I like, but don't love, the Lackey signing. I love having him on the Red Sox, but it's an expensive deal, and it seems unlikely Lackey will be worth whatever he's paid in 2013 or 2014. On the other hand, it's not my money, and he gives the Sox the best 1-5 rotation in baseball for 2010. Likewise, they don't give awards for being the most efficient team in baseball, and signing a starting pitcher on the free agent market is nothing if not inefficient (triple negative!). The Sox are paying Lackey what the Yankees are paying AJ Burnett, and Burnett is older and more inconsistent. So it's a fair deal, I think, for both the Sox and Lackey.
All that said, there is a good deal of risk, and given how rarely the Sox give out big deals like this, I can understand a bit of eyebrow-raising. Gordon Edes does some of it in his column for ESPN Boston, then closes with this odd comparison:
ESPN researcher Mark Simon notes that since 1990, there have been 16 pitchers to sign deals for five years or more. Only two pitchers on that list — Greg Maddux and Mike Mussina – averaged 30 or more starts per season over the life of their contracts. Kevin Millwood and Gil Meche are likely to add to that number, and eventually so could CC Sabathia, Matsuzaka and Burnett, but none are a guarantee.
Almost half of those pitchers have been busts — Barry Zito, Mike Hampton, Chan Ho Park, Darren Dreifort, Denny Neagle, Kei Igawa, Wilson Alvarez and Alex Fernandez.
So of 15 previous pitchers to sign five-year deals, there is a potential for seven who could average 30 starts per season over the life of the deal (really six because it seems unlikely Matsuzaka will reach that average thanks to his atrocious Year 3. Two-year deals only for pitchers!). Eight have been certifiable busts (which is exactly half of the 16, not "almost half," but I digress).
But look at those lists of busts. Barry Zito, whose contract stunk the moment he put pen to paper? Chan Ho Park? Kei Igawa? Darren Dreifort, for goodness' sake?
Just for the record, Dreifort signed a five year, $55 million deal in 2001 after posting his first-ever season with at least 180 innings and an ERA+ over 101. He had a history of arm troubles and didn't even make it through Year 1 of his deal. Is this really the best comparison for John Lackey?
Is Zito, who has actually started 32 or 33 games in each of his three seasons for San Francisco?
Is Igawa, who has never shown that he actually can pitch in the Major Leagues?
Is Hampton, who actually averaged 30 starts over the first four years of his deal and whose biggest problem was pitching the first two years in Coors Field?
Is Park, who posted one season above 115 ERA+ when he signed his deal (versus Lackey's five consecutive years at 118 or better), and missed significant time to injuries at age 30?
Is Neagle, a Mitchell Report player who showed significant decline heading into his contract?
Is Alvarez, a poorly conditioned player with control problems whose contract was based mostly on the career year he had heading into it?
Fernandez may actually be the closest comp, in that he had a string of highly successful seasons before signing with Florida for five years/$35 million, pitched well in 1997 for Florida, then incurred a shoulder injury in the postseason, missed all of 1998, came back to pitch well in 1999, then retired after making just eight starts in Year 4 of the deal. This could happen to Lackey, but it's worth noting that by this point in Lackey's career, Fernandez was already retired. And Lackey has no 243 IP mark at age 23 like Fernandez did.
It doesn't take long to figure out that when your list includes Kei Igawa and Darren Dreifort, you need to start over. I don't know the future of John Lackey. I think it's likely that Year 5 of his deal could look pretty bad. But I also know he's a very good pitcher being paid a fair price. This is what free agency is about: Paying the market rate and assuming some risk. It just feels weird because the Sox seemingly never do it.