The Red Sox have traded yet another member of their starting rotation for established major league talent. On Thursday, Boston sent John Lackey, minor league lefty Corey Littrell and $1.75 million to the Cardinals for righthanded starter Joe Kelly and outfielder/first baseman Allen Craig mere hours after trading Jon Lester, Jonny Gomes and cash to the A’s for All-Star outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and a competitive-balance-round draft pick. Lester may have the greatest impact of any of those players over the remainder of this season, but it is the Lackey trade that will resonate far longer. Not only does Lackey arrive in St. Louis with a 2015 option for a league-minimum salary, triggered by his November 2011 Tommy John surgery, but the Red Sox will have control over both Craig and Kelly through 2018.
Craig, whom St. Louis signed to a five-year extension in March 2013, was expendable due to the emergence of Matt Adams at first base and the arrival of rookie Oscar Taveras, who is seen as Craig’s long-term replacement in rightfield. Taveras, one of the top hitting prospects in all of baseball, has hit just .208/.238/.271 this season, but Craig has been struggling mightily at the plate (.237/.291/.346) and Taveras had been splitting time with him in rightfield this month and out-hitting him as well (batting .220 in July compared to Craig's .122).
Kelly, meanwhile, has struggled in four starts since spending nearly three months on the disabled list with a hamstring strain, posting a 7.32 ERA in those four starts, just one of which was quality.
Lackey is a clear upgrade on Kelly in the St. Louis rotation, at least in the short term. Since returning from his Tommy John surgery last year, Lackey has posted a 113 ERA+ with strong peripherals, walking just two men per nine innings with a 3.85 strikeout-to-walk ratio; he's even added a tick to his velocity. Now, he is moving out of hitter-friendly Fenway Park and the designated-hitter league and into pitcher-friendly Busch Stadium, where he will face a pitcher or pinch-hitter every nine batters.
He also arrives in St. Louis with an impressive post-season track record. In 16 starts and three relief appearances, Lackey has posted a 3.03 ERA. Last year, in his first postseason action since 2009, he went 3-1 with a 2.77 ERA for Boston in three starts and one relief outing. In the World Series against his new team, he made two quality starts -- including the Game 6 clincher -- and tossed a perfect inning of relief. That’s a big addition for the Cardinals. Lackey could be sticking around beyond this year, too, as there would seem to be a high likelihood that his league-minimum option for 2015 will be renegotiated into a team-friendly two-year extension (though, per Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, Lackey has told St. Louis that he’ll honor the option as is).
Still, the Cardinals gave up a lot to make what will likely be only a short-term upgrade. Kelly, who just turned 26 in June, won’t be arbitration eligible until after the 2015 season and, even if St. Louis does wind up extending Lackey through 2016, Kelly will remain under Red Sox control for two more seasons beyond that. Kelly is no slouch, by the way. He has a 115 career ERA+ (magically, he has the exact same career ERA, 3.25, in both his 38 career starts and 30 career relief appearances), throws in the mid-to-upper 90s and generates a lot of ground balls. Lackey will be 36 in late October, so it may not be long before the Red Sox possess the best starting pitcher in the deal. In fact, given Clay Buchholz’s struggles this year and overall fragility, Kelly may already be the best pitcher in the now-gutted Boston rotation.
Craig, meanwhile, just turned 30 two weeks ago and entered this season as a .306/.358/.492 hitter in the major leagues, so there’s ample reason to believe that his lousy 2014 season is a fluke and that he could once again be as productive as Cespedes (.262/.318/.470 career) if not moreso next year. With Craig, Cespedes, Mike Napoli and David Ortiz all under contract for 2015, Boston appears to have the heart of its order filled out for next year, and it still has Shane Victorino under control as a fourth outfielder or centerfield caddy.
As for Littrell, he’s a lefthanded starter who was a fifth-round pick out of the University of Kentucky last year. He’s more of a polished college pitcher with a deep repertoire than a projectable arm with impressive stuff. Currently putting up middling numbers as a 22-year-old in High A, Littrell could prove to be a back-end starter in the majors, but he could just as easily never make it, either, because his minor league splits suggest that match-up relief work is not a career option.