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Trade Retrospective: Red Sox trade John Lackey to the Cardinals for Joe Kelly and Allen Craig

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Another Red Sox trade!

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by A Marlin/Getty Images

For the fifth straight offseason, BtBS is looking back on some of the biggest trades from years past. Check out all the entries here.

In yet another of the Red Sox’ many trades in this series, Boston traded John Lackey to the Cardinals for Joe Kelly and Allen Craig. Prospect Corey Littrell was also included in the trade to St. Louis.

In this trade retrospective series, trades will be evaluated based on what was known at the time. That is the only fair, logical way to evaluate trades and strip luck out of the equation: process over results. Having said that, we will still take a look at how the trade worked out for both parties.

The Deal

As mentioned quite a few times already, the Red Sox were selling off in response to a lost season at the 2014 trade deadline. The Cardinals, on the other hand, where in the midst of a tight divisional race. They were in third place, but only a half game behind the Pirates and 2.5 games behind the Brewers.

The Cardinals were in need of another starter. Michael Wacha had not pitched since mid-June, and it was not clear if he would be able to return at all that season. They acquired Justin Masterson a few weeks prior, and though he had yet to make his debut with the team, the fewer starts they would have to give him the better, as he had a 6.06 RA9 when they acquired him from Cleveland.

Lackey was infamous for having a horrifically bad 2011 season before missing 2012 due to Tommy John surgery. Since returning in 2013, he had been worlds better. He had a 3.86 RA9 from that return to the time of the trade, and though his strikeout rates were subpar, the fact of the matter was that they were never that good, even in his prime. However, his great control had returned, having walked only 5.4 percent of batters faced over that time span.

There was also an interesting wrinkle to this trade since Lackey had a clause in his contract that stipulated that if he missed more than a year due to elbow surgery (e.g. Tommy John surgery), the Red Sox would get an extra year tacked on to his contract for only $500,000. I can’t imagine that a free agent would ever let a team do this again, and as we move beyond the age of the importance of value, I think the public backlash to doing this would be significant.

Billionaire owners don’t need to save money on anyone, especially since they do save tons of money on rookie deals, especially pre-arbitration. For example, the Angels paid Lackey less than $28 million for about 25 WAR. I would conservatively estimate that amount of production to be worth at least $150 million. One could fairly argue that it is worth much more.

One can’t deny that being able to acquire a mid-rotation starter at an extra year for the equivalent of free for a major league team is extra enticing. The Red Sox really should have gotten more back in light of that.

Kelly had not been great in the rotation for the Cardinals, a trend that the Red Sox would take too long to figure out. He was roughly replacement level over seven starts that year, but he was shockingly productive in 15 starts the year before with a 2.79 RA9. However, his peripherals were quite poor, as he walked over nine percent of batters faced while striking out a paltry 12.4 percent of them.

Craig was an interesting player, to say the least. From 2011 through 2013, he hit .312/.364/.500, good for a 139 wRC+. In 2013, it was well known that he had been ridiculously lucky with runners in scoring position, hitting an astonishing .454/.500/.638 over 152 PA in those situations. Then, somehow, his performance plummeted in 2014. He was hitting only .237/.291/.346 at the time of the trade, perhaps still being affected by the Lisfranc injury he had suffered the year before.

It was not clear where Craig was going to play for the Red Sox, either. He had no business playing in the outfield, Mike Napoli was signed to be the team’s first baseman until 2016, and David Ortiz was not going to move off of DH anytime soon.

The Cardinals really nailed it with this trade, parting with two surplus players to fill a need. As for the Red Sox, a pitcher destined for the bullpen and a slumping hitter with no position was not a good return for John Lackey. If the Red Sox were serious about returning to contention in 2015, they would have been better off holding on to Lackey for just $500,000.

The Results

The Cardinals pulled it off and won the a total of 90 games, finishing in first place by two games over the Pirates. They beat the Dodgers in four games in the NLDS, but then lost in the NLCS to the eventual World Series champion Giants.

Despite the team’s success since making the trade, Lackey was not a factor at all. He had a 5.04 RA9 over his ten starts with the team as a result of becoming homer prone. He was very good in his two postseason starts, though, giving up a total of five runs in 13 innings while striking out about 28 percent of the batters faced.

Because baseball is always so full of surprises, Lackey had one of the best years of his career in 2015. He had a career-best 2.93 RA9 in 33 starts and 218 inning, accumulating 5.8 WAR. His peripherals were roughly the same as the year prior, though. While he did pitch well, he luckily benefited from a very high strand rate.

Lackey signed a two-year, $32 million deal with the rival Cubs before the 2016 season. He continued to be a workhorse, starting 60 games over those two seasons, and was still a solid mid-rotation starter in 2016. He had a 3.54 RA9 that year, and greatly improved his strikeout rate to over 24 percent. Alas, the 38-year-old Lackey’s age finally caught up with him in 2017, but he still performed like a respectable fifth starter with a 4.90 RA9. He retired before the 2018 season.

Corey Littrell was a throw-in whose ceiling was supposed to be nothing more than a fifth starter, but he failed to ever make it to the major leagues. He was in the Cardinals’ system through 2017 before getting released.

As I alluded above, the Red Sox tried Kelly as a starter for way too long before finally moving him to the bullpen full time in July 2016. Still, the results were underwhelming. He really struggled with his control, and for a pitcher who threw the ball so hard, he never struck out many hitters post-2016 with the Red Sox, topping out at just under 24 percent in 2018.

While Kelly had an underwhelming 2018 regular season, he became one of the best relievers in the playoffs on the way to a World Series championship. He gave up only two runs over 11 13 IP, while striking out almost 30 percent of batters faced and walking no one.

After signing a questionable three-year, $27 million contract with the Dodgers, he had the opposite experience in last year’s playoffs. Granted that manager Dave Roberts left him in too long, he gave up a tenth inning grand slam to Howie Kendrick in Game Five of the NLDS that led to a Nationals victory. In his 2 13 innings of postseason work, he gave up six runs and his five walks were actually more than his number of strikeouts.

Sadly, Craig got only worse after the trade. Much, much worse, as he was no longer a major league quality hitter. In 195 PA starting from the trade and through 2015, he hit an unfathomable .139/.236/.197. In May 2015, he was demoted to Triple A where he languished until the end of July 2017, when the Pawtucket Sox released him. After a failed comeback with the Padres Triple A affiliate in 2018, he retired from baseball.

Cardinals Results

Remaining Control WAR
Remaining Control WAR
John Lackey 1 5.5
Corey Littrell 6 0
Total 7 5.5
Baseball Reference

Given what the Cardinals paid in talent, this trade would have been a win if Lackey had been half as good as he was. He was one of the biggest contributors to the Cardinals’ 100-win 2015 season.

Red Sox Results

Remaining Control WAR
Remaining Control WAR
John Kelly 4 2.8
Allen Craig 3 -1.5
Total 7 1.3
Baseball Reference

That’s really disappointing. You can’t assume that Lackey would have had an equally good 2015 season with the Red Sox, but for only half a million dollars, why not see what you get unless another team blows you away with an offer? The Cardinals won this one by process and won by a mile on results.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.