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Lackey conundrum lacks a clear solution

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / October 16, 2011

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What do you do with John Lackey?

Hope he performs better?

Hope his troublesome elbow, which is being examined again this week, doesn’t blow out?

Hope you can get the Angels to take him back and get Vernon Wells in return to stick in right field?

It’s not Theo Epstein’s problem. But it is one for new Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington, and it is a pretty big one.

The ideal thing would be to deal him, eat some of the money, and try to obtain Wells, Chicago’s Alex Rios, or another pitcher with similar issues.

Epstein will leave behind the headache that is Lackey but get a bigger one in Carlos Zambrano. And the 30-year-old righthander is a handful, given his explosive personality.

When Zambrano last pitched for the Cubs - Aug. 12, 2011 - he allowed five home runs to the Braves. He eventually was ejected by home plate umpire Tim Timmons for throwing two pitches high and hard to Chipper Jones.

Zambrano took a nutty, cleaning out his locker in the visiting clubhouse in Atlanta and informing the team that he was retiring. The next day, Cubs general manager Jim Hendry placed Zambrano on the 30-day disqualified list, which in effect suspended his pay.

And there’s another issue: He makes a lot of money.

Zambrano is scheduled to earn $18 million in 2012 and has a vesting option for $19.25 million in 2013 if he finishes in the top four in the Cy Young voting and remains healthy.

“The difference between Lackey and Zambrano,’’ said a National League scout, “is that Zambrano can still really pitch. You can’t say the same about Lackey.’’

And that’s where the difficulty lies in attempting to deal him. Talent evaluators and GMs doubt whether Lackey is even a No. 4 or No. 5 starter, whereas Zambrano, if he gets his anger problems under control, could still be a top-of-the-rotation guy.

What’s odd about Zambrano’s situation is that people around the Cubs will tell you he’s one of the most charitable people they’ve ever come across. He gives a lot of money and time to great causes and does it very quietly.

There are all sorts of “garbage-for-garbage’’ deals that could be made with players who have big contracts. The Mariners have Chone Figgins, the Giants Barry Zito, the Nationals Jayson Werth, the Red Sox Lackey and Carl Crawford, the White Sox Adam Dunn and Rios, the Angels Wells, the Braves Derek Lowe, the YankeesA.J. Burnett, the Cubs Alfonso Soriano, and the Mets Jason Bay.

We understand that contracts have to be matched up and in some cases subsidized, but why aren’t GMs willing to be creative and take that change-of-scenery chance?

“I think GMs try to do them,’’ said Yankees GM Brian Cashman. “But you make a deal to get yourself better, and when you analyze it in the end, are you better for having made a deal like that?

“There are a lot of factors that go into it - do the salaries match, how much can you pay down, how does the player fit into your market?

“Sure, I think GMs think of those things all the time, but when it actually comes down to doing them, it doesn’t always work out.’’

Giants GM Brian Sabean was never able to unload Aaron Rowand and wound up eating the last season of his contract, some $12 million.

“It’s the devil you know vs. the devil you don’t,’’ said Sabean. “It’s not easy to do. You would think about it if you could fill a need in some other area of your team.’’

At the end of the regular season, Epstein said the Sox were not going to run away from Lackey, that they were committed to doing everything in their power to get him to be a productive part of the rotation.

“When the Red Sox signed him, I applauded them,’’ said Nationals special assistant Bob Schaefer, a former Red Sox organizational man. “I always loved the way Lackey competed when he was with the Angels.

“When the Red Sox got him, I thought he would be terrific for them in that market and in that atmosphere because he gets the adrenaline flowing.’’

That still happens. Nobody questions Lackey’s competitive nature or his past success. He has pitched big games in the playoffs, and that’s what made him so attractive to the Sox.

But can the Sox get that guy back?

And even if they thought they could, how can he come back to Boston?

For one thing, there would have to be quite a clear-the-air press conference. Would he hold one, or would he continue conducting himself in the manner he did this season, when his entire world - on the field and off - seemed to be out of control?

Clearly, Lackey did not adapt well to this market.

He had some interesting moments, including the time he chastised reporters for a text he received about filing for divorce. None of the reporters in the room were responsible. And nobody even knew the story was out at the time.

Lackey brought unwanted attention on himself.

While Terry Francona said he wasn’t bothered by Lackey staring him down on a number of occasions and that he was actually a good teammate, that act didn’t go over well among baseball people who watched it from the opposing side.

Lackey also would throw up his hands if a teammate made an error. Such behavior was startling for a pitcher who had the highest ERA in baseball.

So which way will the Sox go? Reclamation project, eating the contract, or will he wind up having Tommy John surgery that keeps him out of action for the 2012 season?

Given all that has happened to this team, it’s hard to think he could return.

What we don’t know, because he hasn’t been asked, is whether he wants to return.

Lackey and Boston have not mixed well. Sometimes what appears to be greener pastures can turn out to be a dark place. Lackey is finding that out.

We’ll see if Crawford will draw a similar conclusion, as perhaps Bay has in New York.


Henry is right in delegating

The comment Red Sox owner John Henry made on 98.5 The Sports Hub Friday about not endorsing the signing of Carl Crawford will likely take on a life of its own. But if you understand Henry’s role as primary owner and the authority he gives to others, you know what he means.

Henry (above), like fans and media, has an opinion on players. As they come up for discussion, he asks what we do: Where does he fit? Is that what we want to do?

Who didn’t ask those questions the day the Sox signed Crawford? Henry was simply being honest.

The Sox already had a speed player in Jacoby Ellsbury, and Crawford seemed redundant, even awkward in the lineup. Putting him in left field at Fenway seemed like a waste.

Henry was correct to say the Sox needed a righthanded-hitting outfielder. That’s exactly why they pursued Jayson Werth until that money got ridiculous and he went to the Nationals.

So Henry signed off on Crawford because the general manager he entrusted with the baseball operation, Theo Epstein, convinced him that spending $142 million over seven years for Crawford, who had already played nine seasons in Tampa Bay, was a good idea.

Henry also indicated in the past a preference for, say, A.J. Burnett, over dealing for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell. He has a lot of opinions, as do Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino.

When Henry, Werner, and Lucchino meet, I’m told, they don’t all agree on everything. There are always different opinions, and that’s a good thing.

Fact is, Henry hired Epstein because he trusted his baseball judgment. That’s what good owners do.

Contrast that with New York, where Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has had to take on Burnett and Rafael Soriano, and re-sign Alex Rodriguez to a record deal.

The Sox brass set aside personal differences and allowed the managers to make the decisions for the company.

“It’s awfully tough to leave that environment up there in Boston because it’s really ideal for a GM, a manager, because of that ownership,’’ said a former Sox front-office employee.

“Theo might be going on to what he thinks is a better situation, but it probably won’t be.

“He has a situation there where the owner trusts him with huge money decisions. You’re not going to get that everywhere, which is why you always have to think really hard if you want to leave that behind.

“I’m sure Theo did that.’’

People really should relax on Henry. He is a good owner who never has been afraid to spend large amounts of money to improve the team. Even if it was to acquire a player he wasn’t sold on.


Is Duquette looking better?

Will history be kinder to Dan Duquette now that the Theo Epstein era is concluding in Boston?

Interesting question. Obviously, Duquette (above), who went 656-574 in eight seasons, won a divisional title and had four second-place finishes to the Yankees. He didn’t win a championship, but the 2004 team was rich in his acquisitions, including Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, Pedro Martinez, Tim Wakefield, Jason Varitek, and Derek Lowe.

He also drafted Nomar Garciaparra, Kevin Youkilis, David Eckstein, Adam Everett, Hanley Ramirez, and Freddy Sanchez.

Duquette also will be remembered for ending Roger Clemens’s tenure with the Red Sox, but then trading for Martinez.

“Obviously, it was disappointing that we never won a championship,’’ Duquette said. “I felt we did some good things, but the big prize eluded us.

“Theo did a great job with the team. And he took them to that next level.’’

Epstein inherited a 93-win team with a farm system that had been well-stocked by Duquette. That enabled the Sox to make a major deal with the Marlins involving Hanley Ramirez for pitcher Josh Beckett and third baseman Mike Lowell. That deal essentially sent the Sox to the 2007 World Series championship.

Epstein traded away Sanchez, who became a batting champion and an All-Star, for righthander Jeff Suppan.

Duquette runs a sports academy in Western Massachusetts and does business consulting, but he never got another chance to be a general manager again. Some cited his sometimes cold personality as a reason, but Duquette’s performance as a GM was solid.

His big-ticket acquisitions - Martinez and Ramirez - worked out.

Duquette has not closed the door on returning to baseball.

“I would certainly return in the right situation,’’ he said.


Apropos of nothing

1. John Henry said Theo Epstein never saw himself as the long-term Red Sox general manager because of the job demands. Then why take on the Cubs? No demands there? 2. It will be interesting to see who goes with Epstein and who wants to stay with Ben Cherington; 3. Went through Wrigley Field on a tour the other day. Paging Janet Marie Smith! 4. Will any Red Sox player take responsibility for anything or will it all be the media’s fault? 5. Will someone be smart enough to hire DeMarlo Hale? Theo?

Updates on nine

1. Brian Cashman, general manager, Yankees - His contract extension is nowhere near done. Cashman’s deal expires at the end of the month, but he’s not feeling any pressure, nor apparently are the Yankee owners and president Randy Levine. Cashman isn’t expected to leave, but he could. Does Epstein’s five-year, $18.5 million deal set the bar higher for him? Cashman claims no.

2. Billy Eppler, senior director of pro personnel, and Damon Oppenheimer, vice president of amateur scouting, Yankees - Cashman’s two top assistants are being interviewed by the Angels for their GM job. Cashman feels both are tremendously qualified to take the next step. “Absolutely,’’ he said. “They have been tremendous in our organization.’’

3. Dave Trembley, former Orioles manager - Talk about your perfect bench coach candidate. Trembley, a longtime minor league manager and major league coach, didn’t have a successful tenure as Baltimore’s manager, but who has lately? Here’s what people like about him: He is honest, direct, and tough on fundamentals. He often had the Orioles out for pregame practice. Maybe that didn’t go over too well, but it was the right thing.

4. Eric Wedge, manager, Mariners - Very interesting name that could be involved in Boston’s managerial search. The problem is getting him out of his deal in Seattle, where he has a lot of personnel power. This is an interesting trend among the non-Moneyball teams (Angels, Orioles, Cardinals) - giving the manager more control in that area. Many of the Moneyball teams want their managers to take an organizational approach, with advice coming from all angles and levels.

5. Tony La Russa, manager, Cardinals - He’d be an interesting choice for the Red Sox, but it appears he’s staying in St. Louis or retiring. La Russa has always spoken fondly of Boston, but it doesn’t appear at this stage of his Hall of Fame career that he’d want to deal with some of the issues here.

6. David Ortiz, DH, Red Sox - Is he kidding when he says that he’d like to play for the Yankees and doesn’t want to be part of the “chaos’’ in Boston? He sounds like a guy who feels he has a lot of options, but it doesn’t appear that the Yankees have any interest in him. The aging Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter will need to DH more, not to mention Jesus Montero needing to get his at-bats.

7. A.J. Hinch, vice president of pro scouting, Padres - Hearing more and more that teams like the Red Sox, and possibly the Cubs with Epstein there, could be interested in him. Las Vegas agrees, as oddsmaker Jimmy Shapiro has Hinch as the odds-on favorite to get the Sox job. Hinch is a smart, analytical guy who would fit the mold in both places. But his first dance in Arizona didn’t go so well.

8. Josh Byrnes, special assistant, Padres - He could depart for a bigger role with Epstein in Chicago. Byrnes and Epstein have always been close, and they are on the same page on how to approach player acquisition. Byrnes currently works with Jed Hoyer; the Red Sox/Indians philosophy is alive and well everywhere.

9. Mark Buehrle, pitcher, White Sox - An interesting free agent possibility for the Red Sox if they could get him in a two-year deal. Buehrle could be their No. 5 starter or give them a competent lefty in the bullpen.

Short hops

From the Bill Chuck files: “Kevin Youkilis has had 111 hits each of the last two seasons. The only trouble is that he had 82 more at-bats in 2011 than he did in 2010. His homer totals for the last four seasons have spiraled down: 29, 27, 19, 17.’’ Also, “AL catchers out-stole AL first basemen, 52-47, but in the NL, first basemen out-stole catchers, 68-42.’’ . . . Look for local products Mike Pagliarulo (Medford) and Gary DiSarcina (Billerica) to hold more important roles in the Angels organization after a new GM is hired . . . Happy birthday to Josias Manzanillo (44), Tim McCarver (70), and Matt Batts (90).

Nick Cafardo can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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