An hour ago, we posted Paul Swydan’s review of the Jon Lester/Yoenis Cespedes swap from the Red Sox perspective, noting that Boston chose a shorter term big leaguer over a deal for prospects who were likely going to be several years off. And now, they’ve made a second deal — shipping John Lackey to the Cardinals for Allen Craig and Joe Kelly — that reaffirms that this is not a team looking to do any kind of rebuild.
This one isn’t quite as straight forward as the Lester-for-Cespedes deal, since that was a rental for not-a-rental, while the Red Sox could have held onto Lackey for 2015 due to the clause in his contract that gave the Red Sox a league minimum option on his deal due to his 2011 Tommy John surgery. However, there was legitimate concern that Lackey wouldn’t actually pitch for the league minimum next year, and given that he’ll be 36 in a few months, he had some leverage in the form of retirement. If Lackey really didn’t want to take the mound for the same salary as some guy from Triple-A, he could have walked away, leaving the Red Sox to either give him a raise/extension or to get nothing for the option.
That makes Lackey a very difficult asset to value, because we really don’t know what he’s going to cost for the next few years. The most reasonable outcome seems like some kind of short-term extension at below market rates that doesn’t offend him, so maybe something like 2/$20M keeps him on the field. But this is all speculative; we don’t actually have any idea what the Cardinals are going to pay Lackey next year. I’d bet it won’t be $500,000, though.
By moving Lackey now, the Red Sox dump that uncertainty, and get a starting pitcher in return who doesn’t have a say in how much he makes next year. 2015 will be Kelly’s final pre-arbitration year, and so he’ll make whatever the Red Sox decide he’s going to make, which will likely be something in the $500,000 range. In exchange for a guy who might pitch at the league minimum, the Red Sox got a guy who definitely will, and then they’ll control for three years beyond that.
Of course, Kelly isn’t as good as John Lackey, so this is a downgrade in talent, and the cost savings of dumping whatever Lackey might have demanded will now have to be reallocated to Allen Craig, who also is coming to Boston in this trade. So your opinion of this deal might very well hinge on what you think of Craig’s ability to bounce back and become something close to the player he was the last three years.
For two and a half years, Craig was one of the best hitters in baseball; this year, he’s been one of the worst. His power has disappeared, as he’s stopped pulling the ball with authority, which has sunk both his ISO and his BABIP. As an aggressive hitter who doesn’t walk much, he absolutely has to hit for power to be useful, and the 2014 version of Craig has been pretty terrible.
Theoretically, Fenway Park should be the perfect place for Craig to get his career back on track. A line drive right-handed pull guy who can bounce balls off the Green Monster? This is a recipe that has worked wonders before. But Craig hasn’t been a line drive pull guy this year, and if he keeps hitting the ball to right center, the park isn’t going to do him any favors. If the Red Sox think his issues are fixable, and he can get back to being the Allen Craig of prior years, then this is a pretty big win for Boston.
But it’s certainly a gamble, and one that is going to require some trade-offs for the Red Sox to explore. After all, Craig should probably be a first baseman or a designated hitter, but Boston already has Mike Napoli and David Ortiz. The team has had success putting limited range guys in left field before — hello, Manny — but they play on the road too, and Craig’s defensive issues and offensive question marks likely make him a downgrade from any of Cespedes, Jackie Bradley Jr, or a healthy Shane Victorino. It’s not even clear that Craig-as-an-LF is dramatically better than Daniel Nava, and he’s probably worse than Mookie Betts next year.
In some ways, Craig is a great fit for Boston. In other ways, he doesn’t fit at all, but the Sox have plenty of time to sort this out before next spring. Maybe they’ll just shut Victorino down for the year and tell him to get healthy for next year, then shop him, Craig, or Cespedes to a team looking for a right-handed bat this winter. Or maybe they’ll trade Betts to a team that would rather use him as a second baseman. Or maybe Craig will continue to look completely broken even in Fenway, and he’ll just take Mike Carp’s role as reserve 1B/DH.
The Red Sox are in asset collection mode. Joe Kelly is a pretty nifty asset to collect, and Allen Craig is a lottery ticket who might be good, might be terrible, or might not last very long in Boston. There’s no way of knowing what the 2015 Red Sox are going to look like, but they’re doing a nice job of giving themselves options. Their current pieces don’t all fit together, but they’ve got another eight months to figure out who should stay and who should go.
The idea of a league minimum John Lackey would have been nice too, but if you believe that Lackey wasn’t going to play along, this is a much cleaner way to have a cheap starting pitcher and some upside beyond. And if part of the pitch to Jon Lester is that the team is going to get back on the winning track next year, trading for guys he’s heard of probably doesn’t hurt either.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.