As the winter drags on, Red Sox fans may find that their patience is running thin. After the second straight season which saw the Sox finish out of the playoffs, the front office hasn't done much to actually improve on last year's team.
Certainly, there has been activity. Ben Cherington has impressed with his ability to fill out a bullpen losing at least one key member without spending too much in either prospects or payroll, and as much as the situation in right field isn't exciting, the idea of platooning Ryan Sweeney and, say, Mike Aviles isn't all that unattractive on paper.
That being said, all this is mostly patchwork, fixing the holes that opened up as the offseason progressed. Meanwhile, the one glaring hole from 2011 remains: starting pitching. To be sure, the Sox have signed their fair share of starters since October, but none of them are the sort who deserve a guaranteed position in the starting lineup.
To me, there seem to be three tiers of pitchers available to the Red Sox:
1) The Silvas -- Reclamation projects and minor league depth who could get themselves fixed up and provide value if everything goes right for them and wrong for the team. Less an Andrew Miller than a Kevin Millwood. Carlos Silva, Aaron Cook,and likely Vicente Padilla fit into this category.
2) The Saunders -- Back-end starters who will need a major league deal and can typically be counted on for average results. These are your Joe Saunders, Jon Garlands, and Jeff Francis (Franci?) of the world.
3) The Kurodas -- The top tier free agents who could actually add a serious punch to the rotation, but at the cost of an 8-digit contract. Hiroki Kuroda and Edwin Jackson are the prime candidates, but Roy Oswalt also falls here despite the more serious concerns about his health.
For the past few months, we've mostly been clambering for a Kuroda, and lamenting the signing of so many Silvas. Now, for what it's worth, there's no reason to complain about signing depth pitchers until Ben Cherington decides that he's got enough mediocre options that he doesn't need an average-good one, but I can see where the concern is coming from. Meanwhile, a good few of us have been dreading the day when we announce the signing of a Saunders, expecting that it will mean just that to our new GM, and that the Kurodas will be off the table.
But should we really be so worried about the Saunders, or can we get by without a Kuroda?
On the one hand, we are talking about a team that, right now, is fundamentally the same as last year's. Papelbon is out, Bailey is in--not quite a wash, but probably not too much of a loss. Melancon for Bard also grades out fairly evenly, while Bard will have done more than anyone not named Buchholz, Beckett, Lester, and Bedard did last year if he can provide even a little value in the rotation. The lineup, meanwhile, should stay the same but for the aforementioned change in right field. So with the team having missed out by all of one game, why are we all so dead set on the need for a big addition?
A big part of it has to be regression, and a bias towards the negative side of it. If we poll the site, I have a feeling that more readers would expect Beckett and Ellsbury regress towards their old selves than would expect to see Carl Crawford put up 5 WAR or Kevin Youkilis look like he did in 2010.
Another issue lies in the idea that any pitcher who fell into that Saunders category elsewhere faces a tall task in maintaining that level of production in Fenway Park going up against the AL East. We've seen plenty of good pitchers flounder in these cozy confines of ours, and when you've only got three starters locked in, finding someone who isn't going to explode on entry is kind of a priority. It's why I'm pretty worried about Saunders, for instance.
Ideally the Sox would be able to shoot for the middle ground: a guy who can come into Fenway, not break the bank, and put up a 4.25 ERA--someone between the Saunders and the Kuroda. Frankly, I think that's what Paul Maholm was, but what's done is done, and those options seem to have gone by the wayside.
So can we live with only a Saunders? I'm tempted to say yes, and mostly because of depth. Last year the Sox had Kevin Millwood, Andrew Miller, Tim Wakefield and Kyle Weiland as their backup options. This year there's Carlos Silva, Aaron Cook, and (possibly) Vicente Padilla to go with Alex Wilson. On the whole, I think that's a crop of players more likely to be able to hold down the fort in emergencies, if not with quite the same upside as Miller perhaps had. This is an offense which can pull through mediocre starts so long as they're not the nightmares Lackey so often provided us with last year.
All of this, of course, is to forget Bard, who has the highest upside of all of them, and is something of a fresh look on the mound--neither proven nor unproven, unless you choose to focus on the different pitcher he was five years ago.
As Marc has so often pointed out to me in our conversations on the subject, the Red Sox were all of one win away last year, and they had two-and-a-half starters then too. Add to that the curiosities of scheduling and do away with some of the streakiness of the offense, and there's reason to think we may not even be in need of that one extra win of value next year.
This isn't an endorsement of any pitcher in particular--much less Saunders--because the consideration of how they'll perform in Fenway against the Yankees et al. could make a Saunders seem like a Silva, and the Sox certainly aren't looking to replace Andrew Miller with someone who's going to pitch about as well as Andrew Miller. But if they can find a pitcher who can produce that 4.50 ERA, then it's probably enough to get the job done--especially with the Yankees facing even more regression concerns than us, and the Rays having holes of their own to fill.
Of course, a Kuroda would be a fantastic addition, and one that would make the fanbase as a whole feel a lot better about things. But for now, I'd caution you all from stepping off the ledge if one doesn't come, because last year we were dealing with Silvas for nearly half of our starts. Even just cutting back on that could be all it takes.