As many of you probably know, the Cardinals acquired John Lackey at the 2014 trade deadline with the knowledge that he would be making the league minimum (just over $500,000) in 2015. This was due to a unique clause in his contract with the Red Sox which stipulated that he would make the league minimum in the final year of his contract if he missed significant time with an arm injury. (He missed the entire 2012 season with Tommy John surgery.)
At times throughout the offseason, there were rumors that the Cardinals were entertaining the option of increasing Lackey's 2015 salary in exchange for a reasonably priced extension. In December, Jennifer Langosch tweeted that the Cardinals were going to meet with Lackey's agent at the Winter Meetings to discuss reworking his contract. We heard little else on the matter until last week, when Rick Hummel published an article in the Post-Dispatch discussing Lackey's future with the Cardinals. Per Hummel:
Lackey, working out at a Cardinals camp for the first time Wednesday, said he would be amenable to a contract extension although he quickly added that there was "nothing close.
"If it’s something that works for both sides. I would like it," said the 36-year-old Lackey, who very much likes what he’s seen with the Cardinals in just the two-plus months he spent with them last August through October.
"This group of guys ... this organization ... it’s a great place to be and it’s something I would entertain for sure," Lackey said.
In his article Hummel goes on to include comments from Cardinals GM John Mozeliak, who states:
"Obviously, the (minimum salary for Lackey) compensation for 2015 was attractive to us. In terms of trying to change that structure, I don’t know if both parties are going to find there’s a very desirable reason to do that, considering the opportunities that might exist for him entering his free agent year. I’m not closing the door on anything but I’m not pursuing anything either at this point. I don’t feel that either party is pushing, for that matter."
Mozeliak's comments are especially interesting, because they mark quite a reversal from the previously proactive approach he appeared to be taking at the Winter Meetings. Perhaps there was some concern that Lackey would retire instead of playing for the league minimum in 2015 and Mozeliak was exploring the possibility of smoothing things over to eliminate that possibility. However, the day after he was traded, Lackey stated that he would honor his 2015 contract, and since then, we have heard nothing that would indicate otherwise.
John Mozeliak appears to be taking his usual patient approach with regard to Lackey, and I think this is a wise approach for a number of reasons. First of all, Lackey is 36 and is not in the prime of his career. Gone are the 5-6 WAR seasons he put up in his late 20s with the Angels. Since returning from Tommy John surgery, he has been a solid mid-rotation starter worth about 3 WAR per season. In 2013, he pitched 189 1/3 innings with a 3.52 ERA and 3.86 FIP, and he had a similar year in 2014 when he pitched 198 innings between the Red Sox and Cardinals, posting a 3.82 ERA and 3.78 FIP. ZiPS has him projected to have a similar year in 2015, with a slight drop in innings and WAR (175 2/3 IP, 2.6 WAR).
Clearly, Lackey still has value as a starter at this point in his career. And given the fact that he will make the league minimum in 2015, he is all but certain to be a bargain for the Cardinals. However, there is little reason to guarantee Lackey's contract beyond 2015. While he could age gracefully and have value in a year when he's 37, he's also at the point in his career where he could lose effectiveness quickly.
Because Lackey isn't a power pitcher, a small drop in velocity could make him much more hittable. Looking at his fastball velocity on a year-to-year basis, there is little indications that Lackey is losing velocity. The average velocity of his four-seam fastball (his most frequent pitch) has remained remarkably constant from year to year, ranging from 91.7 to 92.7 (since Pitchf/x data was first released in 2007). While this consistency is a positive sign for Lackey, it is unreasonable to expect him to maintain his velocity over the next few years given his age, and since he has never pitched with seriously diminished velocity, it is a legitimate question as to how effective he will be as he ages and loses a few ticks off his fastball.
His recent (and small) two-month sample with the Cardinals may actually give us a clue as to his effectiveness as he ages. With the Red Sox in 2014, his fastball averaged 93 mph or better for the first half of the season. It dropped to 92.88 in July, 91.81 in August, and 91.32 in September. Accordingly, his ERA with the Cardinals was higher than with the Red Sox (4.30 vs. 3.60), an increase matched in his FIP. Looking back at his Pitchf/x data since 2007, he has never had another season where his month-to-month velocity dropped throughout the season as it did in 2014. In fact, it was more common to see his fastball velocity increase over the course of the season, as you can see in this chart from Brooks Baseball.
We will likely find out in 2015 whether this trend is something the Cardinals need to worry about or not. Given this uncertainty, though, the Cardinals should wait to see whether this is a fluke or a bigger trend before giving Lackey an extension.
Looking ahead to 2016, there is also the possibility that the Cardinals won't even need Lackey. The Cardinals will presumably have Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, and Carlos Martinez in the rotation again next year, and Lackey's departure would open up a spot for lefty Marco Gonzales. The team will also have Tyler Lyons, Tim Cooney, and Zack Petrick available for rotation depth with Alex Reyes, Rob Kaminsky, Luke Weaver, and Jack Flaherty a year closer to the majors. While a lot can certainly change in a year, the Cardinals should have enough internal options to fill Lackey's spot that they shouldn't need to pay him $10+ million to keep him around for another year.
If you're looking for a situation where a Lackey extension would make sense, it would certainly depend on how he does in 2015, and broadly speaking, there are three ways in which Lackey's 2015 season could turn out. He could pitch at or close to the level he's projected to pitch, or he could be significantly better or significantly worse/injured. Given that the Cardinals have suitable options to replace Lackey in 2016, the only situation where it would be clearly beneficial for the Cardinals to extend Lackey at this point in time would be if he performs significantly better than his projections. At his age, though, this is probably the least likely of the three scenarios. And even if Lackey does have a good year in 2015, the Cardinals could make him a qualifying offer and get a first-round draft pick in return.
With that being said, I can envision one potential situation where having Lackey for one more season could be beneficial. If the Cardinals don't see Marco Gonzales as a future starter or if one of the current starters goes down with a significant injury, I think giving Lackey an extra year could give the team stability and help bridge the gap to 2017, when the Cardinals' next wave of pitching talent should be close to reaching the majors.
However, with the Cardinals' already aging core, I'm not so sure extending another aging player at a position of organizational strength is a wise move. As Bernie Miklasz of the Post-Dispatch pointed out Thursday, the loss of Oscar Taveras leaves the Cardinals without a young, impact hitter in their lineup long-term, meaning that the team may have to invest in offense on the free agent market in the coming years. With this in mind, I think that the Cardinals' money would be better spent extending a younger player like Jason Heyward or signing another marquee position player if the team doesn't believe in Heyward's hitting ability.
I think that John Mozeliak understands this reality and is willing to wait and see how the Cardinals' pitching develops over the 2015 season. As it stands right now, the Cardinals have little reason to guarantee Lackey an eight-figure salary for 2016 (the going rate for mid-rotation starters these days), and they certainly shouldn't feel guilty for paying him so little in 2015. Lackey agreed to that clause in his previous contract, and the low salary was one of the big reasons the Cardinals traded for Lackey in the first place. Giving a player extra money just to make him happier is not usually a smart business decision, and it's not the type of move that helps a mid-market team stay competitive long-term.