12/14/09 7:34 PM EST
Bauman: Red Sox land a 'bulldog'
Addition of Lackey would make good rotation imposing
In the rivalry that never rests, the Boston Red Sox have just taken their turn. The status quo is never good enough in this pairing, especially when the New York Yankees were eight games better in 2009. Then again, the Yankees, it turned out, were also better than all of the 28 other clubs. But that just made the Red Sox feel worse.
So the Sox acted directly, and without sparing the financial resources, reportedly agreeing with starting pitcher John Lackey on a five-year deal worth $80 million to $85 million.
Lackey was the leading free-agent starter on the market. (Halladay is on the market, too, but as an employee of the Toronto Blue Jays.)
Lackey is good, no question about it, but there has been only one year in his career in which he has won more than 14 games. That was 2007, when he won 19. He has been on the disabled list in each of the last two seasons, a period in which he won a total of 23 games.
He has had only one season with a losing record (2003), but then again, he has been pitching for some very good Angels teams. In 2002 he won Game 7 of the World Series as a rookie.
Beyond the numbers, you can get friend and foe alike to describe Lackey as "a bulldog." This is, in fact, the standard Lackey reference. And it's good, carrying with it the connotation of tenacity and determination. Lackey is a competitor. It is standard practice for him to protest when he is removed from a game.
And if a pitcher is going to be likened to a breed of dog, this is pretty much the top of the line. You don't want, for instance, a Pekingese, for obvious reasons. And at the other end of the spectrum, a Doberman would be all right, except for the possible viciousness.
So the Red Sox are making a big commitment to a bulldog. Is it too much of a commitment? What does it really get for them? And -- the one question that always matters -- does it give them an edge over the Yankees?
The Red Sox have the money. They are not in the Yankees' class when it comes to being revenue-generators, but they are comfortably around the top of baseball's upper-middle class. There have been recent reports that the Sox are close to losing the bidding war for their outfield free agent, Jason Bay. If so, the signing of Lackey essentially represents a reallocation of funds.
Lackey has been aided by the relative thinness of this year's class of free-agent pitchers. His overall record suggests that he is a fine pitcher, but he is not at the elite level among starters. The Red Sox are definitely not underpaying here.
Still, what a rotation this gives Boston, assuming Lackey's good health and reasonable effectiveness. The 31-year-old bolsters a group that was already substantial on its own terms. Lefty Jon Lester is emerging as an ace. Josh Beckett was not at his best in 2009, but he is young enough to regain his best form. Presumably, a healthy Daisuke Matsuzaka would once again be a winning pitcher. Beyond even this, young Clay Buchholz has major potential. And the ageless Tim Wakefield, with his timeless knuckleball, could still be a contributor.
So the acquisition of Lackey makes a good rotation an imposing rotation. Where does this leave the Red Sox relative to the Yankees? We don't know the final shape of the staffs, but as of right now, the Red Sox have much more rotation depth and more proven starters. And they already had the best bullpen depth in the Majors. On paper, as we speak, they have a better pitching staff than the Yankees.
Where they don't stack up against the Yankees is in the lineup, as New York's offense has an air of supremacy to it. And that offense became faster and more powerful with the addition earlier this month of center fielder Curtis Granderson.
But this is why the Red Sox had to have an upgrade somewhere, had to make a major move, had to up the ante. Earlier in the new millennium, the Sox had overtaken the Yankees, largely because of dramatically improved pitching.
And then, in the winter of 2008-2009, the Yankees owned the offseason, with three signings for a breathtaking total of $423.5 million; two of those three being starting pitchers, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. The balance of power shifted back to the Bronx.
Halladay is the one pitcher who could have altered the situation dramatically for either the Red Sox or the Yankees. But if you're the Blue Jays, it's bad enough that you have to trade the man; you don't want him in your division, defeating you on a very regular basis. Halladay appears headed toward the other league -- specifically, Philadelphia -- which is where the Jays would want him if he can't reside in Ontario.
So the Red Sox seized the next best alternative, John Lackey. It was an expensive move, but a reasonable move. They have given themselves a better chance of competing with the Yankees, a better chance of once again moving past the Yankees. But this offseason is still in its adolescent stage. There is work to be done in the ceaseless escalation of this rivalry.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.