Friday, November 15, 2013

Starting Pitching Primer, or, Is John Lackey's Contract Just like the Sox?

The Red Sox find themselves in an interesting position with starting pitching, heading in to 2014. Most importantly, they don't need to be involved in the starting pitching free agent market. There is a paucity of starters on the market, especially top tier arms, and every pitcher available has some real question marks around them.

Masahiro Tanaka, from the Japanese Pacific League, is coming off an incredible 24-0 season and is expected to be posted. However, importing Japanese pitchers has been a mixed bag - sometimes you get Darvish, sometimes you get Daisuke, and the cost could be well over $100 million. Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana are the next best arms available, and both were good pitchers in 2013, but both were also among the worst pitchers in baseball in 2012. Santana is looking for 5 years, $100 million, and Jimenez is likely looking in the same neighborhood. Finally, Ricky Nolasco is the final pitcher in Keith Law's top 50 free agents. Nolasco is looking for 5 years, $80 million on a track record that doesn't look substantively different from Ryan Dempster's last fall. A solid, if unspectacular track record of throwing 180-200 innings. There is some value in that, but I'm of the mind it falls a lot closer to Dempster's two year, $26.5 million deal, than Nolasco's aspirations.

Red Sox Current Rotation

That brings us to the Red Sox, who have five highly paid starters under contract: Jon Lester ($13 million), John Lackey ($15.95 million), Clay Buchholz ($7.95 million), Ryan Dempster ($13.25 million), and mid-season addition Jake Peavy ($14.5 million). This is in addition to Felix Doubront, who showed flashes of brilliance with the Sox in 2013, and would be making just over the major league minimum as a pre-arbitration player (~$525,000). Lester, Peavy, and Dempster are in the final year of their contracts, and so could be potential trade chips for teams that don't want to go long on years to free agent pitchers. Given Lester's performance down the stretch, an extension seems a lot more likely than a trade, though.

John Lackey - Worst to First
Finally, we get to John Lackey, and his rather intriguing contract. Lackey's turn around has taken his contract from one of the worst, to one of the best, much like the 2013 Red Sox. When Lackey signed as a free agent in 2009, the contract included an interesting clause - if Lackey missed a considerable amount of time due to an elbow injury, a $500,000 team option would be added for 2015. After two terrible years in Boston in 2010 and 2011, Lackey missed all of 2012 following Tommy John surgery, allowing the team option. Granted, following the extremely poor performance, and association with the "chicken and beer" incidents at the end of 2011, the general response was, "Well, that's kind of nice, but he's still John Lackey." Now, John Lackey is coming off of one of his best seasons in awhile, finally living up to the expectations when the Red Sox signed, and he is under contract for the next two years for a extremely economical $16.5 million total. Whether the Red Sox would be best served by keeping him or dealing him is unclear.

Organizational Depth
Having more than five starters is important, but when they're being paid a combined $65 million, or more than a few teams overall payroll (or the Houston Astros 2.71 times over, if you're feeling snarky), that probably isn't the best use of resources. Peavy and Dempster seem like the most likely to be traded, possible with the Red Sox eating some salary in order to get a better prospect. One reason why I think this deal makes sense is that behind the front six, the Sox have incredible depth at the starting pitching position. Pitchers who started for them in 2013 and remain viable options for spot starts or injury fill ins include Franklin Morales (you're going to give a lefty who throws mid-90s a lot of chances), Allen Webster, or knuckleballer Steven Wright. Players who pitched in the bullpen, but have a track record as starters, include Brandon Workman, whose 8 2/3 scoreless innings in the playoffs helped the Sox win the World Series, and Rubby de la Rosa, a right hander with an  upper 90s fastball and the prize of the Adrian Gonzalez deal with the Dodgers. If a starter is needed later in the season, we could see former top picks Anthony Ranaudo or Matt Barnes, both of whom split time between AA and AAA last year, or even lefty Henry Owens, who won't be turning 21 until after the 2014 All Star Break, but dominated high A and AA in 2013.

Needless to say, the Red Sox have options when it comes to starting pitching. Given the question marks surrounding the available pitchers, I think it makes sense to shop a starter this offseason. This would net a prospect, while simultaneously freeing up salary that could be used to help address the loss of four starters from the offense.


  1. I'm not sure it ever makes sense to shop a starter. It seems like it's every year that the Sox have amazing depth at pitcher, and in the end, they still need every one, and sometimes then some. Just look at 2011 if you want to get really scared and see the value of pitching depth. Prospects in general are a roll of the dice, so counting on them for anything is a bit risky.

    That said, if they can get ANYTHING for Dempster, it might be worth it. He seems to be a back end guy at best, and the sort that can be traded for easily if things go terribly wrong during the season.

  2. What if the Red Sox were able to add a real prospect or a starter for John Lackey? They'd have to consider that, right? As good as he was last year, a time traveler could tell me Lackey's 2014 ERA was anything between 2.50 and 5.00, and I'd buy it.

    Dempster is likely a sunk cost at this point, but the nice thing about signing a 2 year deal is that when it goes south, at least it is over soon. I think they'd really only be trading him for salary relief, and it might only be ~$5 million or so at that.