John Lackey Trade Revisited: Can Red Sox Salvage 2014 Deadline Deal?

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June 29, 2015

Boston Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington might want a mulligan on the John Lackey trade. It looks really, really bad now that Lackey is pitching well for the St. Louis Cardinals while both Joe Kelly and Allen Craig reside at Triple-A Pawtucket following unimpressive stints in Boston.

But should the deal already be written off as a total disaster for the Red Sox?

It?s fair to take an affirmative stance. The Red Sox expected — and still expect — to contend in 2015, yet neither Kelly nor Craig is in a position to help the big league club accomplish that goal. Lackey, meanwhile, is 6-4 with a 3.35 ERA in 15 starts for the Cardinals, who own the best record in Major League Baseball. The Red Sox clearly would be better off with Lackey entrenched in their rotation.

That said, there?s time to salvage this thing. Perhaps it?s a long shot and perhaps it requires blind optimism to suggest either Kelly or Craig will help the Red Sox in the near future. But there are a few reasons why last season?s trade, which now looks horrendous, still could benefit Boston in some way.

The first step is for the Red Sox to realize Kelly is what he is as a starter. While it certainly seems like there?s untapped potential, Kelly is 27 years old and probably isn?t going to evolve into a Cy Young candidate overnight, despite what he might tell you. The Red Sox should convert him into a reliever.

Boston’s bullpen lacks power arms. Kelly has a power arm. There?s no guarantee he?d succeed in a new role, but a move, in theory, would satisfy a need. It also would play to his strengths — his pitch repertoire seems cut out for life in the ‘pen — and offer a glimpse at whether Kelly might be a candidate for an even bigger responsibility in the post-Koji Uehara era. Kelly closed in college.

The Red Sox are beginning to take a proactive approach in identifying which young pitchers are better-suited for the bullpen — see Matt Barnes and Pat Light — after watching the likes of Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster, Anthony Ranaudo and Brandon Workman all stumble as starters last season. It?s time to ditch the pipe dreams on Kelly and put him into a position to succeed. There?s no shame in trying Kelly in the bullpen, especially with the price of acquiring external relievers soaring to new heights.

Craig?s situation is different in that he?ll be 31 next month. He also has a history of foot injuries and there?s not one significant alteration he could make — a la Kelly moving to the bullpen — to trigger a revival. But Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli, who has struggled for much of 2015, is slated to become a free agent after this season. So Craig, for all of his woes, might be afforded another chance with Boston, especially since the first base market figures to be weak. (Oh, by the way, Craig entered Sunday with a .418 on-base percentage in 36 games at Pawtucket.)

There was no guarantee Lackey would have pitched the 2015 season in Boston under the major league minimum, as he?s currently doing in St. Louis. Of course, there?s also nothing to suggest Lackey wouldn?t have honored his contract, but it seemed like a real possibility the 36-year-old might sit out the year. With the Red Sox already conducting a fire sale, the writing was on the wall for Lackey?s departure.

The argument, then, centers on whether the Red Sox took the correct path in dealing Lackey and Jon Lester for major leaguers. Perhaps they would have been better off trading for prospects. After all, trading Andrew Miller to the Baltimore Orioles for pitching prospect Eduardo Rodriguez looks like an excellent deal for Boston.

Either way, Cherington and Co. had a vision. And that vision involved selling off pieces in a manner that wouldn?t set back the team as far as 2015 was concerned. It didn?t work, obviously. But for better or worse, the Red Sox have control of both Kelly and Craig beyond 2015. And that?s when the pieces finally could — even if no one planned it this way — be of value to the Red Sox.

If you?re down on the Lackey trade, no one blames you. You?re probably the sane person in the room. Just understand the situation hasn?t run its entire course yet, even if it?s hard to imagine the Red Sox ever reaping any benefits of what currently looks like an ill-advised midseason trade.

Thumbnail photo via Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY Sports Images

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