THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

They’re starting to make a connection

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / December 15, 2009

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John Lackey for five years?

That’s more like it. I was beginning to worry that the Red Sox’ winter haul was going to be Marco, Boof, Fabio . . . and pray for rain.

What a great town. Just when you think the whole week is going to be devoted to Randy Being Randy (Bowser Moss has clinched the Hub’s coveted Manny Ramirez Milk-Bone Dog Biscuit Award), the Sox jump off their bridge of mediocrity and make a play for the best free agent pitcher on the market.

The Sox still need a couple of bats. They still need one or two guys like Jason Bay, Matt Holliday, Adrian Gonzalez, or Miguel Cabrera. But Boston’s loyal fans should be happy that the Sox are spending money and going for Lackey. It demonstrates that the brass is still trying to compete with the Yankees, still willing to commit big dollars in the quest for a championship.

Theo Epstein had us worried last week when he delivered his unfortunate “bridge’’ speech in his Marriott suite in downtown Indianapolis. It sounded like the Sox were going to go cheap while waiting for Jose Iglesias, Ryan Kalish, Casey Kelly, and Ryan Westmoreland.

The backlash was immediate. Sox fans are in no mood to forfeit the 2010 season, standing on the “Lars Anderson’’ Bridge.

Now it looks like you won’t have to wait. Either the Sox suddenly realized that fans won’t settle for a couple of soft seasons, or they’ve been dealing close to the vest. The bottom line is that John Henry apparently plans to stay in the money game and compete with the Yankees.

Lackey (five years, north of $80 million) is a fine start.

The big righty has a career record of 102-71 with a 3.81 ERA. He’s 6 feet 6 inches, weighs 245 and, like Josh Beckett, hails from Texas. He’s got attitude (think Schill without the fraud factor) and he fears nothing. At the age of 23, Lackey took the ball and beat Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series. He was the first rookie to win a seventh game since the immortal Babe Adams did it for the Pirates in 1909.

The last time we saw Lackey, he was walking off the Big A mound after smothering the Red Sox on four hits over 7 1/3 innings in a 5-0 playoff victory. Lackey’s Game 1 win set the tone for the Angels’ sweep and amplified the Sox’ offensive woes.

His spot in the rotation gives Boston another ace and a little insurance in the event Beckett, in the final year of his contract, walks after the season. Meanwhile, a quintet of Beckett, Jon Lester, Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Clay Buchholz sounds pretty good. Tim Wakefield will be around for insurance.

There was more good news late yesterday when it was reported that Toronto’s Roy Halladay may wind up in Philadelphia. Good for Boston. Halladay in the National League means three or four more wins for the 2010 Red Sox.

Clearly, Theo is building next year’s Sox around pitching and defense (OK, if he really loves defense he’d have kept Alex Gonazlez, but OPS still rules in the House of Bill James). That’s why the Sox are trying so hard to trade Mike Lowell to Texas. Lowell’s hip has made him a liability in the field. Defense is also one of the reasons the Sox are reluctant to go higher than $60 million/four years for Bay. Theo and the minions have concluded that Bay is less than average in left field and they’re scared of Bay aging badly in front of the Green Monster.

Bringing Lackey on board gives the Sox a surplus of starters. With Lackey in the rotation, it’s less risky to deal Buchholz to San Diego in a potential deal for Gonzalez. Picture the 2010 Sox with Gonzalez at first, Kevin Youkilis at third, Bay or possibly Mike Cameron in left, and a rotation of Beckett, Lester, Lackey, Dice-K, and Wakefield and I’ll take my chances against the Yankees.

More evidence that the Sox are willing to spend comes from the reports that the locals are trying to extend Beckett’s contract and are also involved in the expensive bidding for Cuban free agent lefty Aroldis Chapman. Chapman, 21, throws more than 100 miles per hour.

I was heartened to hear that the Yankees are interested in Chapman. Reminds me of the good old days when Theo trashed his Nicaraguan hotel room after losing a bidding war for Cuban righty Jose Contreras. That was the episode that prompted Larry Lucchino’s “Evil Empire’’ remark.

The Sox and Yankees will open the 2010 season on Sunday night, April 4, at Fenway on national television. Meanwhile, it’s offseason Go Time and the signing of Lackey takes the Sox and their fans off the bridge to nowhere.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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