With the loss of Adam Wainwright for most of the 2015 season the Cardinals probably thought that Lance Lynn or Michael Wacha would have stepped up to be the ace for the duration of the season. But, it was clear that John Lackey assumed the role.
Lackey’s age 36 season was the best of his career – making 33 starts, the most since 2010 – while going 13-10 with a career-low 2.77 ERA, 218 innings pitched, striking out 175 while walking 53 and a 1.211 WHIP.
He looked a lot like his 2007 self when he was all-star for the Angels and finished 3rd in the AL Cy Young voting. Arguably, Lackey was the most valuable pitcher in the MLB due to pitching for the league-minimum. A clause the Red Sox had put into his 5-year deal worth over $80MM in 2010 due to arm concerns.
The Cardinals took advantage of the deal when they traded Allen Craig and Joe Kelly, a move that was highly criticized at the time but turned out to be a steal for the Cardinals.
Lackey had made it clear he liked pitching for St. Louis. There were concerns that when Lackey was traded he would elect to retire instead of pitch for the minimum. Lackey thought highly enough of St. Louis to make that a non-issue.
While the Cardinals are certainly appreciative of the 2015 season Lackey showed, they need to figure out if they will re-sign him to a longer deal.
This is the last chance for Lackey to cash-in for a large sum in the MLB. He recently turned 37, but when you come off the best season of your career you can look for top-dollar. Lackey will be seeking a 2-3 year deal from any club he signs with.
CBS Sports reported that some in the industry think Lackey could get a 3-year deal with a salary around $15-$20MM per season. If this is the case, Lackey will not be pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2016.
When it comes to pitchers, age doesn’t help in terms of production. Any team that signs Lackey for $15MM will be paying for the service he has put-in and not for the service he will be putting in moving forward.
Tim Hudson can be a good comparison to Lackey as he spent his last years pitching for the Braves and the Giants.
In 2013, with the Braves, Hudson pitched to an injury-shortened season with stats of: 8-7, 3.97 ERA, 95 strikeouts, 36 walks, 1.188 ERA all at the age of 37. It should be noted that Hudson came off a solid age-36 campaign.
In 2014, Hudson signed with the Giants to a 2-year/$23MM deal.
2014 – 9-13, 3.57 ERA over 31 starts, 189.1 innings pitched, 120 strikeouts, 34 walks, 1.231 WHIP. Overall, solid numbers. But a closer look would show that in the first-half of 2014 Hudson pitched to a 7-6 record, 2.87 ERA, 1.101 WHIP over 18 starts. In his final 13 starts that season, Hudson went 2-7 with a 4.73 ERA and 1.450 WHIP
In 2015 Hudson threw just 123.2 innings, with a 4.44 ERA, going 8-9 and a 1.383 WHIP. Hudson was even coming out of the bullpen for a couple of times during 2015.
Those numbers indicate that any pitcher at that age could free-fall at any given point. Even if the Cardinals were to sign Lackey for $11MM per season(which would likely be below market value for a 2-year deal), the likelihood that he would finish in the bullpen would be all too great.
The Cardinals will also have competition when it comes to keeping Lackey’s service at reasonable cost. The Astros and Rangers, both from his home-state, would be looking for an innings-eater as each team appears to be primed for contending the AL West in 2016 and beyond. The Chicago Cubs are also said to have interest in Lackey as Theo Epstein signed him with the Red Sox and Lackey has a great relationship with Jon Lester.
Those will not be the only interested teams, but the competition for his services could land him a 3-year/$40-45MM deal.
One advantage the Cardinals could have is offering Lackey a Qualifying Offer, which would give him a one-year deal around $15MM. There are many positives to giving Lackey a QO:
- If Lackey accepts the Qualifying Offer the Cardinals are only on the hook for him for one-season, at market value. One season is the ideal situation for the Cardinals.
- The Cardinals would gain a draft pick if Lackey ended up signing with another team.
- The offer would hurt Lackey’s value. Teams would be reluctant to give up money and a draft pick. This would give the Cardinals an edge in negotiations because they are not tied to the compensation. A 2-year/$20MM deal looks more possible with a QO.
Opinion: Offer Lackey the Qualifying Offer. If he accepts it (which a player has yet to do), you have him at market value for one-season and can have another year to decide what to do at the end of 2016. If he rejects you gain a draft pick or potential leverage in free agency talks.