No. John Lackey will never be worth the 5 year/$82.5 million contract that he signed before the 2010 season. However, he will almost certainly be considerably better than he was in 2011 and possibly better than he was in 2010, when he wasn’t that bad all told. He pitched both of those seasons injured, and the effects certainly showed in 2011 when he had a miserable season as the worst qualifying pitcher in the league, going 12-12 with a 6.41 ERA as the Red Sox blew their nine game Wild Card lead in a heartbreaking year.
After the historic collapse of that September, a number of rumors began to circulate around the Red Sox. Many of these circled right around the head of John Lackey, who became portrayed as a troublemaker and bad influence on the younger players. This was when all of the “beer and chicken” rumors appeared and Lackey, a man who fans already disliked as someone who hadn’t lived up to their contract, was right in the middle.
All those rumors were put to rest for little while in November 2011, when GM Ben Cherington revealed that Lackey would miss the 2012 season due to Tommy John Surgery.
Although Lackey has been a consistent and durable pitcher throughout the years, this came as a relief to many fans. And with absence, the heart grew stronger. Throughout the 2012 season, several Red Sox players commented on Lackey’s generosity and kindness, saying that he was not the monster the media portrayed him as. Towards the end of the season, reports began to fly that Lackey was well ahead of schedule and was throwing batting practice by late August and early September.
More than just being ahead of schedule, Lackey will have the entire offseason to rest and recuperate. By the beginning of Spring Training 2013, he will not have pitched in nearly 17 months. A number of statistics show that pitchers often throw harder after Tommy John surgery due to the lengthy and extensive recovery process. Rather than having seven or eight months in that recovery, Lackey will have about a full year.
Lackey has consistently thrown in the low 90’s throughout his career, and that probably won’t change in 2013. However, the surgery may take a few years off of the 34 year old Lackey’s proverbial clock. Besides, Lackey’s peripheral stats didn’t show that he was as bad as his ERA showed in 2011. His FIP and xFIP were bad, at 4.71 and 4.70, but not nearly as bad as his 6.41 ERA showed. His strikeout rate (6.08) and walk rate (3.15) were both below his career averages of 7.03 and 2.73, but not that much worse.
I don’t expect Lackey to be fantastic in 2013, that would be unrealistic. However, I think it’s very possible that he puts up numbers similar to 2008 and 2009, when he had ERA’s of 3.75 and 3.83 and 163.1 and 176.1 innings pitched, respectively. If the Red Sox can revamp their offense this offseason, it’s entirely possible that Lackey could win 15 games with an ERA around 4.00. That isn’t worth his contract, but considering the clause where the Red Sox can add an extra year at the league minimum should he miss an extended time due to injury, it’s much more like it. That clause brings the remaining worth of the contract to around 3 years at $34 million, a much more reasonable price.
A rotation of Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, re-energized with the addition of John Farrell, an acquisition of Anibal Sanchez, Hiroki Kuroda, or Edwin Jackson, then Felix Doubront and John Lackey has potential to be very good. If all of those pitchers lived up to their full potential, it’s possible that the Red Sox could have a starter ERA of under 4.00. However, the success of that potential rotation hinges on the success of John Lackey. If he can return to his form with the Angels or close to it, then that’s fantastic. If he can’t… well, it wouldn’t be the first time.