's contract, which runs through 2013 with an option for 2014, the last year of Lackey's contract. Those two and the team-controlled Buchholz, who is expected to mature into a front-of-the-rotation starter capable of keeping Lackey an overqualified No. 3, could be a strong top three in a Beckett-free rotation starting in 2011.

As things stand right now, Lackey also looks like the Red Sox's alternative to re-signing defensively challenged free agent slugger Jason Bay. Only the Royals and Astros were worse at turning balls into play into outs in 2009, so some of the ugly pitching numbers assembled by the non-Lester/Beckett starters could be blamed on the Red Sox's defense, with Bay, who rated 13 runs below average in left field according to Ultimate Zone Rating. Having been rendered nearly immobile by hip surgery, former Gold Glover Mike Lowell also shouldered a lot of blame for the Sox's poor defensive showing this past season. With Lowell entering the final year of his contract, the Red Sox are attempting to trade him to Texas for catching prospect Max Ramirez, though his late-season thumb injury has held that swap up for the moment. Replacing Bay and Lowell with competent fielders could lift all of the pitching staff's boats, but actual replacements still have to be found.

The Red Sox did swipe talented young outfielder Jeremy Hermida from the Marlins in an arbitration-motivated deal earlier this offseason, but Hermida isn't much better than Bay in the field and has a lot to prove with his bat, and while Kevin Youkilis and Victor Martinez give the Red Sox some flexibility at third, first, and catcher, the Sox will be one player short of having those three positions manned should the Lowell trade go through. A 38-year-old Jason Varitek, back on a player option, and the underpowered, slick-fielding Casey Kotchman are the uninspiring in-house alternatives at catcher and first base, with free agent third baseman Adrian Beltre and Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez the much more compelling rumored alternatives.

Then there's the fact that Martinez and David Ortiz are also due to become free agents after the coming season, and that right fielder J.D. Drew and Hermida, not to mention closer Jonathan Papelbon, are due to hit the market after 2011. With all of that other work to do, it's easy to see why the Red Sox might see Lackey as a solution to Beckett's impending free agency, though replacing Beckett with a pitcher with inferior stuff who is two years his senior and has a 5.75 career ERA in nine career starts at Fenway Park is a questionable move, particularly when it involves an average annual salary north of $16.5 million.

Of course, that's all speculation. For 2010, the Red Sox will have both Lackey and Beckett along with Lester, Buchholz, the temperamental Matsuzaka (whose war with the team escalated with their recent refusal to keep his personal trainer on payroll), old hand Tim Wakefield, who could slip back into a swing role in the wake of Lackey's arrival, as well as minor leaguers Junichi Tazawa and Michael Bowden available in case of emergency. That's a lot of depth and a lot of talent. Just how far the Sox go with that rotation, however, will depend on their ability to fill their emerging holes on the other side of the ball.

As for the Angels, when they lost free agent third baseman Chone Figgins to the Mariners I wrote in this space that the Mariners might actually have done the Angels a favor by allowing money the Halos might have spent on Figgins to go toward re-signing Lackey, whose retention should have been the Angels top priority this offseason. Instead, Lackey is headed to Boston and the Mariners reportedly just pulled off a trade to bring Cliff Lee to Seattle to provide a lefty counterpart to Felix Hernandez in their rotation.

Coming into the offseason, the Angels knew that, with Figgins, Lackey, Bobby Abreu, and Vladimir Guerrero all becoming free agents, they would have their work cut out for them to keep their grip on the division. Though they resigned Abreu and just inked Hideki Matsui to a cheap one-year deal to replace the still-unsigned Guerrero, the loss of Lackey will reverberate throughout the AL West in the coming season. I'm not convinced that Figgins is a huge upgrade over Adrian Beltre for the Mariners, and they have yet to acquire anyone to hit in the middle of their order (though they're said to be among the top contenders for Bay, though that runs counter to their defense-first mentality), but the Rangers are also ascendant, having just added the dominant-when-healthy Rich Harden to an emergent rotation that should also include top prospects Neftali Feliz and Derek Holland. The balance of power in the AL West is tilting. So, while John Lackey might only be a No. 3 starter in Boston, his signing still managed to make two of the American League's three divisional races a lot more interesting.

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