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Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Can Lackey resurrect his career?
Boston Red Sox pitcher John Lackey is shown during the National Anthem prior to a September game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park. (Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)
If nothing else, it's a sign of commitment and dedication, visual evidence that he's determined to right the wrongs and rewrite the tale of his time in Boston. It's a sign that after missing a year because of reconstructive elbow surgery, and almost two years of pitching through the pain that led him to the operating table, Lackey looks like he's positioned himself to pitch well enough to change minds in Red Sox Nation.
The only question now is: Can he actually do it?
Losing weight and getting in shape are a good start - a prerequisite start, really. But the reality of the situation is that when Lackey took the mound to make his spring training debut in Saturday's tilt against Tampa, he did so as a 34-year-old, who is almost four years removed from the last season in which he was even as good as the league average, who never had overpowering stuff to begin with and who is coming off of career-changing surgery.
So while ideally the Sox and their fans would love to think a finally-healthy Lackey will come back and be the pitcher Theo Epstein thought he was signing when he extended the righty a $82.5 million offer in December 2009, it's not as if he returns from his Tommy John procedure in the prime of a high-ceiling career, and so expectations are not quite so simply set.
Through his final season with the Angels, baseball-reference.com says the pitcher with whom Lackey most closely compares historically is Kevin Millwood - the one-time Pawtucket Red Sox who retired earlier this month after 16 big-league seasons. Millwood had a decent career, twice receiving Cy Young votes, retiring as the active leader in strikeouts by a right-hander and leading the American League with a 2.86 earned run average in 2005.
He was 30 that season, which is the same age Lackey was when he left Los Angeles. But it was a slow slide down the slope after that Millwood, who went 62-77 with a 4.58 ERA and 1.45 walks and hits per inning pitched thereafter.
For further context, consider that second on Lackey's list of comparables when he signed with the Sox was Manchester's own Mike Flanagan, whose 100 ERA-plus means he was exactly league average after 30, while third was the burly Bartolo Colon, who won a Cy Young as Lackey's 32-year-old teammate in 2005 - but whose repeated links to performance-enhancing drugs certainly call that accomplishment into question.
And at this point, baseball-reference contends Lackey's closest comparable for his career is Josh Beckett. Red Sox fans can interpret that however they wish as it relates to the future.
Interestingly, it may actually be the surgery and subsequent recovery might give the Sox the most hope that Lackey can return to being the pitcher he was - 102-71, 3.86 ERA - or at least what Boston needs him to be as their No. 3 or 4 starter.
In recent years, medical technology has progressed to where Tommy John is no longer a career-ending procedure, even for veterans. Bedford's Chris Carpenter missed most of 2007-08, then returned as the Cy Young runner-up at age 34 in 2009. Since having the surgery in 2008, Bruce Chen has won 36 games - compared to the 35 he'd won over the previous 10 seasons.
Tommy John cost Tim Hudson most of 2009, then he placed fourth in National League Cy voting for 2010 (at age 34) and is 49-26 with a 3.19 ERA in three seasons since. Jake Westbrook had the surgery the same year as Hudson, and after he's basically been the same pitcher he was before.
There are cases like Daisuke Matsuzaka and Ben Sheets, of course, where the pitcher hasn't seemingly got his career back on track - but both of those righties battled additional injuries. If the reason behind Lackey's brutal 2011 season truly was an ailing elbow, the evidence suggests that once the tear is fixed there is no medical reason the team shouldn't anticipate a return to form.
Also in Lackey's favor is that he's never really been a fireballer. From 2002-11 his average fastball, according to Baseball Info Solutions, was just 91.2 mph, so his success has largely been the product of knowing how to pitch. And accruing that knowledge over time should help cover for any physical shortcomings that arise with age.
None of that was really applicable on Saturday at JetBlue Park, though. Throwing in a game for the first time in 17 months, Lackey threw almost exclusively fastballs at the Rays. The first four were balls, and the fifth was a Desmond Jennings single, and the sixth hit Matt Joyce. But from there Lackey settled in a bit, getting a strikeout and two flyouts to escape with only one run and one hit allowed - though the results weren't as relevant as merely the return.
"Felt great," the smiling pitcher told NESN after. "Just glad to be back out there. Threw a bunch of fastballs, arm felt good."
At this point, that's all that matters. Lackey felt good. He looked good. His attitude is good.
But there's a long way to go before we know how good he can really be.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.