John Lackey appears to have signed with the Red Sox for five years at a price in the range of $16 million per season, a total of more than $80 million. (The deal is reported by ESPN’s Jayson Stark to be slightly more than what A.J. Burnett signed for a year ago.)

This is what a well-capitalized ownership group can do: use money to solve a problem, as opposed to using money and talent to do so, as is the case in trading for a pitcher such as Halladay who requires an extension. Two years ago, Lackey was a durable starting pitcher with excellent skills and the ability to apply them to run prevention. Minor injuries have chipped away at the “durable” tag the past two seasons, and diminished his perceived value as he reached free agency. On a per-inning basis, he’s one of the top 15 starters in the game, and because his injuries haven’t been the kind that typically take down a pitcher’s career, he’s less of a risk than his lowered inning totals the last two years indicate. If Lackey doesn’t quite have the upside of the very best starters in baseball-he’s never posted an ERA below 3.01, his career mark is 3.81, and he’s received Cy Young votes in just one season of his career-he’s a safe bet to provide at least 750 innings of above-average pitching over the life of the deal. That would be a win for the Red Sox.

Signing Lackey represents a change of direction for the Red Sox, who spent last winter patching their rotation with low-level free-agent signings such as Brad Penny and John Smoltz. The mixed results of that experiment may have left them cold, and led to acquiring Lackey, who carried much less short-term risk and a much higher price tag than those two players did. However, signing Lackey is something of an exercise in lilygilding; with Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, it’s not clear the the Red Sox have spent $80 million on much more than their third starter next year. Throw in Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka, and the Red Sox have a set five-man rotation before the calendar has flipped on 2009. That reduces the potential roles of Junichi Tazawa and Michael Bowden to fill in, or perhaps trade bait. It makes for a strange roster, with so much invested in the rotation, a deep and effective bullpen, but a set of position players that includes an expensive, subpar DH, a missing infield cornerman depending on where you assign Kevin Youkilis in the wake of a Mike Lowell trade, and a question mark in left field pending a Mike Cameron contract. A trade seems not just possible, but inevitable.

The Red Sox have long been reported to be interested in the PadresAdrian Gonzalez, a great player on a ridiculous contract. Speculation increased when Jed Hoyer moved west to take the Padres GM job, the assumption being that his established relationship with Theo Epstein and his intimate knowledge of the Sox farm system would make the Sox a natural trading partner. In actuality, I think it makes the Sox less likely to get Gonzalez; Hoyer knows exactly what he would want in a deal like that, and the Sox seem unlikely to trade away the kind of package Hoyer would insist upon, and with Hoyer having such great knowledge of the Sox prospects, there’s no gap to exploit. So many trades happen because one team thinks more or less highly of some players than the other team does; that’s unlikely to be in play here. The Sox could trade for Adrian Gonzalez, perhaps building a deal around Clay Buchholz and Casey Kelly, but I just don’t think the fit will be there.

No, signing Lackey frees up not the inexpensive Buchholz for a deal, but the expensive Josh Beckett. Beckett makes $12 million in 2010 and is a free agent after the season. With Lackey now in the fold along with Lester and Buchholz, plus Matsuzaka’s contract in hand and Kelly on the way, it doesn’t seem like the Sox and Beckett are a good match. They’ll need to put their resources elsewhere rather than into a starting pitcher who might be their fourth-best come a year from now. The likelihood is that Beckett will leave as a free agent, especially if Halladay’s extension moves him up in the pecking order next winter.

The Sox have a asset whose perceived value, due to his postseason success and reputation as an ace, is higher than his actual value. In four AL seasons Beckett has an ERA of 4.05, and while you can attribute some of that to his competitive environment and some to defense-Beckett’s peripherals are consistently strong-the idea that he is an ace is overblown. Beckett has three 200-inning seasons in his career and three seasons with an ERA below 3.50; he’s done both those things in the same year once, 2007, which is also the only season in which he’s garnered Cy Young votes. He’ll be 31 years old in 2011. Is any of this sounding familiar? Beckett doesn’t look much like John Lackey, but their track records, right down to the Game Seven victories, are freakishly alike. The Lackey contract set the market for Beckett, and the Sox, already paying Matsuzaka and having more pitching than hitting at both the major- and minor-league levels, don’t need two guys like that.

No, the Lackey contract could well lead to the availability of Beckett, and if he’s not someone the Padres would want in a deal-a $12 million pitcher who’s a free agent at the end of the season is anathema to them-he is someone who could be attractive to a contender with money and a short time horizon. The Mets have been eating the Phillies‘ dust for some time; think they wouldn’t get involved here? The Dodgers need a starter to go with Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw. The Rangers have been admiring Beckett, a Texan, for years, and they have prospects coming out of their ears. There are all kinds of places to send Beckett and get good value for his services, and the Sox can take the hit; the gap between Beckett and what they’ll get from Tazawa, Bowden and a mid-season trade replacement is likely to be less than $12 million and the package they’ll be able to get for Beckett.

That’s not what really intrigues me. No, what I’m thinking is that we’ve already seen two big three-team trades in the last week, and the Red Sox signing of John Lackey creates a path to a third, where the Red Sox get Adrian Gonzalez in exchange for Beckett and prospects, and a third team takes Beckett and provides additional prospects to the Padres. This re-creates the information gap that doesn’t exist between the Sox and Padres by introducing a third organization. It allows the Sox to leverage their strength, starting pitching, to fix their weakness, which right now is the middle of the lineup. The third team will be getting what they’ll see as a number-one starter (probably a good number two) with postseason pedigree that they can sell to their fan base. Because Beckett doesn’t have the no-trade clause that Roy Halladay (and before him, Johan Santana) had, he doesn’t have to be extended as part of a trade, making dealing him easier. The Padres would get the kind of franchise restart that they didn’t get in the Jake Peavy deal, which is the only way they’re going to deal Gonzalez. It’s the kind of trade that can work for all the teams involved.

Signing John Lackey opens a door for the Red Sox, and Adrian Gonzalez is on the other side of it. We’ll see if they’re able to walk through.

I know you’re probably wondering about the Roy Halladay/Cliff Lee extravaganza. When we have the final deal, and the details about the Halladay contract extension, I’ll write it up, as will Christina. The details, however, are extremely important in evaluating the trade, and they’ve been unclear since the story broke. As I keep saying, I’m reluctant to do analysis of rumors that lack complete information, even as I see that become the dominant trend in baseball coverage. I’d rather be half a news cycle behind and do better work.