Lackey likely sidelined for '12 with elbow injury
Right-hander will undergo Tommy John surgery in near future
BOSTON -- Ben Cherington's first major announcement as general manager of the Red Sox came late in his introductory press conference at Fenway Park Tuesday afternoon, and it scratched off one of the top questions the new regime needed to answer: How do you fix John Lackey?
Start with his arm. The right-hander will undergo Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow at a near but undetermined date, giving him more than a year away from the Majors to regain both his physical and mental strength.
"I talked to him the other day, he's really excited about the future, certainly anxious about the surgery, getting that done and rehabbing," Cherington said. "But he knows that he's a much better pitcher than what he showed in 2011, and I believe he's going to be a much better pitcher than what he showed in 2011. We look forward to having him as part of the staff likely in 2013."
Angels medical director Lewis Yocum, the California-based doctor who performed Daisuke Matsuzaka's Tommy John surgery this season, is also to operate on Lackey. Lackey visited the doctor for an MRI after the season ended, a followup to one he received at midseason.
"[Lackey] had, as most of you know, some intermittent elbow soreness throughout the season," Cherington said. "We decided -- he decided -- it'd be a good idea after this season to get that checked again. So he saw Dr. Yocum recently in L.A., had a followup MRI to compare to the previous one that was done in May, I believe, May or June. And after more consultation with Dr. Yocum, John has decided to go ahead with Tommy John surgery."
Since 1901, there have been just 24 seasons in which a full-time starting pitcher has thrown at least 150 innings and finished with an ERA over 6, including Lackey's 2011 campaign. He went 12-12 with a 6.41 ERA in 28 starts and 160 innings, letting up 203 hits and 20 home runs while also hitting a Major League-high 19 batters.
It was as poor a year as any, and it gave Red Sox fans little reason to believe the remaining three years on his five-year, $82.5 million deal would be anything but frustrating. Combined with the revelation that Lackey was among the trio of Red Sox starting pitchers who would drink beer during games on days they weren't pitching, few individuals drew more public ire in the aftermath of the team's September collapse than Lackey.
But the Red Sox did have a positive in Lackey's situation: There was at least little mystery as to what was plaguing him. It was his health, and it was his home life.
"First of all, let me start by saying that John Lackey pitched through circumstances this year that I don't think any of us in this room can fully understand, and he got beat up for it a little bit along the way," Cherington said. "This guy was dealing with some stuff both on the field and off the field that were really difficult, and I thought he showed tremendous toughness pitching through that. The game he pitched in New York at the end of the season, where he helped us as we were grinding away from everyone that we could, got overshadowed, I thought, by the way the season ended."
In Spring Training, Lackey disclosed that Krista Lackey, then his wife, had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
He never publicly discussed the matter further, but he appeared to allude to it in May when he said, "Everything in my life sucks right now," after a poor outing.
Then came the health revelations.
MLB.com's Peter Gammons said in a WEEI radio interview at the end of June that the Sox would need to decide whether Lackey needed Tommy John surgery before August. Lackey and the Red Sox denied this possibility, saying that he wasn't in any greater danger of going under the knife than a lot of other pitchers. Lackey had already received a cortisone shot in the elbow.
Arm problems have been consistent for Lackey since 2008, when he made his first trip to the disabled list because of a triceps injury.
Then, in late September, Lackey's off-field issues again bubbled up, when TMZ.com reported he was divorcing his wife. He lashed out at reporters just hours before that story surfaced because of a text message he had received from a member of the media.
Though it's down the road and perhaps unlikely, Lackey's operation may mean that the Red Sox could end up with a relative bargain, if the right-hander comes back and proves serviceable. There's a clause in Lackey's contract that gives the Sox a team option at the Major League minimum salary for 2015 if he misses significant time with surgery for a preexisting elbow injury. As of now, Lackey and the Sox are contractually committed to each other through 2014.