John Lackey – Make or Break

The success or failure of John Lackey is a huge issue as the Red Sox open the season. Last week, both the Globe's Nick Cafardo and the Herald's Ron Borges featured articles on the righthander. While Cafardo stayed mostly with on-field issues, Borges went deeper, exploring the problems Lackey has faced since arriving here in December 2009.

When he signed with the Sox, the Texan was regarded as the best free agent starter on the market. He drew interest from many clubs, including the Mariners, Brewers, Yankees, and Pirates. But after declining arbitration, he signed a five-year contract with the Sox worth $82.5 million. Many fans predicted he would lead them into the World Series. But unknown to most, he was coming to a team that was spiraling into decline.

Though Boston had made the playoffs three years in a row, their postseason performances in 08 and 09 had been disappointing. With the departure of strong veteran presences like Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield, and Jason Varitek, manager Terry Francona was losing control. The front office, apparently worrying about ratings, seemed more interested in signing "sexy guys" like Carl Crawford rather than team players. A year after Lackey's arrival, pitching coach John Farrell left to manage Toronto. He was replaced by Curt Young, whose one-year stay in Boston was hardly memorable.

Lackey's first Sox season was okay, but disappointing considering his buildup. After a good first half, he faded to 14-11 with a 4.40 ERA in 215 innings. Things would get much worse the following season, when he started out 2-5 and 8.01 in his first seven starts. He ended 12-12, but his 6.41 ERA was the highest in team history for a full-season effort. Off the field, things were even worse. Many considered him the ringleader in the "chicken and beer" clubhouse stories. He also had some well-documented personal issues. Lackey would miss the entire 2012 campaign with Tommy John surgery. There was speculation that he might be traded, but given his salary and performance in Boston, there would be few takers.

As Lackey approaches his fourth season with the Sox, his attitude, so often criticized, seems better. "Now those troubles are behind him, " wrote Borges, and….so is the surliness that so often puncuated  his every public appearence. It has been replaced by an affability…infrequently seen outside the doors of the clubhouse."

At age 34, John faces a make-or-break year. His spring training performances were good, though not spectacular. There is a possibility he will start in the Fenway opener next Monday against the Orioles. Though most of the fans are probably going to cheer his appearence on the mound, it's what happens afterward that matters.

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