The Red Sox' most pressing offseason need is a big bat? Say hello to pitcher John Lackey.
An organization hell-bent on not giving 30-something pitchers more than three-year deals? Try five years and $82.5 million on for size.
Even Theo Epstein's worldview was altered. He always assumed Lackey had no interest in pitching in Boston. But when Lackey's agent, Steve Hilliard, indicated otherwise, Epstein made an offer no pitcher could refuse.
Surprised? How could anyone be surprised at a baseball park with an ice hockey rink in the infield?
"Watching him from across the field, we've always seen him as a big-game pitcher, a top-of-the-rotation guy and a really tough competitor, but we never really thought he'd be interested in Boston," Epstein said Wednesday at Lackey's introductory news conference. "I guess it's one of those things, when you play across the field from someone, you just kind of see them as the opposition and that's it. [Hilliard] said John's really serious about Boston, he wants to win, he loves how every game in Boston is like a playoff game, he can really see himself there. That got our attention in a hurry."
Epstein got everyone's attention with this signing, an unprecedented move in Epstein's seven-year tenure as the Red Sox' general manager.
Only one free-agent pitcher in the Epstein era had ever signed for more than three years, and that was the special circumstance of Daisuke Matsuzaka, 26 at the time, in December of 2006. Nobody else had ever come close, not even the great Pedro Martinez, 33 in the winter of 2004, coming off a dominating World Series performance against the Cardinals.
But Lackey, despite two straight seasons with arm trouble, broke the mold — along with the bank. After A.J. Burnett signed his five-year deal with the Yankees a year ago, it was clear to Epstein that it would take a comparable deal to land a talent like Lackey, whose numbers closely mirror that of resident ace Josh Beckett.
So Epstein, who has never been shy about bucking trends and acting boldly, struck a mighty blow in the American League East arms race, giving the Red Sox a starting rotation unparalleled in the division.
"When you enter into free agency from the team side, you want to try and manage the commitments as best you can, and obviously, you always want shorter deals, you always try to get the best deal you can for your club," Epstein said. "John's someone, with his track record and his consistency, who has put himself in a position to deserve a contract like this."
Lackey becomes just the 17th pitcher since 1990 to sign for five years or more, a club in which no less than half the occupants have flamed out spectacularly. History proved that Epstein was wise not to give Martinez four years in 2004. But that cautionary tale did not dissuade Epstein this time around.
"It wasn't easy. A lot of discussion went into it," Epstein said. "When you draw up clubs in theory — you look to build the 2010 Red Sox in a vacuum or design your five-year plan in a vacuum — you can do it in a certain way. You can adhere to every element of your personal philosophy.
"But when you've made the playoffs six out of seven years and you're looking a couple of years ahead at what you see as a really good young team, and you need to find a way to make it work in the meantime and operate in the real world with imperfections, you have to make choices. And the more we looked at it, the more we talked to different agents. And the more we assessed what the best fit was, both for now and for the future, this was clearly the best way for us to go."
The biggest red flag with Lackey is not his poor history at Fenway Park (2-5, 5.75 ERA), but his durability. Lackey has missed time each of the past two seasons with arm issues.
"Trust me, we've done a lot of due diligence," Epstein said. "If you look back at April 2008, [a] triceps issue, soft tissue, that certainly has resolved itself. And doing our research on what happened this last April, it was probably a little bit of a rush through spring training to get ready, and we think that John's spring routine — it's something we've already talked about — maybe it can be handled a little differently to resolve that.
"But when he came back, he didn't miss a start. He's been, outside of those two episodes, extraordinarily durable throughout his entire career and is someone who obviously finished strong last year. He's somebody that we strongly believe is healthy. Trust me, we put him through quite a physical over the last 48 hours, and he's someone we trust to take the ball every fifth day."
The other trouble spot has nothing to do with Lackey. What does this unprecedented contract mean to Beckett, who becomes a free agent himself after 2010? Surely, the fellow Texan with the similar career track will want Lackey-level money. Is there room for two five-year deals in the new Red Sox rules?
"I sent Josh a text message as we were finalizing John Lackey's deal," Epstein said. "I just told him, 'Some might speculate this might mean the end for you in Boston.' I said, 'Don't listen to them. You're a huge part of what we have going on here. We'd love it if it worked out if you're a huge part of our future, as well. The most important thing is that we have one heck of a pitching staff right now.'
"He texted back. He was very excited about the signing. I don't think it impacts Josh nearly to the degree people are speculating."