John Lackey Trade An Attempt By Red Sox To Strike While Iron Is Hot

Endy Chavez, John LackeyJohn Lackey’s trade value had never been higher, at least since he arrived in Boston. The Red Sox decided to strike while the iron is hot.

The Red Sox traded Lackey and minor league pitcher Corey Littrell to the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday in exchange for first baseman/outfielder Allen Craig and pitcher Joe Kelly. The deal nets the Red Sox two younger assets while enhancing Boston’s clear-cut effort to improve its woeful offense.

Trading Lackey, on the surface, is a somewhat curious move. The veteran is in the midst of his second straight solid season and Boston already traded ace Jon Lester earlier in the day. Plus, Lackey is under contract for next season at just $500,000 because he missed all of 2012 with Tommy John surgery. One would assume that a team looking to contend in 2015 — as the Red Sox are — would want such an established veteran as part of its mix.

The Red Sox have a surplus of talented, up-and-coming pitchers, all of whom have the potential to fill Lackey’s shoes down the road. But none are known quantities at the major league level. Relying solely on those arms requires a great deal of faith in both the individuals and the organization’s player development.

That being said, Lackey was an asset in which teams had interest. And judging by the return, it was a high level of interest. If the Red Sox really wanted to augment their offense — a stated goal supported by Boston trading Lester and Jonny Gomes for Yoenis Cespedes — for 2015, moving Lackey represented the most effective means to that end.

Craig is having a down year for St. Louis. The 30-year-old is hitting just .237 with seven homers, 44 RBIs, a .291 on-base percentage and a .638 OPS. He’s also considered a below-average defender, particularly in the outfield, so the Red Sox absolutely are banking on a return to career norms. If such a rebound plays out, however, Boston just landed an explosive offensive force.

Craig, an All-Star in 2013, hit .315 with 13 homers, 97 RBIs and an .830 OPS in 134 regular-season games. He jacked 22 bombs in 119 games in 2012, and he posted a .917 OPS in 77 games in 2011. Staying healthy has been an issue at times, but the slugger should join Cespedes in adding another solid right-handed complement to David Ortiz in the middle of Boston’s order.

Kelly, meanwhile, adds pitching depth that ultimately could help mitigate the loss of Lackey. The 26-year-old, like Craig, is in the midst of a subpar season. He owns a 4.37 ERA over just seven starts because of a lengthy disabled list stint. But Kelly enjoyed success in 2013, posting a 10-5 record and a 2.69 ERA over 37 appearances (15 starts), so there’s certainly upside for the Red Sox to hang their hats on.

A major selling point perhaps was that both Craig and Kelly are under team control beyond 2015. Craig is owed $25 million over the next three seasons with a $13 million team option for 2018, while Kelly is under team control through 2018. Given that there was some uncertainty over whether Lackey would be willing to pitch for the major league minimum next season, it made sense to consider alternatives in which the Red Sox acquired long-term assets.

It’s also possible the Red Sox could pursue a pitcher comparable to Lackey in free agency, thus creating a scenario in which they move forward with an established veteran presence in addition to the players acquired in Thursday’s trade.

There’s going to be a different look and feel to the 2015 Red Sox. The Lackey deal assured that.

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