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Who's buying in on the John Lackey redemption tour?

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff  March 22, 2013 09:50 AM

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The John Lackey goodwill tour continued Thursday night in Fort Myers, Fla.

Are you buying?

By most accounts, Lackey was impressive during his five-inning spring training tune-up against the Philadelphia Phillies, allowing four hits and one run in the Red Sox’ 5-1 win. The much-maligned pitcher, coming off a lost 2012 season, following offseason Tommy John surgery, is 2-0 this spring with a 5.40 ERA, which gives you about as much factual evidence that you need as do the first 10 minutes of “The Crying Game.”

Still, those are numbers to expect with Lackey, who should stack up a fair amount of wins with an ERA hovering around four or five. At this point, the Red Sox will take that. Heck, at this point, the Red Sox would salivate over that.

Will the fans?

The reshaping of John Lackey’s image PR tour kicked off right at the outset of spring training, a clear sign from Lackey’s camp that they understood just how reviled the pitcher was within the core fan base. Part of it is the money, the ridiculous contract NESN Tom Werner Theo Epstein (?) awarded Lackey in 2009, but most of the anger stems from Lackey’s degrading demeanor on the mound, not to mention that he went on to pitch perhaps the worst statistical season ever for a pitcher in 2011, getting paid $15.9 million in the process, and contributing to one of the greatest collapses in baseball history. Fried Chicken. Beer. You know the rest.

Lackey didn’t pitch all of 2012, and thus, has yet to answer to all the controversies with the fans. Good luck with that.

Nobody is expecting a Cy Young season out of Lackey, but some sort of accountability for his role in the goodwill this franchise needs to summon is tantamount to the Red Sox’ plans this season. Even if Lackey pitches decently, as this team’s No. 3 starter, there will be a pendulum swing in his favor. If he does it with the same duplicitous demeanor that turns off fans and media (even if his teammates just adore him), he’ll still skirt by with some level of forgiveness.

Lackey clearly isn’t the putrid pitcher he has shown himself to be over the course of two seasons in Boston. He’s only 34 years old, and could be pitching for one more contract next season. There is some reason to be optimistic that if Lackey pitches to some level of his potential, the Red Sox could have a solid-to-very-good 1-2-3 with Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. Marked improvement has happened before for last-place teams in Boston.

Before Bobby Valentine’s band of incompetent of losers, the two worst Red Sox teams of this generation were the 1992 and 2001 squads. In 1993, the Red Sox pitching staff went on to go 80-82 with a 3.77 ERA. Caveat: Roger Clemens and Danny Darwin (for as much criticism as that signing got, Darwin was 15-11 with a 3.26 ERA in ’93).

In 2002, the Red Sox pitching staff went 93-69 with a 3.75 ERA for a team that inexplicably missed the playoffs. Caveat: Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe, who won 21 games in his first full season as a starter. That same season, 37-year-old John Burkett went 13-8 with a 4.53 ERA.

Can Lackey match Burkett numbers, or can he finally live up to his contract like many felt Darwin finally did in ’93? Sure, and frankly, coming close to either stat line would be enough for Red Sox fans to…embrace is too strong a word…tolerate Lackey’s presence.

Lackey’s popularity isn’t on a thin leash, it’s simply nonexistent, and really has been since Day 1, when Red Sox fans could never really grasp why he was brought in, and only grew more confused with every pitch he threw. There’s nothing Lackey can do to change that perception, but in order to survive the remainder of his contract with relative sanity intact, mediocrity is key.

How pathetic is that?

But this point, just OK is just fine with the Red Sox. It's better than nothing, which is what Lackey has been since he put pen to paper on his contract.

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About the Author

Eric Wilbur is a Boston.com sports columnist who is still in awe of what Dana Kiecker pulled off that one time in Toronto. He lives in the Boston area with his wife and three children. Comments and suggestions for the best Buffalo wing spots are encouraged.

Contact Eric Wilbur by e-mail or follow him on Twitter.

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