Is Lackey Actually Realistic?

The Brewers need a front-line starter. John Lackey is a front-line starter that’s looking for A.J. Burnett money. Burnett got 5 years and $82.5 million from the Yankees last offseason.

I don’t see a match, but apparently some people in the know do. Sports Illustrated’s Jon Heyman bucked conventional wisdom yesterday, tweeting that the Brewers are interested and could make a run — as long as the price tag doesn’t exceed $100 million.

When I first read the news, I felt conflicted.

Having a hoss like Lackey heading up the rotation would be nothing but good for the next two or three years. It could possibly make the Brewers NL Central contenders again as early as next season. The team wouldn’t be “wasting” Prince Fielder’s last years in a Milwaukee uniform.

At the same time, Lackey is going to be 31 years old next season. He hasn’t pitched 200 innings since 2006. His strikeout-to-walk numbers have steadily declined, while the WHIP has slowly inched up. It would be great if the Brewers could get him on a back-loaded 4-year deal that tops out at around $60-$70 million. Unfortunately, if the Brewers are going to pry him away from the big market clubs making a run at him, they’re going to need to add a 5th year, and they’re going to have to surpass the figure given to Burnett last offseason.

Perhaps the Brewers will get lucky — the market could dictate that Lackey doesn’t get the money he’s looking for. That much doesn’t seem likely, though, especially when you compare Burnett and Lackey as pitchers. Burnett has been highly unpredictable over the course of his career, and while he has better pure stuff, Lackey has proven himself to be the more dependable starter (how many times, after all, were we reminded during the ALCS that Lackey once won Game 7 of a World Series by the FOX crew this year?).

Do the Brewers have the money to go after Lackey this offseason? We were all told last year that the $100 million deal offered to CC Sabathia was a one-time thing; that he was one of the few players for whom Mark Attanasio would be willing to work in the red. Lackey is one of the better pitchers in baseball, but he’s no Sabathia. He’s not a guy who can almost single-handedly carry your team through the playoffs, as Sabathia did for the Yankees this year.

A one-two punch of Gallardo and Lackey would be great to see, but how effective would it be in year 3 of a hypothetical Lackey contract? Year 4? Year 5, when he would be turning 36 and making $20 million a year? Perhaps a team like the Yankees, Mets, Angels, or even Mariners with all the money they get from Japan could support it, but a team like the Brewers couldn’t.

Unless the market continues its free-fall this winter, the Brewers should dip their toe into the Lackey pool, but shouldn’t jump in. They’d be better off financially by taking on a few reclamation projects or trying to work a trade for a starter with a lower salary (we’ve heard the Javy Vazquez rumors; Edwin Jackson is reportedly on the block in Detroit). One thing’s for sure, though — for those who were worried about Doug Melvin sitting on his hands again rather than pursuing pitching, this is a sign that he’s been active in the market early.

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