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John Lackey and the propriety of holding out

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Given John Lackey's age, the "Lackey clause" in his contract could lead to a very unusual situation this offseason.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

We all remember the story: starved for any kind of help in free agency, the Red Sox signed John Lackey in December 2009 to a five year, $82.5 million contract. But as Mike Napoli can attest, the Red Sox can be a little skittish about pre-existing injuries or predisposition for injury. After the 2011 season, John Lackey had Tommy John surgery and when he missed the 2012 season, the "Lackey clause" kicked in: a club option for the 2015 season at the then-major league minimum salary.

$500,000 is a fine sum of money, but it's a pretty substantial pay cut for for a man making $15.25 million this year. So it wasn't a surprise to see Ken Rosenthal float the idea in early June that Lackey "holds his own leverage" in that he could simply retire if, in his estimation, the juice wasn't worth the squeeze. The excellent Alex Speier went straight to the source soon after that, to see what Lackey had to say about the situation. From Speier:

While Lackey agreed to the contract structure that would potentially have him in line to make rookie money, the right-hander expressed some pause about the idea of actually doing so. He didn’t draw lines in the sand, but he also stopped short of saying unequivocally that he would pitch for the Red Sox next year even if it meant doing so at a salary of roughly $500,000.

"I haven’t thought that far ahead. Just thinking about pitching right now. It’s definitely something I’ll have to think about at the end of the season, whether I want to keep going, whether ‘€¦ ," Lackey trailed off. "There will be a lot of things to consider."

Speier's piece also quotes Lackey as saying that one of the things he'd "have to think about at the end of the season" was the way his deal was "structured." So the wheels may have been turning for he and his agent. And then there was this from Buster Olney just after the trade deadline:

John Lackey was uncomfortable when pressed on his contract issue. There are folks within the Red Sox organization fully convinced Lackey would've seriously considered retiring rather than honoring the last year of his contract if the team had kept him.

The right thing to do is to honor the contract, no matter where he is. Short of that, he would be in the wrong.

I find that agree with Olney a lot, and in this case my first reaction was similar to his. After all, Lackey signed a contract knowing that this was a possibility, and presumably made the choice to sign that contract with the Red Sox anyway because it was the right move for him. And it wasn't just year six of a six year deal; it would only kick in if he had to take an extended absence from the field of play, which is where baseball players are typically paid to appear.

Basically, Lackey knew what he was signing up for, and he signed up for it anyway. But here's the thing: the Red Sox did, too. And the Cardinals did, too. The threat of or leverage from retirement if Lackey was going well when the clause was due to kick in was present when Lackey signed the contract in the first place.

I haven't reviewed Lackey's contract, but if it's anything like the Uniform Player Contract, there's not a whole lot that the Cardinals can do if Lackey holds out. Even if Lackey's contract reads differently than the UPC (a possibility given that the Red Sox might have seen this coming), the Cardinals face an uphill battle if they resort to the judicial process. For one, "specific performance" is an unlikely remedy in such a case, meaning that even if the Cardinals won a judgment or verdict against Lackey, they'd be looking at monetary damages -- not Lackey pitching under protest. And although this can vary greatly depending on the court in question, chances are the 2015 season would be long since done before a resolution could be achieved in court.

Lackey could indeed retire, or threaten to retire, exacting something of value in return just the way a player might get an option exercised or an extension done by waiving a no-trade clause or his 10-and-5 rights. Why should threatening to retire be different? I'm surprised that the "Lackey clause" hasn't caught on in the sport as one tool to handle one particular type of situation, but I'm even more surprised that retirement isn't used as a cudgel more often. Maybe it's just that players pushing 36 like Lackey who have guaranteed contracts tend to be paid at a figure that somewhat resembles or outpaces their market value; I can't think of a single veteran of that age who has been underpaid by more than a factor of ten.

With respect to younger players, threats of retirement are even less likely. There's unlikely to be an alternative for the player that could pay anywhere near the same amount. But more than that, it would set a precedent that would severely depress his future prospects of high salaries -- just like an injury is a pretty good sign that a player has a higher-than-normal future chance of injury, a holdout is a sign that a holdout could happen in the future. For younger players, threatening to hold out would be a little like a television actor doing so; maybe the producers of that show would end up giving in, but the actor might have a tough time finding other recurring TV work ever again.

But retirement does come up, as it did prior to the 2013 season. Darren Oliver had an excellent year for Toronto in 2012 on a one-year deal for $4.5 million with a $3 million club option for 2013. The rumor, at least, was that Oliver demanded either a raise on the $3 million salary or a trade to the Texas Rangers, with retirement the "or else" in that threat. Oliver was 42 years old and the threat of retirement was almost certainly taken seriously -- but the Blue Jays did not relent, and Oliver ended up reporting to spring training without a change to his contract.

Lackey is younger than Oliver was, but the discrepancy between what he's due to get and what he may demand could be far greater. What he ultimately does is up to him. He may, in the end, determine that playing for the minimum next year is actually a smart move. Think about it: the man probably only has one multi-year contract left in his future, and if all the Cardinals offer is a somewhat enhanced 2015 salary in exchange for a commitment to pay sticker price in 2016, Lackey probably won't be printing his own ticket in choosing where he lands for 2017.

Either way, this is going to be an interesting situation to watch, in large part because of its implications on future uses of the "Lackey clause." Expect Lackey's situation to make some noise before it's resolved, because with the possible exception of making a play for a (much) longer deal, Lackey has nothing to lose in trying to leverage possible retirement. Just don't say that the Cardinals couldn't or didn't see this coming.

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Ryan P. Morrison is an editor and writer at Beyond the Box Score, and co-author of Inside the 'Zona, a site on the Arizona Diamondbacks with a sabermetrics slant. You can follow him on Twitter: @InsidetheZona.