Lackey has team convinced he’ll succeed at Fenway

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / December 17, 2009

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When John Lackey’s agent, Steve Hilliard, spoke with Theo Epstein at the general managers’ meetings in Chicago in November, he was met with a bit of doubt. As Hilliard put it yesterday, “I could tell he was very skeptical at first.’’

It was the product of years of watching the emotional reactions of Lackey in his (often unsuccessful) outings at Fenway Park, both in the regular season and postseason.

“It was more just a gut feeling that we had based on facing him, and watching him pitch here, and maybe putting a little too much emotional weight on those tough outings he had earlier in his career, when he was seen [swearing in] the ballpark, into his glove,’’ Epstein said yesterday after news conferences to announce the Red Sox signings of Lackey and outfielder Mike Cameron. Perhaps it was in reference to the time Lackey was caught talking to himself after giving up a home run, including the line, “They should blow this [expletive] place up.’’

And by the time both men left the GM meetings? “Still skeptical,’’ Hilliard said.

“It was probably wrong of us to jump to that conclusion, but then you move and you do more digging,’’ Epstein said. “A lot of times free agents want to involve the Red Sox because it can help drive up the price, the same way they want to involve the Yankees and other big-market teams. But this was different right from the get-go. This seemed like a genuine strong interest in being part of what we have going on here. I’ll be honest, that did get our attention.’’

By the time the Sox met with Hilliard at the winter meetings, the interest had solidified. Epstein was convinced that Lackey wanted to take on Fenway Park, take on the American League East, and join what looks like one of the best starting rotations in baseball. It helped too that Lackey’s wife, Krista, hails from Sanford, Maine, and is an alumna of the University of New Hampshire.

“I was always interested in coming here,’’ Lackey said. “Winning was definitely my first priority of a team to go to . . . There’s been a lot of emotion both ways in regard to this team. You get knocked out of the playoffs, there’s not much worse than that.

“When you compete against a team that many times, you see what they’re about, and it will be a good fit for me, I think.’’

The Red Sox are not a team known for signing free agent pitchers to long-term deals, especially those in their 30s.

“It wasn’t easy,’’ Epstein said. “We had a lot of discussion that went into it. I think when you draw up clubs in theory, or you look to build the 2010 Red Sox in a vacuum or design your five-year plan in a vacuum, you can do it a certain way and you can adhere to every element of your personal philosophy. When you’ve made the playoffs six out of seven years and you’re looking a couple years ahead of what you see is a really good, young team, but 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.

“The more we looked at it and 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.’’

A.J. Burnett’s deal (five years, $82.5 million) signed with the Yankees last offseason essentially set the market for the 31-year-old Lackey. And Lackey’s deal, which is also for $82.5 million over five years, will in turn continue to set the market for Josh Beckett, who is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2010 season.

Lackey’s deal is front-loaded, with a $3.5 million signing bonus, $18 million salary in 2010, and $15.25 million for each year thereafter, according to an industry source.

“I think our run prevention overall is going to be really solid, we like our lineup, and this puts us in a position to have some flexibility if we need to make a move down the road to have some offense,’’ Epstein said. “We like the position we’re in right now.’’

The Sox now have six starters in line for 2010, starting with the Big Three of Lackey, Beckett, and Jon Lester, and including Clay Buchholz, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Tim Wakefield. There’s insurance in the numbers, and the addition is at the front end of the rotation rather than from the back end, as there was last offseason with John Smoltz and Brad Penny.

“I think it’s going to make us all a lot smarter,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “Every time Theo asked me a question during the winter meetings, I would always say a pitcher, and now we have a chance to run out a really solid pitcher every day. It’s very exciting.’’

It wasn’t always a guarantee, though, that the Sox would be adding a big-time pitcher this offseason. While the team had looked into making a deal for Roy Halladay at the trading deadline this past summer, and continued to do so this winter, the price was too high. As Epstein said, “Well before he was moved, it was clear that it wasn’t going to be a factor for us based on the asking price, which was reasonable.’’ The Sox weren’t going to give up the combination of prospects and money it took for the Phillies to land Halladay.

So the Sox continued to look at what Epstein labeled “multiple parallel paths.’’ While negotiating with Hilliard, Epstein was also working on other deals, including one for a left fielder. When it appeared that wouldn’t work out, the Sox made the move for Lackey, which the general manager called a dramatic upgrade for the pitching staff. They already have Beckett and Lester, and now they’ve added Lackey. It will be hard for other teams to compete with that trio, especially given the way Lackey sounded yesterday.

“You know you’ve got to bring it because he’s going to bring it, and I hope these people feel the same way about me,’’ Lackey said in reference to Beckett. “You can’t always guarantee results, but I will guarantee that I’ll be there giving you what I’ve got.’’

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