You can replace the arm, but can you replace the man?
It has been a few weeks now but I am still trying to come to grips with John Lackey fleeing the Angels for the Boston Red Sux. The process has been slow and painful, but I am all finally getting ready to move on, or at least I was until I had a concerning revelation. Much of the fuss over Lackey's departure has been focused on him being the staff ace in terms of talent. But there is something else Lackey brought to the table that the Angels could have an even harder time replacing- his leadership.
The biggest concern heard around the Halosphere when Big John bolted for Boston was who would replace Lackey at the top of the rotation. That certainly is a concern, but it actually already has been answered. Let's not forget that the Angels did trade for Scott Kazmir. They didn't do that because they needed him for the playoffs, that was just an added bonus. The real reason they acquired Kaz was because they knew they were going to lose Lackey to free agency and Kazmir was their fallback plan. And what a fallback plan it is. Kazmir didn't have an ace-like line last season, but he has in previous seasons. In fact, his stats have frequently been better than those of John Lackey. From a talent standpoint, Kaz even has better stuff than Lackey. That certainly sounds like an ace to me. There is one thing though that Kazmir lacks that Lackey had and that is the bulldog mentality.
What really set Lackey apart from every other pitcher on the staff was his infectious competitive fire. If you think of John Lackey, you know doubt immediately conjure up memories of him yelling, spitting, grimacing or stomping around on the mound in both victory and defeat. Lackey took every pitch deadly seriously and never ever backed down from a challenge. It is only fitting that his last performance as an Angel ended with Lackey pleading with Mike Scioscia to not take him out of the game (which he shouldn't have, but let's not get into that now). While his bravado sometimes made him look like an overly competitive jackass at times, it more often than not was an inspiration to other members of the young and impressionable pitching staff.
John wasn't exactly the prototypical locker room leader who would take a guy under his wing and help nurture his talent by providing coaching and positive reinforcement. No, Big John led by example and now that he is gone there is nobody else to follow. Jered Weaver has shown occasional flashes of being able to channel the competitive fire that Lackey possessed, no doubt something Weave picked up from Lackey, but he is still maturing as a player and can't be counted on to fill the leadership void at the same time. What the Angels really need to replace Lackey's leadership is a true veteran presence and they aren't going to find that in a rotation populated of players who are all 28 years old or younger with no more than six years of MLB experience. What they need is a battle-tested veteran who commands immediate respect by just stepping on the rubber. How that player performs is almost inconsequential as long as he sets a proper example.
Now that Lackey has left, it is time to hand the leadership ball over to someone new.
Filling John's shoes won't be any small task for the Angel front office, not in a free agent market that has pretty much been plucked clean, so if the Angels have to turn to the trade market, then so be it. The importance of finding a new staff leader cannot be emphasized enough, not on a team with so much young pitching, especially with Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana both being guys who struggle with their mental focus and fortitude. Those youngsters are all badly in need of a strong-willed mentor to look up to and the championship hopes of the Halos may very well depend on the pitching staff fully embracing the bulldog mentality to take their games to the next level. I don't know if the Angel front office realized that when they let Lackey get away but if they don't find a way to replace his leadership, they are going to find out what a gross miscalculation they made come next season and it won't be pretty.