Free agency -- and maybe a return to Texas -- looms for Lackey
The chances of John Lackey re-signing with the Angels appear fairly remote
The Yankees, Mets, Dodgers and Rangers are among the possible landing spots
Billy Wagner's agent said that the lefty is "absolutely'' coming back next year
NEW YORK -- Texan John Lackey, the Angels' ace and Game 1 starter on Friday night here, was spotted at the Dallas Cowboys' new stadium for their inaugural game earlier this month and is known to possess a suite there as well as a strong love of his home state, increasing speculation that he might consider jumping to the rival Rangers if given the chance.
But while the Abilene, Texas native may relish a return home, the chances of that happening may also depend on whether the Thanksgiving deadline is met for the sale of the Rangers franchise. Regardless, Lackey should have plenty of alternatives, especially if he keeps pitching like he did in the Division Series, when he threw 7 1/3 scoreless innings against the Red Sox in a Game 1 win.
The right-hander, who went 11-8 with a 3.83 ERA and is known as a big-game pitcher, is in an excellent position as easily the best starting pitcher about to be on the free-agent market. "His timing couldn't be better,'' one American League general manager said. "He's a difference-maker, and there aren't a lot of difference-makers out there this year, especially in terms of starting pitchers.'' Lackey is cited as often for his competitiveness and toughness as he is for his talent.
While Lackey has thrived in Anaheim, the chances of him returning to the Angels appear fairly remote, considering their contractual offer back in the spring was for only about half what he is expected to seek. According to a person familiar with those talks, the Angels offered a deal for three years and close to $40 million on top of the $10 million salary that he was to be paid in 2009, bringing the total package to close to $50 million. Potentially, Lackey could double that as a free agent.
One of baseball's best organizations, the Angels have absorbed big-time defections before, such as closer Francisco Rodriguez going to the Mets and slugger Mark Teixeira to the Yankees last winter, and their acquisition of left-hander Scott Kazmir was just one step they took toward improving this year's rotation depth, providing them some insurance in case Lackey leaves.
The Angels, second to St. Louis in terms of impact free agents with stars Bobby Abreu, Vladimir Guererro and Chone Figgins also eligible this winter, are known to like a good deal, as they got in signing Abreu for $5 million and Brian Fuentes for a $17 million, two-year deal after the free-agent market fizzled last year. And while Lackey is said by a friend to still be considering the Angels and "keeping his options open,'' the pitcher made clear when negotiations broke apart this spring that he wasn't about to do a team-friendly deal again after doing one last time. So the Angels, who broke off talks in the spring when Lackey was having an issue with his forearm, presumably would have to boost their original offer precipitously to have a chance.
Word has been going around that Lackey will seek "A.J. Burnett money,'' which means $82.5 million over five years. "He'll get Burnett's deal,'' one competing GM said flat out. But unless the market is soft again, he could actually exceed that figure. By most any measure, Lackey, who turns 31 during the World Series, is better than Burnett, 32. He has been the more consistent and healthier pitcher, and he has a litany of successful big-game starts dating back to his rookie year of 2002.
The Yankees, Mets and crosstown Dodgers are among many logical landing spots. But true or not, the Rangers' rumors are picking up steam. The Angels' rival is an improving team that could be attractive for Lackey. They have been in need of an ace and have seen up close what Lackey can do.
The Rangers, who attempted to acquire Roy Halladay this summer, surely like Lackey's arm and competitiveness. But they have to wonder whether the price tag will be right for them. There's also considerable question as to what they can do at this point, as current owner Tom Hicks is still in the process of selling the team.
Lackey would represent a coup for any new owner. "He's a horse,'' one American League scout said. He's a horse most believe is about to bolt.
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