The Red Sox had significant interest in John Lackey from the moment he hit free agency. But it was a pleasant surprise to the organization when they discovered the feeling was mutual.
Lackey, a fiery 31-year-old righthander who 102 games in eight seasons with the Los Angeles Angels, was introduced as a member of the Red Sox in the second press conference of the afternoon at Fenway Park.
Earlier in the day, the Red Sox introduced veteran center fielder Mike Cameron, who, like Lackey, agreed to terms with the Sox earlier this week.
“This is a significant addition to our pitching staff,” said general manager Theo Epstein of Lackey, a one-time All-Star who finished third in 2007 AL Cy Young award voting. “And we expect him to be for a long time coming.”
It’s been quite change in perception since the beginning of free agency, when Epstein suspected Boston wouldn’t appeal to the pitcher.
Lackey, who is remarkably similar statistically and in competitive temperament to new teammate Josh Beckett, struggled early in his career against the Red Sox, once infamously being caught on camera muttering that “they should blow this [expletive] place up” after giving up a home run at Fenway, was interested in joining a team that for a long time appeared to be his nemesis.
But the Sox touched base with Lackey’s agent, Steve Hilliard, early in the process, and the GM was thrilled to hear what Hilliard told them.
“We were actually a little bit surprised when Steve said John had a lot of interest in coming to the Red Sox,” Epstein said. “Watching him across the field, you always saw him as a big-game pitcher, a top-of-the-rotation guy, and a really tough competitor.
“We never really thought he would be interested in Boston. I guess when you play across the field from someone, you kind of see him as the opposition and that’s it. “[But Hilliard] said, ‘No, John’s serious about Boston, he wants to win, he loves how every game in Boston is like a playoff game, and he could really see himself there.’ That got our attention in a hurry, and we proceeded to stay in really good touch with Steve.”
If Lackey had held a grudge against the Sox, it might have been justified. He is just 2-5 with a 5.75 ERA in nine regular-season starts at Fenway, and until this season the Angels had been fodder for the Red Sox in the postseason. But he said the reason for his struggles and frustraion had much to do with the players wearing the home whites.
“Well, a lot of that had to do with going against a great team,” said Lackey, a 6-foot-6-inch native of Abilene, Texas. “Now to be a part of it, I’m excited about that. You look at it, the last couple of years, I’ve done pretty good here. I’m excited about the opportunity and really fired up to be a part of this organization.
Lackey confirmed that he desired to pitch in a place where every game matters, and said his history with the Red Sox was a non-factor.
“Obviously, I’ve been here for some big games,” said Lackey, who has made four postseason starts against the Red Sox and pitched 7 1/3 shutout innings in Game 1 of the American League Division Series in October, setting the tone for an Angels sweep. “I’m here to win. The bottom line is that I’ve always had a lot of respect for this organization from the other side. Winning is the biggest thing for me and I know the organization has a great chance to do that. Hopefully, I can help.”
It also helped, as Epstein acknowledged, that Lackey’s wife, Krista, attended high school in Sanford, Me., and is a University of New Hampshire graduate. Lackey noted that all of his family members at the press conference are now converted Red Sox fans.
“Thanks, Krista,” Epstein said.
The terms of the contract — five years and $82.5 million — obviously also helped persuade Lackey that Boston was the place for him. It is the most lucrative free agent deal since Epstein became the Red Sox’ general manager in 2002, and the
re is some risk involved. While Lackey has been durable, making 33 starts each season from 2003-07, he has begun the past two seasons on the disabled list, making a total of 51 starts in 2008-09. Nonetheless, Epstein said he is confident that it will be money well-spent.
“When you enter free agency from the team side, you want to manage the commitments the best you can,” Epstein said. “Obviously, you always want shorter deals, you want to get the best deal you can for your club.
“But John’s someone, with his track record and his consistency, has put himself in a position to deserve a contract like this. When you look at recent . . . free agent pitcher signings, certainly John ranks right up there with them and deserves a similar contract if not exceeds them. This is something we need to think long and hard about, but in the end, we believe in John, we believe in his pitching style, and we believe in our starting pitching going forward, and this puts us in the best position versus other alternatives.”
With the signings of Lackey and Cameron, a three-time Gold Glover who rates high in the defensive metric Ultimate Zone Rating, and the probable departure of slugger Jason Bay, it appears the Sox have made a conscious effort to emphasize run prevention. But Epstein said that was just one of the possibilities the club considered entering the offseason.
“We had a couple different versions of an offseason plan,” Epstein said. “Some involved spending more resources on a big-time defensive player and getting pitching depth, but this really intrigued us as an alternative. The deeper we got into the offseason, the deeper we got, the more we talked about John and his personality and his fit for the Red Sox and what it would mean to our rotation, and the future of our rotation. We got more and more interested, and talks developed well, and that ended up being the right path for us.”