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John Lackey on 2015 team option: ‘There’s some things to think about’

06.10.14 at 8:56 am ET
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BALTIMORE — John Lackey didn’t make it to the end of “Benjamin Button,” but he’s familiar with the storyline. After all, he’s living it.

Lackey is amidst one of the more improbable performances in recent memory by a pitcher who signed a long-term free agent deal in his 30s. In some respects, he appears to be aging backward.

With the benefit of hindsight, Lackey’s 2010 season — his first in Boston — suggests a gutsy effort, a 14-11 record and 4.40 ERA over the course of 215 innings in which the big right-hander was pitching through physical discomfort in the first year of a five-year, $82.5 million deal.

“My first year here is probably, I’m as proud of that season as any of them,” Lackey noted recently. “I honestly was not feeling very good, so I’m pretty proud of that season, to be honest with you.”

He proved unable to pitch as effectively in 2011, going 12-12 with a 6.41 ERA as his elbow issues became more acute, resulting in Tommy John surgery that wiped out his 2012 season.

But instead of fading, Lackey returned in eye-opening fashion in 2013, going 10-13 but with a 3.52 ERA in 29 regular season starts before emerging as a postseason force (2.77 ERA). Now, as a 35-year-old, he’s looking even sharper, a buoy for a Red Sox team that is otherwise sinking quickly. Lackey is 7-4 with a 3.18 ERA. His 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings suggest the best swing-and-miss stuff since he was a 27-year-old in 2006. His 1.7 walks per nine mark the lowest rate of his career.

At 35, he’s healthy and living up to his end of his contractual bargain. When teams sign pitchers to five-year deals after they’ve turned 30 (as the Sox did with Lackey), there’s an expectation that getting a majority of good years of service out of the pitcher would represent something of a triumph. In this case, Lackey is amidst his second excellent year, with 2010 being fairly characterized as a solid campaign. In short, the overall performance that the Sox have gotten from Lackey over his five years in Boston has been about as good as what they likely hoped for when they signed him — but with an unexpected chronology that has seen him get better, and more valuable, over the life of the contract.

“It all goes back to the surgery more than anything, man. I’m sure I would have had to change a lot of things [regarding his pitch mix] if I didn’t have the surgery. But with the elbow being fixed, I’m feeling pretty good. I like my chances most of the time when I’m healthy,” said Lackey. “You always want to do your job. You want both sides to be happy when you sign those things, for sure. As for as last year goes and the way that this year’s going, it’s been great.”

Technically, Lackey is now arriving at the end of his five-year deal. The 2014 season marks the final guaranteed campaign of that pact.

Yet the right-hander isn’t thinking about what awaits him beyond 2014 — and with good reason. The Sox hold a 2015 option on his services at the big league minimum (approximately $500,000) as a result of his missing all of 2012 while recovering from Tommy John surgery.

“Probably not, actually,” Lackey said of whether he’s given any consideration to the possibility of free agency. “The way I’m pitching now, I’m probably not going to be a free agent. It’s not something I’ve really gone that far ahead and thought about. There’s a lot of things I’m going to have to think about at the end of the season, the way that’s structured and that sort of thing. So, we’ll see.”

While Lackey agreed to the contract structure that would potentially have him in line to make rookie money, the right-hander expressed some pause about the idea of actually doing so. He didn’t draw lines in the sand, but he also stopped short of saying unequivocally that he would pitch for the Red Sox next year even if it meant doing so at a salary of roughly $500,000.

“I haven’t thought that far ahead. Just thinking about pitching right now. It’s definitely something I’ll have to think about at the end of the season, whether I want to keep going, whether ‘€¦ ,” Lackey trailed off. “There will be a lot of things to consider.”

Of course, given the level at which Lackey’s performed since his return from Tommy John, and his enjoyment of pitching while once again healthy and strong (“I’m having a blast,” he said), it’s hard to fathom the idea that he’d willingly walk way from pitching after this year.

“Yeah, but, there’s things to think about,” Lackey said with a laugh.

As for how long he can continue to defy age and time? Lackey suggested that he was unlikely to make it all the way back to the embryonic end of Benjamin Button.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen that long,” Lackey said of his defiance of the clock. “I’m sure it will start going the other way. Hopefully not for a few years, though.”

For more on the uncertainty that looms over the Red Sox rotation, click here.

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