Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Burnett-Lackey comparison misses the point

It wasn't hard to read between the lines with Red Sox general manager as he introduced starting pitcher John Lackey in a press conference at Fenway Park.

1. The Red Sox weren't thrilled with having to guarantee a fifth year to a pitcher who's already 31 years old.
2. A.J. Burnett and CC Sabathia signed contracts guaranteeing them five years and seven years, respectively, last season.
3. Lackey is right up there with Burnett and Sabathia. Over the last four seasons, here's how the trio stacks up in ERA+:
* Sabathia, 133
* Lackey, 129
* Burnett, 110
4. To get a starting pitcher the caliber of Lackey, the Red Sox had to bite the bullet a little bit at the back end of the contract.

"You always want shorter deals," Epstein said. "You always want to try to get the best deal you can for your club. But John is someone who, with his track record and his consistency, has put himself in a position to deserve a contract like this. If you look at recent signings -- last year's free-agent pitcher signings, for example -- certainly John ranks right up there with those guys who got similar contracts, if not exceeds them."

To an extent, that's true.

But the free-agent market doesn't necessarily work that way. Just because the Yankees were willing to give Burnett $82.5 million over five years, for example, didn't mean Lackey suddenly was entitled to a similar number. Precedent is all well and good, but if no team was willing to offer Lackey $82.5 million, he either would have had to accept a lesser deal or walk away from the game. The gues here is that he'd have been just fine with a lesser deal.

The Angels, who didn't have a tremendous amount of financial flexibility this offseason, had a limit to how far they'd go with Lackey. Several other teams were in the mix -- "There were more than two," Lackey said, declining to offer more specifics -- but only one team other than the Yankees signed a starting pitcher for more than $40 million over four years last offseason, and the Atlanta Braves have spent most of the winter trying to unload Derek Lowe's contract.

If the Yankees weren't in on Lackey -- and there have been no indications that they were -- it's hard to find a team that would have been willing to go even close to the five years and $82.5 million the Red Sox were offering.

Epstein might have been trying to simplify everything -- and to avoid going into negotiation specifics -- with his implied comparisons to Burnett and Sabathia. He might have faced a challenge from a bidder like the Angels or the Seattle Mariners or the New York Mets, and the fifth year might have been necessary to secure the services of the best starting pitcher on the market.

Given how fiercely Epstein sticks to his guns about his philosophies -- and refusing to go long-term with players on the wrong side of 30 is one of his philosophies -- it's likely that the Red Sox faced a late challenge from another bidder and had no choice but to offer the fifth year.

Epstein certainly didn't want to go to a fifth year.

Only he and Lackey, though, know if he really had to.

"It's something we had to think long and hard about, but, in the end, we believe in John," he said. "We believe in our pitching staff and our starting pitching going forward and that this puts us in the best position versus other alternatives that we had. If you look on paper, we'll put our starting five up there with anybody's."

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