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St. Louis Cardinals free agents: What might John Lackey's contract look like?

"I wonder what my contract will look like..."
"I wonder what my contract will look like..."
Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

Less than 12 hours after the Kansas City Royals recorded the final out of the World Series, a cadre of major-league ballplayers with six or more years of service time were set free. One of those free agents is John Lackey, the veteran righthander who played for a base salary of $507,500 a year ago, but wound up earning $2,507,500 by hitting five innings-pitched benchmarks that increased his earnings by $400,000 each and combined to increase his overall pay by $2,000,000. Now a free agent able to sign with whomever he wishes for as much money as he can get, Lackey will assuredly receive a substantial pay increase in 2016 and beyond. What might Lackey's free-agent contract look like?

First, there's the qualifying offer to consider. The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the MLBPA and MLB allows teams to make free agents that played the entire preceding season with that team a qualifying offer. If the free agent turns down the qualifying offer and signs for another team without a protected pick in the top ten of the forthcoming MLB Draft, the signing team forfeits its first-round pick and the team that lost the free agent gains a compensation pick. The qualifying offer has had a negative effect on the free-agent market for a handful of players in recent offseasons—so negative, in fact, that many expect the MLBPA to attempt to eliminate the qualifying offer in the upcoming round of CBA negotiations.

There were rumors that Lackey was unhappy with his 2015 salary, even though he agreed to the league-minimum option for that season in the event that he suffered a season-ending elbow surgery at any point during the five-year, $82.5 million contract in which it was included. Nonetheless, Lackey announced his intention to play out his contract after the Cardinals acquired the righty from Boston at the 2014 non-waiver trade deadline. Despite Lackey's articulated intent, the Cardinals still renegotiated his 2015 contract to include $2 million worth of incentives, which Lackey triggered. Some have speculated that St. Louis and Lackey have a handshake agreement in place by which the Cards will not issue him a qualifying offer even though it seems rather strange that the team would agree to potentially pay a player $2 million that they didn't otherwise have to commit to and, on top of that, agree to waive the qualifying offer. In St. Louis Post-Dispatch beat writer Derrick Goold's most-recent chat, Goold addressed the subject thusly:

The only talk of this "handshake agreement" that seems to be so prevalent in the questions in this chat was way back in spring when the Cardinals, internally, explored what they could do for Lackey to make his contract more palatable to him. It is AGAINST BASEBALL RULES to make such a promise in print, so the Cardinals would have had to make the call internally and then enact it this week.

When I spoke to Lackey late in the season, he had not heard about the team's plans. He obviously hoped they wouldn't do the QO. But what they did decide to do during spring was something more tangible: add incentives. And even then they attempted to do so behind the scenes. They wouldn't acknowledge doing it at all until I was able to unearth the contract through another source. That's what the Cardinals have done, and that's the extent of it.

The Fangraphs crowdsourced free-agent project has incorporated the qualifying-offer question this offseason. They published the results this week and, for what it's worth, the participants believe the Cardinals will make a qualifying offer to Lackey and risk an overflowing rotation entering the 2016 season if the righty agrees to  pitch for one year at the set qualifying-offer salary of $15.8 million. By an 85%-15% margin, Fangraphs readers believe the Cards will issue lackey a qualifying offer. The breakdown is 80%-20% that Lackey would turn the Cardinals' qualifying offer down, if made.

With the qualifying offer appetizer out of the way, onto to the question posed in the title of this post. What might Lackey's forthcoming free-agent contract look like? Jon Heyman, an MLB rumormonger of note and Hot Stove speculationist extraordinaire, weighed in on the question in a notes blog post:

After his terrific year some think John Lackey could garner a three-year contract, at $15-to-20 million per.

Let's remind ourselves that one must appropriately gauge a morsel like this to help digest it. Heymen is reciting what any anonymous person or persons have told him. Heyman published this post during the CBA-mandated Quiet Period when only a player's former team is able to make a salary offer and sign a player. There is no firsthand information here regarding any substantive offer to Lackey. These anonymous individuals did not share anything substantive with him, which makes his decision to keep them anonymous odd. This is speculation, pure and simple, which Heyman has passed along with the vaguest of attributions: "some."

Who might "some" be? If they're spitballing a three-year contract worth $15-to-20 million annually, it sure seems like it might be Lackey's agent or an agent of another free-agent pitcher who is younger and better than the former Cardinal. Such is the nature of the fun Hot Stove anonymous attribution game. Who might have said this and is his or her self-interest?

The Fangraphs crowdsourced contract for Lackey seems a bit more levelheaded. The median and average put Lackey's contract at two years and $30 million; or, $15 million annually. (Fangraphs asks for years, average annual value, and total contract value, which can create a discrepancy, so I just go by the years and AAV.) That's on the low end of of Heyman's dollar speculation and for a shorter duration than his years estimate. Is Lackey worth it? Probably.

It's true that Lackey is coming off his age-36 season, which was good even if it wasn't as excellent as his ERA suggests. Consider Lackey's stats over the last three seasons and for his career.

Lackey's Stats


































































Let's begin by focusing on Lackey's strikeout and walk rates. As he has aged from his mid- to late-30s, Lackey's strikeout rate has gradually fallen and his walk rate has ticked upwards. Those are each bad trends, though they aren't so rapid as to be alarming. There's evidence of age-related decline there that undermines the quality of his 2015 season a bit.

Lackey was a workhorse, tossing 218 innings, which was his highest innings-pitched tally since 2007. It was a godsend for the Cardinals, who needed the innings after Adam Wainwright's ruptured Achilles tendon. Lackey also helped replace Wainwright's run suppression, managing a 2.77 ERA. But that low ERA rests primarily on an abnormally high left-on-base percentage (LOB%) that was comfortably above the 2015 MLB collective rate of % and almost ten percent higher than his career LOB%. This allowed Lackey to defy his peripherals and post a -0.80 ERA-FIP gap. Over Lackey's 2,481 1/3 career IP, his ERA-FIP gap is +0.06, so there's no reason to think he's a Tom Glavine type who has a clearly recognizable skill for defying his fielding-independent peripherals.

There's no reason to expect Lackey to be anything other than worse going forward. But the veteran will likely be an innings-eater with league-average-ish stats, which has value. Probably about two wins worth—maybe a bit more. If one win on the free-agent market costs approximately $6.5-to-7 million this offseason, a $30 million contract for two years of Lackey might be a bit pricy but not obscenely so. Three years for $60 million—the upper end of Heyman's regurgitated speculation—however, would be a rather large overpay. Luckily, the Cardinals aren't in the position to have to agree to such an extravagant deal for a starter in the twilight of his career and effectiveness.