Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Casey Kelly and financial flexibility

(The second in an ongoing series.)

Let's assume John Lackey busts. Let's assume the triceps tendinitis and the elbow inflammation both recur. Let's assume Lackey turns into the next Mike Hampton, a pitcher whose salaries generally would have been more useful being flushed down the toilet all at once rather than being mailed out in two-week increments.

Had the Red Sox traded half their farm system -- let's assume it would have taken Clay Buchholz and Casey Kelly to go get Roy Halladay, not to mention a similar contract to the one signed by Lackey -- a bust like Hampton would have been a franchise-crippling disaster.

* In 2010, Buchholz and Lackey will earn a combined $18 million. According to Fangraphs -- these numbers should be taken with a huge grain of salt, but they're at least a starting point -- Lackey and Buchholz were worth $17.6 and $5.5 million, respectively, last season, and Buchholz wasn't even called up until after the All-Star break.

* In 2013, Kelly and Lackey will earn a combined $18 million. If Kelly can pitch 130 innings with an ERA of 4.00, he'll be worth significantly more than his major-league-minimum salary. Even if Lackey busts, the production of Kelly at little cost would go a long way toward making up the difference.

By signing Lackey as a free agent rather than trading prospects for Halladay, the Red Sox have covered themselves. Buchholz still is in the organization. Kelly still is in the organization. Junichi Tazawa and Michael Bowden still are in the organization. Felix Doubront, a 22-year-old who had a 3.35 ERA at Double-A Portland last season, still is in the organization. Stolmy Pimentel, a 19-year-old who had a 3.82 ERA at Single-A Greenville last season, still is in the organization.

Had the Red Sox emptied their farm system for Halladay, an ill-timed injury would have forced them back out on the market to overpay for another pitcher to take his place. By hanging onto their prospects, though, the Red Sox either can install a young pitcher in place of Lackey or swing the type of deal the Phillies made for Cliff Lee last July.

Let's even take it a step farther. Let's assume either Ryan Kalish or Josh Reddick is ready to play left field for the Red Sox by the time the 2011 season starts. Mike Cameron, of course, has agreed to a two-year contract that presumably will pay him $7.5 or $8 million in 2011.

All that means, though, is that the Red Sox will be paying Cameron, Kalish and Reddick a combined $8.5 or $9 million in 2011. How they sort out playing time -- the guess here is that a 38-year-old Cameron would be a super-sub fourth outfielder with the ability to spell J.D. Drew in right field, Jacoby Ellsbury in center field and either Kalish or Reddick in left field -- doesn't really matter. The major-league-minimum contracts of both Kalish and Reddick would allow the Red Sox to overpay a little bit to have Cameron be their backup outfielder.

Theo Epstein doesn't just build his organization on a steady flow of prospects because it's fun to see young players develop. He does so because it gives him a low-cost alternative should a hefty investment -- such as the risky five-year contract to which he's about to sign Lackey -- result in nothing but a bust.

If the worst-case scenario for Lackey becomes a reality, the Red Sox might be out $80 million. They won't, though, have to spend another $80 million to replace him.

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