McAdam: Lackey situation could mimic Burnett's

McAdam: Lackey situation could mimic Burnett's
February 20, 2012, 4:38 pm
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Everything the New York Yankees do manages to catch the attention of the Red Sox. That's just how things work with the two rivals.

But the Yankees' move over the weekend may have had the Red Sox paying even more attention than usual.

After a week or so of negotiations, the Yankees finally agreed to send A.J. Burnett to the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for two mid-level prospects.

To facilitate the deal, the Yankees included 13 million to help the Pirates pay the remaining 33 million still owed to Burnett over the next two seasons.

And why does this move affect the Red Sox? Simple: sometime in the future, the Red Sox may want to do the very same with John Lackey.

Lackey and Burnett have a lot of common. Each signed essentially the same exact contract -- five years, 82.5 million -- within a year of each other.

Each has been a big disappointment after signing the deal. Burnett was 34-35 with a 4.79 ERA in three seasons with the Yankees; Lackey was 26-23 with a 5.26 ERA in his first two seasons with the Sox.

After acquiring Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda, the Yankees viewed Burnett as a spare (if expensive) part and were determined to move him.

They'll subsidize Burnett, taking on nearly 40 percent of his salary this season and next.

The Red Sox may well do the same with Lackey.

The one key difference, of course, is that Lackey is likely sidelined for the entire 2012 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last October. By contrast, Burnett was at least healthy at the time of the move.

However, the surgical procedure could, in time, help the Red Sox in their efforts to move Lackey's contract. While Tommy John surgery is a major procedure, it's not career-threatening the way it once was. Every year, pitchers come back from the surgery, often with improved velocity.

Also, the Sox can make the case that Lackey's performance was so poor in 2011 because he was pitching most of the season with a torn ligament in his elbow.

By definition, Lackey almost has to be better when he returns from surgery.

Finally, thanks to a clause in Lackey's original deal, the Red Sox have another contractual edge. The deal included language which stated that if Lackey were to miss a season because of an elbow injury, the Sox would in turn get a sixth year tacked on for the major league minimum salary.

That means that, when Lackey shows he's healthy, the Sox can tell teams that they'll be getting three seasons worth of Lackey at just under 33 million, rather than the two the Pirates are getting for the same amount.

That's a huge advantage financially, since the third year also manages to bring down the average annual value (AAV) of the deal from about 16 million annually to 11 million. Such a deal keeps payroll down when MLB computes the luxury tax liability for each club.

Of course, the Red Sox' priority is for Lackey to return from surgery and be the 15-game, 200-inning pitcher they thought they were getting when they signed him as a free agent.

That's a far more efficient path, since, like the Yankees, they would have to pay a good portion of Lackey's remaining money for him not to pitch for them.

As the Yankees found in obtaining two lower-level prospects from Pittsburgh, the return won't be great. The only way the Sox will get more than the Yankees got is if they decide to take back more money. The more salary wiped off the books, the higher the asking price can be.

A best-case scenario might work like this: Lackey comes back healthy in 2013, pitches reasonably well (double figures in wins, an ERA around 4.00), but the Sox determine he will never truly flourish in Boston.

They could then shop him after the 2013 season and offer him around with two years remaining at 16.5 million (16 million for the final year on the original deal and another 500,000 or so in 2015). The Sox could pay 6 million or so of that and get something halfway decent in return.

It's not much, but halfway through a deal they surely have come to regret, it's about all they have.