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Free Agent John Lackey

As we inch closer and closer to the impending free agent signing period, rumors are picking up over some of the big name free agents. On the hitting side, we have guys like Matt Holliday and Jason Bay. On the mound, the closest thing to a superstar we have is John Lackey.

Recently, reports have come out linking Lackey to teams like the Brewers, Mariners, and Rangers, not to mention the obvious links to both New York teams, Boston, and a possible return to the Angels. Of course, unsubstantiated claims will abound until Lackey actually picks a team. What kind of value will Lackey be bringing to the table in 2010 and beyond?

A quick look at Lackey’s career shows arguably three or four all-star caliber seasons, despite the fact that he only made one all-star game, in 2007, when his 3.01 ERA led the league. Indeed, 2007 was an excellent season for Lackey, but so were 2005, 2006, and 2009, all seasons where Lackey posted 175+ IP and an FIP under 3.75. He suffered in 2008 due to an abnormally high HR/FB of 15.3% but still maintained an excellent 3.25 K/BB ratio.

There just isn’t a whole lot not to like about Lackey’s performance. His K/9 hasn’t dropped below 7.00 since 2005, and his BB/9 hasn’t been above 3.00 in that same time frame. Even in 2008 and 2009, seasons in which he suffered injuries, he managed to pitch over 160 innings and make at least 24 starts, much more than can be said about such injury-prone pitchers as Rich Harden, Erik Bedard, and Ben Sheets, who will be competing against him on the SP free agent market.

That being said, Lackey is 31. Although he’s averaged over 4 wins above replacement the last four seasons, expecting that out of a pitcher from his age 31 through age 35 or 36 seasons is irresponsible, and he has suffered injuries twice in the last two years. Lackey is likely looking for a four or five year deal. Over four years, a contract that expects 4 WAR worth of performance is worth roughly 18 million dollars. With the slight discount we usually see on long term contracts, that comes out to a 4 year/64 million dollar deal, or maybe a 5 year/80 million dollar deal.

That’s an awfully substantial risk for a team in any market. We know that Lackey can be a great pitcher, but for any team willing to sign him, they have to be ready to absorb the risks that are incurred with a 4 year commitment to any pitcher, much less one in his mid-30s.