Back in 2009, John Lackey signed the biggest contract of his career when he agreed to a five year deal with the Red Sox worth $82.5 million. Attached to the end of this contract was a conditional option for 2015 which stated that Lackey would pitch at the league minimum if he missed significant due to a pre-existing elbow injury. As it turned out, Lackey needed Tommy John surgery after the 2011 season, and the Cardinals, who acquired Lackey at the trade deadline in 2014, made the easy choice of exercising his 2015 option.
While there were rumblings about Lackey potentially retiring instead of pitching for the league minimum in 2015, he ultimately followed through on his end of the deal and pitched the entire 2015 season without a single complaint. As it turned out, Lackey put up a fine season with the Cardinals at age 36, pitching 218 innings with a 2.77 ERA and a 3.57 FIP, good for 3.6 fWAR. He followed up his fine season with an excellent start in the first game of the NLDS against the Cubs, adding to his reputation as a good pitcher in the postseason. Although, his game four start on short rest wasn't quite as nice.
Lackey is set to be a free agent this offseason, and he has likely increased his value by several million dollars with his strong 2015 season. Because of his age, though, teams will be cautious about giving Lackey more than a two or three year deal, and it appears that Lackey himself may only want to pitch "for a couple of more years", according to Buster Olney. With that in mind, what kind of contract can we expect Lackey to get this offseason?
How teams value Lackey will likely depend on whether or not they believe his 2.77 ERA in 2015 is in any way sustainable. If his FIP (3.57), xFIP 3.77), SIERA (3.90), or DRA (4.13) are any indication, it seems unlikely that Lackey will come close to matching his 2015 level of run prevention going forward. Lackey's 2015 ERA is likely unsustainable because his 82.6 percent strand rate, the second highest in all of baseball among starting pitchers. In other words, Lackey has had a "clutch" season, pitching exceptionally well with runners on base and sequencing his hits and walks allowed in such a way that they don't result in as many runs being scored as we would expect.
Unfortunately for Lackey, posting an elite strand rate does not appear to be a sustainable skill, which is reflected in his career strand rate of 72.9 percent, a rate identical to the league average in 2015. Furthermore, it doesn't appear that Lackey's elite strand rate has anything to do with veteran savvy. There is no pattern of Lackey improving his strand rate throughout his career, and just last season, he posted a normal strand rate of 72.6 percent in 198 innings between the Red Sox and Cardinals.
If we believe that Lackey's other metrics are better estimators of his true talent level, then it appears as though he is capable of pitching a high number of innings while providing average to slightly above average run prevention. Even if we bump his 3.6 fWAR down slightly due to age-based decline, it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect Lackey to be worth around three wins in 2016. Given the way pitchers are being paid these days, a two year deal worth $15-$20 million per season isn't out of the question. Recent contracts to veteran pitchers like Bronson Arroyo (2 years, $23.5 million), Tim Hudson (2 years, $23 million) and Ryan Dempster (2 years, $26.5 million) suggest that Lackey may not reach $20 million per season, but then again, it could be argued that Lackey put up a stronger walk year than all of these players.
Given Lackey's strong season, it seems likely that the Cardinals will make him a qualifying offer in order to get a compensation pick in next year's draft. Recently, it was reported that the qualifying offer would be worth $15.8 million, and I'm sure the Cardinals would be happy to take Lackey back on a one-year $15.8 million dollar contract in the off chance that he accepts the offer.
If Lackey declines the qualifying offer as expected, though, his market might not be as strong, since any team that signs him would have to give up a top draft pick to do so. While the qualifying offer may not affect the best free agents on the market, it has been a big factor in recent years for second-tier players like Kyle Lohse, Nelson Cruz, and Ervin Santana, who didn't end up signing contracts until Spring Training or later. It is hard to say exactly how much a qualifying offer would cost Lackey, but given his age and his less than spectacular peripherals, the loss of a draft pick could be a deal breaker for some teams when deciding whether or not to sign Lackey
There is also a possibility that Lackey pulls an A.J. Burnett and tells his agent to work out a contract with a specific team, even if it means that he makes less money. Lackey has already gotten a big contract in free agency, and at this stage of his career, he may be more focused on finding a place where he is comfortable and has a chance of winning another World Series. Lackey has expressed an interest in returning to the Cardinals, but GM John Mozeliak has been noncommittal, mentioning "the opportunities that might exist for him entering his free agent year." The Cardinals have a good track record of knowing when to part ways with aging players, and they probably don't even need Lackey, with Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn, and (probably) Jaime Garcia returning next season. (Garcia has a team option that seems likely to be exercised.)
If Lackey is thinking short term and insists on returning to the Cardinals, perhaps he would consider a qualifying offer from them. If he declines the qualifying offer, he will likely get to choose between two and three year offers from various teams. If we estimate that Lackey declines by half a win per season, then he would be worth around 5.5 WAR over two years and 7.5 WAR over three years. With teams paying close to $8 million per WAR, this would mean that Lackey could potentially be worth $44 million over two years or $60 million over three years. These numbers are probably a little higher than most teams will be willing to pay, especially given Lackey's age, injury history, and potential qualifying offer status. Even so, it isn't too hard to imagine a team giving Lackey a contract in this range, especially given the amount of money teams are making these days.
Ultimately, we probably won't know what kind of deal Lackey will get until we know more about his career intentions going forward. With the Cardinals now eliminated from the postseason, Lackey will certainly have plenty of time to think about his upcoming free agent status.
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