Why John Lackey's Signing Triggered the Downfall of the Boston Red Sox

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Why John Lackey's Signing Triggered the Downfall of the Boston Red Sox
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Exactly one year ago Wednesday, the Boston Red Sox were 85-61 and on their way to their seventh 95-win season in nine years.

The Red Sox only managed to win five more games the rest of the way, and they were eliminated from the playoff picture on the final day of the regular season. The organization immediately began falling apart at the seams, and today the Red Sox lie in ruins reminiscent of the rusty remains of the Titanic. It surely won't be long before James Cameron makes a 3D documentary about them.

There's no saving the 2012 season. The Red Sox are 14 games under .500 with 20 games left to play, meaning the Sox will have to play the best baseball they've played all season to avoid the team's first losing season since 1997. Given the talent they have and the competition that lies ahead, the odds of the Red Sox coming out ahead when all is said and done are somewhere between slim and none.

Everyone has questions about the Red Sox these days. One that's been asked a lot is where it all went wrong. When and how did this team lose its way in such spectacular fashion?

As I outlined in a recent article, there were a lot of individual events over the last few years that led to the downfall of the Red Sox this season. One particular event, however, stands out as being the very first domino to fall.

This would be the signing of John Lackey back in December of 2009. For former general manager Theo Epstein, the Lackey signing was both aggressive and unprecedented, and it represents the very moment that the general operation of the Red Sox took a turn for the worse.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, a bit of background is necessary.

At the time the Lackey signing was made, things were as bleak in Boston as they had been in years. The Red Sox had just been swept out of the playoffs by the Los Angeles Angels, the very team they had grown used to dominating in postseason play up to that point. To make matters worse, the hated New York Yankees had just won their 27th World Series championship.

What was significant at the time was how the Yankees won their 27th world title. After missing out on the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade in 2008, the Yankees went out and enlisted the help of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira, hired guns the Yankees signed up for a combined total of more than $400 million. They also traded for Nick Swisher, a minor move that ended up paying big dividends.

While all this was going on, there was reason for folks in Boston to be worried, to be sure. However, there was no reason for anybody to panic. The Yankees had been buying up players for years at that point, yet they hadn't won the World Series since 2000. There was no guarantee that their latest free-agent spending spree was going to lead to the end of their championship drought.

Nick Laham/Getty Images
Sabathia posted a 1.98 ERA in the 2009 postseason.

Alas, it did. Sabathia and Teixeira both had huge seasons in 2009, and Burnett and Swisher both played their parts pretty well. In the postseason, the Yankees simply had too much talent for other teams to overcome.

In winning the World Series in 2009, the Yankees finally managed to prove something they had been trying to prove for years: It is indeed possible to buy a championship.

After it was all over, they may as well have come out and said, "Your move, Red Sox."

Back in June of this year, Epstein admitted in an interview on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston that he and the rest of the team's brass were very much feeling the heat after the Yankees won it all, and that it led to a change in the team's philosophy.

"It was that instead of being more patient and saying, 'We'll strike when the time is right,' there was a lot of pressure in the environment at the time to do something," he said, via ESPNBoston.com.

Translation: Something drastic needed to be done.

Epstein started small by signing Marco Scutaro to a two-year deal in early December, thus acquiring yet another new starting shortstop in a long line of new starting shortstops. A typical Red Sox signing. Nothing to get up in arms about.

Less than two weeks later, the Red Sox made their move. As reported by ESPN's Jayson Stark, the Sox and John Lackey agreed to a five-year, $82.5 million contract. At the time, it was the largest contract the Red Sox had ever given out under Epstein's watch.

We now know that the Lackey contract is a bust. In his first year with the team in 2010, he went 14-11 with a 4.40 ERA and a 1.42 WHIP. In 2011, he went 12-12 with a 6.41 ERA and a 1.62 WHIP. He's missed all of this season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last winter.

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Lackey helped the Angels beat the Red Sox with a brilliant performance in Game 2 of the 2009 ALDS.

But even at the time, the warning signs were there that the Red Sox were making a risky move. Lackey hadn't logged more than 200 innings since his near-Cy Young campaign in 2007, and his ERA rose from 3.01 in 2007 to 3.75 in 2008 and to 3.83 in 2009. Likewise, he saw his WHIP increase from 1.21 in 2007 to 1.23 in 2008 and to 1.27 in 2009.

The Red Sox were uncharacteristically rolling the dice on Lackey when they signed him, and in doing so they were putting themselves in a position where they had no choice but to keep gambling. His signing was going to have a snowball effect.

In the short term, the Red Sox went out and committed roughly $25 million to Mike Cameron and Adrian Beltre, who were both signed as part of an effort to improve the team's defense as a means to bolster the team's suddenly formidable pitching staff.

Just as important, the Lackey signing put the Red Sox in a position where they found themselves compelled to sign Josh Beckett, who was due to hit free agency after the 2010 season, to a contract extension.

According to a report from WEEI.com, that was one of the first things that popped into Epstein's mind after the Lackey signing was completed. He went so far as to text Beckett to let him know that the Red Sox still saw him as a "huge part of our future."

The Red Sox opened the 2010 season with a payroll of more than $168 million, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts—an increase of more than $40 million from where they were on Opening Day in 2009.

A few days after the 2010 season opened up, the Red Sox announced they had signed Beckett to a four-year extension worth $68 million.

This was after Beckett had posted an ERA over 6.00 in his last nine starts of the 2009 season, and he proceeded to be even worse in 2010. He only made 21 starts, going 6-6 with a 5.78 ERA.

The 2010 Red Sox, of course, missed out on the postseason, in no small part thanks to the fact that their revamped pitching staff posted a pedestrian 4.20 ERA. 

It didn't help that the Red Sox saw their run total decrease from 872 in 2009 to 818 in 2010. Clearly, they needed more offense.

Elsa/Getty Images
The Crawford signing was viewed as a major victory at the time. Now it's viewed as one of the biggest mistakes in Boston's history.

Epstein solved this problem by trading for Adrian Gonzalez and signing Carl Crawford to a seven-year contract worth $142 million. Keep in mind that Epstein had set a new bar for himself when he signed Lackey to an $82 million contract the offseason before. The Crawford contract trumped that deal by $60 million.

Eventually, Epstein topped the Crawford contract by signing Gonzalez to a seven-year, $154 million extension. 

If you add up the money Epstein committed to Lackey, Beckett, Crawford and Gonzalez, you get a total of roughly $450 million. That's more than the Yankees spent on Sabathia, Burnett and Teixeira before the 2009 season.

The snowball effect the Lackey signing had on Boston's spending is clearly evident. Once the Red Sox signed him, they had to keep spending money to improve the team (Cameron and Beltre) for 2010, and they eventually had to sign Beckett to an extension.

And since they didn't get to where they wanted to be in 2010, more money needed to be spent. Enter Crawford and Gonzalez, whose extension helped bumped the team's payroll up to a franchise-record $175 million on Opening Day this season. 

It's a good thing the Dodgers came along. If they hadn't been there to take on roughly $250 million in salaries when they acquired Beckett, Crawford and Gonzalez, the Red Sox still would be paying for Epstein's missteps in 2013 and beyond.

Epstein himself summarized what went on quite perfectly in his interview with The Sports Hub earlier this year when he said the team's wild spending over the last few years was a result of "giving in to that monster."

He went on to elaborate: 

When you are in a big market and then you win, and you're up against the Yankees, and ratings are what they are and attendance is what it is, no one wants to go backwards, as a business, you don't want to go backwards. ...

Sometimes, on the business side, it's important to sort of have something with some sizzle in an offseason. It's the baseball operations department's job to push back against that, just as it's the business side's job to sometimes advance those thoughts. It's my responsibility if we got out of whack. And then you could always execute better, too. ... We didn't execute well in big-name free agency.

Epstein didn't come out and say that he regretted getting the ball rolling with the Lackey signing during the 2009 offseason, but he certainly hinted that he would do things differently if he could go back in time:

If I learned a lesson from [that] offseason, it's never feel the need to do something. If you're trying to avoid one move that you don't think is going to work out, don't then settle for a different move that maybe doesn't check all the boxes. Be true to the philosophy and understand the bigger picture. There's always another day to fight. You don't have to get everything done in one offseason just because of what's going on in the environment around you.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
It remains to be seen if Epstein will repeat any of his past mistakes with the Cubs.

The Red Sox definitely got away from their philosophy when they signed Lackey. They had made big free-agent signings before (Edgar Renteria, J.D. Drew, Daisuke Matsuzaka), but never one that big. It was a reckless signing, and it ultimately led the Red Sox to spend their money in even more reckless ways.

Things could have worked out, mind you, and the Red Sox were obviously hoping that things would work out. But all the while, they had to know that their worst nightmares could come true, and that it would become apparent that they had a lot of money tied up in players who weren't worth it.

These worst nightmares came true, and they all cost the Red Sox dearly.

 

Special thanks to Baseball-Reference.com for stats and other vital intel.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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