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The John Lackey Deal Continues To Confuse

The Red Sox signing John Lackey was one of the bigger surprises of the offseason. Not only because the deal came completely out of left field--the first anyone heard about it was when Lackey was already taking a physical--but because it was so far out of line with the typical Red Sox philosophy.

Here was John Lackey, on the wrong side of 30 and looking for a big money, multi-year deal. This despite having missed time in both 2008 and 2009 to injury, despite declining strikeout rates and rising walk rates, and despite a top ace reputation that didn't really match even his surface numbers (a #1 perhaps on most teams, but far from dominant).

But the market had been set by the A.J. Burnett deal one year before (to its credit, an equal or perhaps even worse disaster), and for some reason the Red Sox, a team traditionally opposed to giving long term deals to older players and overpaying for past results (their lesson having been learned between Julio Lugo and, arguably, Mike Lowell) ponied up. The result? Lackey is now the 26th highest paid athlete of the year, and providing his team with all the quality of a back-end starter.

Perhaps nobody could have seen quite this drop off coming. In 2008 and 2009, Lackey's peripherals had seen small declines. Indeed, when the deal was first announced, I expected that while the Red Sox would not ultimately get their money's worth, in the short run Lackey would contribute to one of the best rotations in the recent history of the game. Instead, this year has seen only disappointment, as Lackey's strikeout rate has declined nearly 25 percent at the same time his walk rate has increased by half. He's even doing as poorly as he is in spite of an unsustainable home run rate--let's not forget that we signed this guy to be a flyball pitcher in Fenway!

Who knows? Maybe this is just a bad year for the former ace. Perhaps he continues to turn things around as he has done to some extent in June and July, and ends up finding his form before seasons end. But even if he does, all that means is that we've missed out on one of his prime years. He will still be on the wrong side of 30 next year, regardless of results. He'll still be a flyball pitcher in Fenway. And he'll still be one of the great confusing moves of the Epstein era.