John Lackey Signing an Unusual Risk for Theo Epstein

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John Lackey Signing an Unusual Risk for Theo Epstein
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The signing of John Lackey to a five-year deal is a curious decision for Theo Epstein. The Red Sox GM has typically stayed away from long term deals with 30-something pitchers who come with a history of injury or obvious risk.

Since Epstein became general manager before the 2003 season, he has signed just one free-agent pitcher for more than three years—Daisuke Matsuzaka. Given his age (26), good health, and success in international competition, that was perhaps a special circumstance.

This time around, there are greater risks.

In 2008, Lackey missed the Angels' first 41 games with what was diagnosed as triceps tendinitis.

In 2009, Lackey had an MRI in spring training that revealed inflammation in his right elbow, had a cortisone shot, and missed the Angels' first 34 games.

As a result, Lackey has only thrown 163 1/3 and 176 1/3 innings the last two seasons. Depending on how you look at it, that's either a good or a bad thing.

The Red Sox were concerned enough to put language in his contract that will protect them from a pre-existing medical issue. 

After making just 51 starts over the last two years, some might take the view that Lackey's arm hasn't received as much wear as if he'd made the customary 30-plus starts each year. Perhaps his arm has been somewhat preserved, making him fresh next year and beyond.

The Red Sox must think so. They had better hope so.

After striking out 199 and 190 batters in consecutive seasons in 2005-06, Lackey's strikeout rate has dipped dramatically, down to 179, then 130, and 139 each of the last three seasons.

Hopefully he will reverse that trend with the Red Sox next season, and remain healthy and effective for the duration of his contract. That is by no means a given.

Since 1990, only 16 pitchers have signed 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.

Half of those pitchers ended up as busts—Barry Zito, Mike Hampton, Chan Ho Park, Darren Dreifort, Denny Neagle, Kei Igawa, Wilson Alvarez, and Alex Fernandez.

Obviously, the odds are against Lackey remaining healthy and making consistent starts over the life of the contract. Yet, Epstein went out on a limb on this one to make a splash, and to bridge the gap between his team and the Yankees.

Hopefully, when we look back on this moment five years from now, we'll have the hindsight, and the satisfaction, that his gamble paid off.

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