The St. Louis Cardinals Gave Up Too Much In The John Lackey Trade

There are some trades that simply make you scratch your head, look at the information twice to make sure you processed it correctly, and then leave you wondering what one side or the other was thinking. That’s exactly how I feel about looking at the St. Louis Cardinals end of the John Lackey trade made with the Boston Red Sox.



John LackeyThe deal was this—St. Louis gave up starting pitcher Joe Kelly and outfielder Allen Craig. Boston gave up Lackey, minor league pitcher Corey Littrell and cash.

Kelly is 26-years-old and a reasonably established major league pitcher for his age, having won 10 games with a 2.69 ERA a year ago. Hamstring problems have limited him in 2014, with seven starts and a 4.37 ERA. So he’s not without question marks, but this is a young pitcher that has already been an important part of a pennant-winning team’s staff, both in the rotation and the bullpen.

Craig’s record is even more established. From 2011-13, he had an on-base percentage in excess of .350, a slugging percentage over .450, was a feared hitter with runners in scoring position and hit three home runs in the 2011 World Series win over the Texas Rangers. He’s endured a miserable 2014 season thus far, but shouldn’t three years of success get you some benefit of the doubt?

It seems that St. Louis chose to trade both Kelly and Craig when their value was at its lowest. This would have been a respectable package to offer Boston if the pitcher in question were Jon Lester. Not for Lackey.

I don’t mean to knock Lackey. I understand why the Cardinals and other contenders would want him. He’s a 35-year-old veteran with a lot of postseason savvy, having won the clinching game of two different World Series, 2002 with the Angels and last year with the Red Sox.

In the 2013 postseason, he beat David Price in the Division Series against Tampa Bay, outdueled Justin Verlander for Detroit in the League Championship Series and then beat Michael Wacha in the World Series Game 6 clincher against these same Cardinals. As October resumes go, that’s pretty damn good.

All of that makes Lackey the kind of player to get, to maybe offer an unproven prospect for. Does it really make him worth dealing a talented young starting pitcher and 29-year-old outfielder who has established he can do everything at the plate, from hit for power to get on base?

Lackey is not a staff ace. While his ERA has stabilized in the mid-3.00s over the last year and a half after two miserable years in Boston and then missing all of 2012 with Tommy John surgery, he’s not the kind of pitcher that’s going to carry you into the postseason. He’s a nice, reliable piece to have on hand and he can win you a big game in October.

But that places enormous pressure on the Cardinal front office to see Lackey win his postseason starts this year, presuming St. Louis makes it. Would he even start the wild-card game if that’s where the Cardinals end up? Again, if you were trading one prospect to get him, then it makes sense for this organization, so close to winning it all last year, to go all-in. What a price they paid though.

Maybe Littrell holds the key to the St. Louis interest. As a 21-year-old in Class A he posted a 1.74 ERA, and has a respectable 3.60 ERA this year in Double A. If he comes through and becomes a part of a major league rotation, it solves the long-term Cardinal dilemma with this deal.

All I can say is this—as a Red Sox fan, I would have been thrilled with a trade that brought either Kelly or Craig. When I saw they got both, I had to shake my head and look twice. It almost made up for the organization’s indefensible decision to low-ball Jon Lester and put themselves in a position where they had to trade the lefty. Almost, but not quite.

I’m not sure how St. Louis fans feel about this trade. I was watching the Cardinals-Brewers game last night, and the reports are that it “rattled’ the St. Louis clubhouse, and I didn’t get the impression that the rattling was positive.

If the Cardinals win the World Series and Lackey wins the kind of clutch starts he did for the Red Sox last season, then the price is worth it. But that’s a lot to put on a handful of starts by a 35-year-old middle-of-the-rotation arm.