History lesson: The Red Sox have made one white-flag trade since 1998, a move that signaled that they had given up on the season. That came on Aug. 31, 2006, when the team looked in the mirror, saw no hope of contending and dealt left-hander David Wells to the Padres for catcher George Kottaras.
On the day of that move that served as a concession with a month left in 2006, the Red Sox were eight games out of first place in the AL East, 6 ½ games out of the wild card and owned a 72-62 record.
The 2012 Red Sox only could hope for such an enviable position. After a 7-3 loss to the Angels on Wednesday, the team is 59-65, 13 games behind the Yankees in the AL East and 8 ½ games behind the A’s for the second wild card. The Sox have the 10th best (or fifth worst, depending on perspective) record in the American League.
At the risk of stating the obvious: They’re going nowhere. And so, while GM Ben Cherington spoke at Yankee Stadium this past weekend of remaining focused on the next six weeks of the season, the reality is that all of the team’s energies should be directed at figuring out the best way to position the 2013 club to reverse the failures of the past (roughly) calendar year.
Some of those subjects of exploration are obvious. Franklin Morales will get more starts. Ryan Lavarnway will get considerable playing time behind the plate. Pedro Ciriaco will continue to move around the diamond in an attempt to gauge his potential role for next year.
And then there is the less obvious. Most notably, on the day that Carl Crawford will undergo surgery to repair his elbow, it’s worth noting that John Lackey is continuing his advance through the final stages of his rehab work on the long road back from Tommy John.
The right-hander is now in the third season of a five-year, $82.5 million deal (one that included a vesting option for 2015 at the major league minimum that will take effect now that he’s missed a full season). For all parties, it’s been something of a mess to date. He’s 26-23 with a 5.23 ERA in 61 starts as a member of the Red Sox that preceded the Tommy John surgery that he underwent after last season.
But for the Red Sox, the contract represents a sunk cost, and so there is little point in dwelling on the retrospective wisdom of signing a pitcher with a pre-existing elbow condition. Instead, of greater significance is what he might be able to do going forward, especially given that -- unlike his career in Boston to date -- he has a chance to be a healthy pitcher going forward.
Lackey won’t pitch in the big leagues this year. Nonetheless, he’s on track to pitch in a game in some setting -- likely an environment such as the Florida instructional league in late-September -- in the not-too-distant future with an eye towards entering a normal, healthy offseason as he prepares to return to the big leagues in 2013.
The right-hander is not yet thinking about next season. Instead, after 10 months of mind-numbing monotony in the rehab process, he’s simply thrilled that he’s on the cusp of the fact that the end of the rehab process is finally in sight.
“The light at the end of the tunnel thing? It's exciting just to be able to start getting off the mound and pitch again,” acknowledged Lackey, who has been throwing bullpen sessions for a few weeks. “It's been what, 10 months now of the same stuff over and over? It's nice to change things up, compete a little bit hopefully soon.”
And already, there are early signs that life as a pitcher after Tommy John surgery may be different than what preceded it. In retrospect, there were signs that Lackey’s elbow ligament was under assault for a number of seasons. His ERA went up every year from 2007-11 (from a league-best 3.01 in 2007 to his 6.41 mark last year), his strikeouts per nine innings declined each year (from 7.2 per nine innings to 6.1) and his walk rate likewise increased steadily (from 2.1 per nine innings to 3.2).
The move from the AL West to the AL East and the natural effects of age undoubtedly had something to do with that, but so did the injury through which Lackey was pitching – something of which the right-hander has become increasingly aware in his post-surgery reality.
“Definitely, there's no pain, which is different than the last couple years. I think that allows you to be more free in motion, and the mechanics kind of flow a little bit better,” said Lackey. “I'm not getting too far ahead of myself, but I'm excited about pitching with no pain, being able to -- I don't even know how to explain it. It's just one less worry when you're on the mound. I can think of executing pitches and getting people out instead of, is my elbow about to fall apart?”
Asked when he started experiencing elbow pain, Lackey said that it had probably been about three or four years. But the impact of that discomfort became profound last year, as he struggled to a 12-12 record and 6.41 ERA in 28 starts, impacting his ability to perform as never before.
“There were ways that they helped me out on my start days. I didn't feel it as much. But the day after . . .,” he reflected. “I quit throwing bullpens last year because it hurt too bad to keep throwing bullpens in between my starts. That probably, that affects you as well, not getting reps.”
So, too, did the fact that he had to compensate in his delivery for the fact that his elbow was a mess. The right-hander was throwing what one talent evaluator called “12 seamers down the middle” with his fastball, and Lackey said that he lost movement and precision because of the condition of his elbow.
“I've looked at some stuff from past years to last year. My velocity stayed around the same, but I was having to manufacture velocity. I think that affected location, instead of having it come out naturally, worrying about location as opposed to trying to manufacture velocity,” he said. “It was different, but it is what it is, I had to do it.”
That notion -- that he “had to do it” -- is an interesting one. Just as was the case with Crawford this year, Lackey knew that he was injured, and that his elbow had rendered him a drastically different pitcher than he’d been, with surgery a great likelihood and perhaps even an inevitability. He tried to pitch through it, in part because the Sox lacked pitching depth last year (the team’s meltdown in Sept. 2011 exposed the lack of rotation depth). It went poorly.
“You're getting out there, trying to compete, trying to help out, not being 100 percent and not performing up to your own expectations and everybody else's. It's a tough balance, whether you're hurting yourself or helping the team, you're weighing it,” said Lackey. “I was trying to get through the season. We were at a point last year, we needed guys to start. We didn't have that many options last year. I think this year, it probably would have been a little easier because we've got a few more starters this year.
“But you want to compete. It's what I've been doing since I was five years old,” he added. “There were some times [where pitching was like banging his head against a wall] and a lot of frustration. What are you going to do? It is what it is. It got to the point where I was trying not to worry about the numbers and trying to win the next start. That was all I could do.”
Given that desperate desire to compete, Lackey acknowledged that this year has been “weird, for sure.” He’s missed being on the mound, and in his words, the ability to “get in the fight with” his teammates.
“I haven’t been able to do that this year,” said Lackey.
But barring an unexpected development, he will be back on the mound in 2013. He has two years and $30.5 million remaining on his contract (three years and $31 million if the vesting option is included).
Given that financial commitment and the fact that he won’t pitch in the majors this year, Lackey probably isn’t going anywhere. Instead, he could factor into a 2013 Red Sox rotation that must be considerably better than its predecessor.
There are no guarantees that he will be able to rewind to be the pitcher he was with the Angels, prior to his huge free-agent contract. After all, Daisuke Matsuzaka's return from Tommy John surgery this year is a reminder that the procedure is not a panacea, and that the struggles of a pitcher before undergoing the operation won't necessarily be cured by it.
Perhaps that explains why Lackey is hesitant to say fast forward to the question of whether he can be the pitcher next year who convinced the Sox to sign him to his five-year deal in the first place. But he does see that light in the rehab process that hasn’t been visible for some time, and so, he is eager for what lies ahead.
“I'm not getting that far ahead of myself, for sure,” said Lackey. “I'll be excited for spring training, though, for the first time in years, definitely. It's going to be fun to pitch in a game. That first spring training start, I'm excited about it already.”