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John Lackey wants a contract extension with St. Louis but the Cardinals don't (at least not yet)

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John Lackey reportedly still wants to pitch in St. Louis beyond 2015, so why haven't the Cardinals signed him to a contract extension yet?

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It's been well documented that one of the motivations the St. Louis Cardinals had when acquiring veteran John Lackey at last season's trade deadline was the club option year in his contract for 2015 at the league-minimum salary. Word was that Lackey was less than thrilled about the idea of pitching for about $500,000, but general manager John Mozeliak received assurances that the righty would pitch for the Cards in 2015 at the salary set forth in the contract he signed with Boston. During the offseason Mozeliak and Lackey's agent discussed reworking the deal but those talks proved fruitless. Lackey is currently pitching for a $507,500 salary.

During the winter I looked at why the Cardinals might rework Lackey's 2015 salary. Such an alteration seemed to only make sense if the consideration changed for both sides. It seemed that paying Lackey more in 2015 only made sense for the Cardinals if he agreed to a team-friendly extension that included 2016 in some way, shape, or form—perhaps a club option at a discounted salary. That Lackey is under contract for 2015 only at $507,500 indicates that such the two sides were unable to find common ground.

When Lackey reported to Jupiter this spring he told Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he was interested in pitching for the Cardinals beyond this year. It was and is unclear whether this was the veteran's attempt at jump-starting the curbed winter talks in the hopes upping his 2015 salary and securing a guaranteed contract for 2016. Apparently Lackey is still holding out hope that he can wear the birds on the bat beyond the close of the 2015 campaign. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reports:*

The ex-Red Sox, according to a major league source, is still holding out hope that the Cardinals will move toward extending his contract. But the Cardinals are loving the fact they’re paying him the veteran minimum, a medical safeguard suggested by former Sox doctor Thomas Gill. Lackey has pitched well, but it’s not certain the Cardinals want to invest long term in a 36-year-old pitcher.

*There are also some interesting tidbits about former St. Louis Cardinals Adam Ottavino and Allen Craig in the linked-to Cafardo column.

There's some vagueness here. Is Lackey expecting a salary increase for 2015 in his hoped-for extension? What does Cafardo mean by "long term"? Such a turn of phrase indicates a contract that covers not only 2016 in its terms but 2017 as well. To me "long term" means more years than that even. These tea leaves aren't giving us the clearest reading on what Lackey's demands with respect to an extension are.

It seems unlikely that the Cardinals would extend Lackey in April or May after refusing to do so in January or February.

First, there's the injury risk, which is heightened for Lackey. The veteran workhorse had his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) replaced via Tommy John surgery. The no. 1 predictor of future injury is past injury. So there is little incentive to guarantee him millions of dollars for 2016 or 2017 as we sit here in April 2015.

Then there is the pitching depth in the Cardinals system. The fifth-starter derby this spring illustrates the initial problem. If Marco Gonzales is not MLB ready today he is close. By 2016, assuming health, the southpaw will be developed to the point that he is ready to join the St. Louis rotation. Moreover, he will likely be better than Lackey. Here are the 2016 and 2017 PECOTA projections for each pitcher:

2016

Pitcher

G

GS

IP

K/9

BB/9

ERA

FIP

Gonzales

29

29

177

8.0

2.9

3.70

3.50

Lackey

22

22

132

6.6

2.6

4.76

4.02

2017

Pitcher

G

GS

IP

K/9

BB/9

ERA

FIP

Gonzales

30

30

185

7.9

2.9

3.69

3.59

Lackey

19

19

114

6.9

2.5

4.40

3.93

Right now the Cardinals have no incentive to explore an extension with Lackey. The choice for 2016 (and 2017) is between Lackey and Gonzales. It's an easy decision. Gonzales will be a better pitcher in the years to come than the aging Lackey. Of course it's not quite so simple as this binary proposition. Pitching being pitching, an injury of some sort will likely hit the Cardinals rotation between now and the day that Lackey hits free agency. Such an injury may create an opening in the rotation that the Cardinals feel would best be filled by Lackey. Thus a patient approach is best. The Cardinals can pay Lackey the league minimum for 2015 and see what the health of the club's likely 2016 starting rotation looks like as the season winds down.