This spring, the St. Louis Cardinals have seven starters vying for five jobs. More accurately, three are fighting for the final spot.
One of the set group of four is John Lackey. The 36-year-old joined St. Louis in trade with Boston last July.
Even since then, questions about Lackey’s contract have lingered. When he was signed as a free agent by the Boston Red Sox after the 2009 season, a unique clause was included. Due to prior concerns about Lackey’s elbow, wording was included that extended his contract commitment by one year at the MLB minimum salary level if he missed time.
Lackey went on to require Tommy John surgery that kept him out of action for the entire 2012 season, a period during which he earned $15.25 million. That tacked 2015 onto the end of his original deal at just $500,000.
The team-friendly 2015 salary had to be a major factor in the Cards’ decision to acquire Lackey. Yet, some have expected the team to alter his contract for this coming season to ensure Lackey remains happy and/or to help him be a more effective leader.
I don’t buy it.
Clubs just don’t tear up contracts for the current season only. If they want to get a player more money, they get something in return. That is how negotiation works. Each side gives so each side can get.
In a case like this, the team would typically give more money in the current season in return for a lower than market value commitment from the player for the next year or years – via a contract extension.
Here’s the rub. The Cardinals have no idea if they want Lackey in 2016 – at any salary.
As we are currently seeing, two youngsters - Marco Gonzales and Carlos Martinez - may be squeezed out of the season-opening 2015 rotation. All of the other current starters – Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha – are under team control for 2016.
If Gonzales and Martinez continue to develop this season, there is no reason to assume they will not be ready for the 2016 rotation. In that case, Lackey would not seem to be needed.
In the near term, Lackey already has a contract for this season. The Cardinals have every motivation to wait to decide if they need him back for next year. The club’s apparent disinterest in talking was confirmed in an article by the Post-Dispatch just last week in which the pitcher noted that he has not been contacted about his contract.
The Cardinals have been mostly successful in avoiding the pitfalls of the kinds of bad long-term contracts that have shackled a number of other teams. However, one area in which they have struggled was the last year of veterans’ contracts.
The team received almost nothing from the final years of the contracts given to Chris Carpenter, Lance Berkman and Rafael Furcal, among three recent examples of players older than 35. They may want to ensure Lackey does not join them.
After all, he would have to give the club two more years of good and injury-free performance – 2015 and 2016 – to make an extension work financially.
For those who are worried about Lackey’s attitude, my message is this. If he is upset about the contract his agent negotiated and he approved, then shame on him. If he is not a leader, a few more dollars isn’t going to change his approach. If he is not a good player to have in the clubhouse, giving him a big increase to keep him around for another year would be the worst thing to do.
Bottom line, my guess is that the Cardinals would rather wait before committing to a $12 million contract, for example, to Lackey for next year - especially when the alternative may very well be Gonzales for $500,000.
The Garcia Dilemma
As noted above, the Cardinals have a three-way battle among oft-injured veteran Jaime Garcia, Martinez and Gonzales for the fifth rotation spot this spring. Garcia reported to camp in great shape and his strong results are forcing the Cardinals' hand.
This past weekend, both of the younger players took the mound in a piggy-back arrangement, an approach needed to keep all seven starters pitching every fifth day.
Some have assumed this means that Garcia is in the rotation and the other two will be relievers to open the season. I understand why some may leap to that conclusion, but I do not necessarily see it that way.
Gonzales seems most likely to be starting in Triple-A Memphis, remaining ready to fill the first opening that develops in St. Louis.
Martinez’ fate – whether or not he has to return to the bullpen for a second season – depends far more on Garcia than his own mound results.
My read is that the Cardinals want to give Garcia a full and extended spotlight this spring to show if he can handle the load of a regular starter. Other teams, especially with their pitching more unsettled than the Cardinals’, are also watching.
I think the odds of another club being willing to make an offer acceptable to the Cardinals for Garcia’s services for this season, the final guaranteed on his current contract, increase with every good outing this spring.
As we saw this past winter, with Justin Masterson receiving $9.5 million as a free agent (with incentives for $2.5 million more), demand continues to exist, even for pitchers who were recently successful, but remain major injury question marks today.
Garcia will make $9.25 million this season with another million required to buy out club options for 2016 and 2017. Given his injury history and his checkered relationship with the team, it seems even more likely than Lackey that 2015 will be Garcia’s last year with the Cardinals.
With Garcia's spring performance removing at least the immediate questions about his health, who is to say that his departure date could not be accelerated, while creating more opportunity sooner for Martinez and later, Gonzales?
Key questions would be whether or not the Cardinals would cover any of Garcia’s remaining money due and what kind of prospect they might be able to acquire in return.
I don’t know if a trade would happen, but it should not be ruled out. If a deal was to be under consideration, we probably would not receive word of it until it would be announced.
At this point, the Cardinals look to be keeping their options open. We should keep our minds open to all of the possibilities, as well.
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