Nearly lost in last night's extraordinarily frustrating setback in Cincinnati (seriously, what the hell? why can we suddenly not beat the Reds?), was yet another of those solid, stolid, clockwork-dependable starts that John Lackey has become justifiably famous for. Actually, it was solid and dependable, but probably not so stolid; stolid implies a certain kind of stoicism I'm not sure applies to the Cards' raging, cursing bulldog when he's plying his trade.
Nonetheless, after an extremely shaky beginning to the game last night, which saw him getting knocked around in the first inning, allowing multiple extra base hits, unable to get that third and final out of the frame, Lackey settled in and did his solid-if-not-so-stolid thing once again. He buckled down, found his location, and finished off the night by retiring the last fourteen hitters he faced, ultimately chewing up six innings en route to his tenth consecutive quality start. Quality starts may not be the most indicative, precise statistic out there, but when a pitcher records one every time out, it gives you at least a decent indication of the type of performance he's giving you.
Unfortunately, of course, the Redbird offense disappeared once again, and we're left to take our solace and comfort where we can find it, in the dependability of John Lackey, the sparing of the bullpen due to the dependability, and the reemergence of Matt Carpenter as a consistent power threat, which doesn't have much to do with John Lackey, admittedly, but is a rather wonderful thing to see all the same. Rough night for the Redbirds, really.
But for a moment, I want to consider John Lackey. More specifically, I want to consider what the Cardinals should do with John Lackey after this season. Lackey is an impending free agent, and is currently playing this season for the league minimum due to the contractual stipulation of his deal in Boston which tacked on an extra year at entry-level salary if he had an elbow injury. Lackey missed 2012 with Tommy John surgery, and the extra year at league minimum kicked in. Not so great for Lackey; brilliant for the Cardinals, who have gotten a mid-rotation innings eater of the highest caliber for peanuts.
That low salary for 2015 is somewhat important, because you have to think that a guy in Lackey's position, who has just pitched one of the better seasons of his career (at least so far; hopefully nothing goes off the rails to change that perception between now and the first of October), while making the league minimum at 36 years old, would be looking to cash in one last time before riding off into the sunset. (Probably while wearing a comically oversized cowboy hat.) And he likely will be. However, given the tone of Lackey's comments since he's been here in St. Louis, I have to admit: it also sounds as if he's nearly begging the Cardinals to keep him around. And really, is that so surprising? I'm not going to trot out the best fans in baseball trope, or talk about baseball heaven, but we've seen that players, in general, love it here (non-Tino Martinez division), and is it really that shocking that a player with the end of his career in sight who makes his way to Cardinal country just might look around and think, "This would be a good death"? Er, pardon me, "This would be a good place to finish up'?
So what we have, brass tacks, is a 36 year old pitcher coming up on the end of his career. Lackey might want to pitch another two or three years, but I can't imagine he would push much beyond that. Even three might be pushing it, really, but I don't know how Lackey's arm feels in the morning when he reaches up to shampoo his hair. He's been very good by runs allowed type metrics, but the advanced stats (xFIP and SIERA and the like), don't think so highly of him. So far as I know, there's nothing preventing the Cardinals from making the qualifying offer to Lackey after the season, though it also wouldn't surprise me if there was a gentlemen's agreement in place not to, so as to preserve Lackey's market value considering how good a soldier he's been about playing for the minimum this year.
His strikeouts are down, somewhat substantially, this season, from 7.45 K/9 (17.8%), in 2014 to 6.63 K/9 (17.8%), in 2015. His walk rate is virtually identical to last year, and very close to what it was in 2013. His fastball velocity has been freakishly consistent, ranging between 91.1 and 91.7 mph every single season since 2007, the first year we have pitchf/x data available. This year it's at 91.5. In other words, if there's anything wrong with John Lackey's arm, the velocity doesn't show it.
It's interesting to note that, while the strikeout rate is down considerably this season, Lackey's FIP has remained solid, actually improving from 3.78 last year to 3.41 this season. The difference is due to a much lower home run rate than has been typical in his career, which is why xFIP doesn't like him so well. His soft contact rate is up considerably this year, and we know Busch Stadium kills home runs in a way it was not expected to when the place was built, so one could make the argument Lackey's approach has changed somewhat, accounting for some of the differing numbers. His BABIP is a relatively normal .285, so it isn't as if the hand of batted-ball regression is about to smite Lackey down. The skeptic might cite luck on home runs, while the believer might cite the weak contact and pitching to the environment of Busch III.
John Lackey in 2015 has been worth 2.5 fWAR, 2.6 bWAR, over 145.1 innings. That puts him on pace for something like a 3.5 win season. This is following two straight 2.4 fWAR seasons in 2013 and '14, and consistent 3+ win performances prior to 2011, when his elbow first started to be an issue. In other words, John Lackey is an above-average pitcher by most metrics, a pretty average one by others, and produces his work in bulk. He and Lance Lynn are really two peas in a pod, only Lynn is 28 and strong and just a few degrees better, while Lackey is perhaps the thing we might hope Lynn still is in ten years. There is value in bulk, in innings, and if you doubt that look no further than this pair. (Lackey is also somewhat the model for what I hope Adam Wainwright can give the Cardinals over the last three years of his contract, if I'm being honest.)
So the question, which I posed earlier, is this: what do you do with John Lackey? The Cardinal rotation is extraordinarily deep, and talented, but also comes with some definite innings concerns. Then again, unless Michael Wacha proves to be breakdown prone again this season, those concerns should be lessened by next year, when Carlos Martinez will have a relatively full season's worth of innings under his belt and Adam Wainwright -- fingers crossed -- will return, with hopefully a more-rested right arm ready to take on the rigors of the baseball season. If we believe all four of the Cardinals' primary starters next season -- Lynn, Wainwright, Martinez, and Wacha -- should be capable of giving the club something in the neighbourhood of 180 innings or so, then honestly, there's not a huge need for John Lackey. The remaining innings in that scenario are manageable enough the club should be able to fill them with some combination of the Marco Gonzaleses and Tim Cooneys of the world. Alex Reyes could be a looming presence, as well, considering he's currently demolishing Double A (though still doing so in an extremely inefficient way), and may, at least in my estimation, have a very limited shelf life.
If it's possible to offer Lackey the qualifying offer, I think that would, for now, be my preference. He'll pitch 2016 at 37 years old, and committing to him beyond that feels risky to me. The other option would be a two-year deal, probably something in the $25 million range, that would run him through the likely end of his career. I can't imagine inking him to a three year contract at this point, though I suppose that could still be on the table. If Lackey is looking for a third year, I think he should look for it elsewhere.
There is also the issue of his right elbow, surgically repaired in 2012. On average, Tommy John surgery tends to last for something like ~650 innings. That's regular-season innings; all the offseason and spring training throwing, I assume, tends to be fairly similar, as well as somewhat untrackable, so we're talking about recorded innings. Since returning from TJ, Lackey has thrown 532 innings. Add in the postseason, and you've got another 39 innings, bringing him to a total of 571. (And two-thirds, actually, but, you know, close enough.) If he makes another ten starts this season, and averages six innings a start (a pretty safe bet, and maybe a bit conservative), you're looking at ~630 innings. A deep postseason run, which we're all hoping for, could push Lackey right up to that 650 mark. Now, of course that isn't some sort of drop-dead number; Lackey's arm isn't going to fall off the moment he hits 650. And, honestly, looking at Lackey's delivery, I would say he should get more than the average out of his new elbow. Hell, it took him a decade to wear out his original UCL; I think he should be able to very nearly finish out his career on the replacement.
Then again, there's a reason that 650 inning number exists, and when I say I think he should hold up longer than that, it's really just barely more than a guess. I think I have a fairly good reason to say that, but it's also possible something could go wrong tomorrow. So, you know, grains of salt and all that. And how confident would you be in a 37 year old pitching on a surgically-repaired elbow to not break down? Or a 38 year old? Or 39?
These are all the variable the Cardinals are going to have to consider before they decide what to do with John Lackey after this season. The pitching pipeline remains remarkably strong, even after moving Rob Kaminsky, with Alex Reyes the headliner of the next wave, but also Cooney and Lyons as potential depth pieces, with Marco Gonzales a candidate to take a permanent rotation spot if his pectoral issue is cleared up. Beyond them, Luke Weaver has acquitted himself well in the early part of pro career, even if I see him as a reliever long term. Corey Littrell is becoming more intriguing by the day, at least to me. Arturo Reyes may not have the highest ceiling, but we've seen these supposedly low-ceiling guys, particularly on the pitching side, turn into very useful players over the years. I'm not saying it will happen; only that it could. With that kind of depth, how important is it to have an innings-eater locked up for more than one year?
To my way of looking at things, the qualifying offer is the best route to go. I could see a two-year deal, particularly if you planned to move more of your pitching depth to try and bolster the offensive core of the team long term. Beyond that, I don't think I would even consider. And, really, the absolute best case scenario, for me, would be for the Cards to make the QO to Lackey, another team offer him one last multi-year deal, and have him take it, giving the club an extra first-round draft pick. As much as I've enjoyed watching Lackey snarl his way through the season, I feel confident the Cardinals could probably fill in the innings they would lose if he walks. Extra draft picks are a pretty big deal.
So what says the crowd? Qualifying offer, no offer at all, or lock him up for the rest of his career? I'm interested to know where everyone falls on this matter; it depends largely on your level of risk aversion, and how confident you are in the Cards' twin young guns to turn into consistent contributors capable of absorbing large numbers of innings. Lackey is a pretty great insurance policy in that way; how much you value that probably determines what you want to do with him.
Of course, this will all be moot when the Cardinals take my advice and just sign David Price. But that's a conversation for another day.