Friday evening, while David Price, the pitcher believed to be the Cubs’ primary target this off-season, was being introduced as the newest member of the Boston Red Sox, Chicago came to terms with Plan B, agreeing to a two-year, $32 million contract with 37-year-old former Red Sox right-hander John Lackey.
There are Boston reverberations throughout this signing. Lackey was heavily recruited by his former Boston teammates Jon Lester and David Ross and has again signed with a team run by former Boston general manager Theo Epstein, who also signed Lackey the last time he was a free agent six years ago. Lackey’s signing also reunites Lackey and Lester, who were the top two pitchers in Boston’s 2013 World Series winning rotation. However, in Chicago, they will be occupying the second and third spots in the rotation behind 2015 National League Cy Young award winner Jake Arrieta on a Cubs team looking to build on a 97-win season and a National League Championship Series appearance.
The current Red Sox are largely indifferent to all of that, but the Lackey signing could have a significant impact on Lackey’s more recent team, the 2015 NL Central champion Cardinals, whom the Cubs dispatched in this year’s Division Series despite a gem from Lackey in St. Louis’s Game 1 victory. With Lance Lynn already lost for the 2016 season following November Tommy John surgery, the Cardinals are in need of another starter, and a similar short-term reunion with Lackey would have fit the bill particularly well given Lynn’s expected return in 2017.
Despite his advanced age, Lackey has bettered his career marks since returning from his own Tommy John surgery in 2013 at the age of 34. Over the last three seasons with Boston and St. Louis, Lackey has posted a 3.35 ERA (119 ERA+) and 3.57 strikeout-to-walk ratio while averaging 202 innings per season and continuing his career-long postseason excellence by going 5–1 with a 3.10 ERA in eight postseason starts and one relief appearance over another 49 1/3 innings. That K/BB ratio bests any single-season mark of Lackey’s from before his surgery and this past season was the best of those three and by most measures the second-best of his career after his lone All-Star season in 2007.
According to Ross, who may be a bit biased, Lackey’s development of his cutter over the last two seasons has made him a better pitcher than he was just two years ago. There seems to be some confusion over exactly what that pitch is. BrooksBaseball.net doesn’t list a cutter among Lackey’s pitches, but does show a big increase in the use of his sinker in 2015 and an outstanding whiff rate on his slider, the latter of which is more likely the pitch to which Ross is referring (Call to the Pen’s James Krueger illustrated the difference between Lackey’s slider and cutter in May 2014). Roughly one of every five sliders Lackey throws generates a swing and a miss, and he threw the pitch as many as 38 times in a single game this past season. Regarded as a fierce competitor, sometimes to his own detriment as was the case in his rematch against the Cubs in Game 4 of the Division Series, Lackey said in June 2014 that his post-surgery approach is to “chuck it as hard and fast as I can until [my elbow] breaks again . . . then we’ll call it a day.”
Lackey’s new two-year deal will allow him to do just that. The Cubs aren’t thinking long term here. They want Lackey to give them all he has in pursuit of the National League pennant that has eluded the team since 1945. Proof of that is that they sacrificed their top 2016 draft pick to sign the 37-year-old, who rejected a qualifying offer from the Cardinals last month. At the time that Lackey’s deal went public, that pick was the 27th overall, which is not really an elite pick. Rick Porcello (there are the Red Sox again) has been by far the most successful No. 27 pick since 1990, with righty reliever Sergio Santos, who was drafted as a shortstop, the runner up. It could have climbed as other teams ahead of them in the draft order sacrificed their first-round picks for a big free agent signing, as the Red Sox did with Price to move the Cubs up from the No. 28 pick. Still, there’s a big difference between the front half of the first round and the back half, with research I did in 2013 suggesting the dividing line is the 14th pick.
The Cubs also stand to get a late-first round compensation pick should Dexter Fowler sign with another team, though the Cubs do have some interest in retaining him themselves. Then again, with their first-round pick already gone and their rotation fleshed out on the cheap (Lackey signed for $185 million less than Price), the Lackey signing could allow the Cubs to pursue slick-fielding Jason Heyward for their vacancy in centerfield. Heyward acquitted himself well in limited time in center for the Braves in 2013 and the Cardinals this past season and would be a bargain at almost any price heading into his age-26 season. A Heyward signing could also give the Cubs the option of trading Jorge Soler and their extra infielder (Javier Baez or Starlin Castro) for a more experienced centerfielder.
For now, however, the Cubs have accomplished what they said after their NLCS sweep at the hands of the Mets was their top priority, adding a quality starting pitcher. They also did so at a bargain price. Given the estimated cost of a marginal win and 5.4% annual inflation on that price, Lackey, who was worth 5.7 wins above replacement per Baseball-Reference this past season, need only be worth a total of 4.6 bWAR over the next two seasons to earn the $32 million the Cubs just committed to him. He could very well deliver all of that value in 2016, at which point the Cubs will have gotten their money’s worth even if Lackey proves unable to throw a single pitch in 2017.