The sudden retirement -- if that's what it is, anyway -- of Ryan Dempster doesn't change the starting rotation one bit. Barring injury, the fifth spot was going to be Felix Doubront's, with Dempster an expensive long man waiting for his turn for spot starts or as an injury fill-in in the final year of his two-season pact with the Sox.
While the cost -- $13.25 million -- wasn't pleasing, the fact Dempster was already under contract made things a bit easier for Boston: they had a major-league caliber starting pitcher who could slot into the role as he was already signed, and there was nowhere else for him to go. Now that he's been placed on the restricted list and will miss 2014, though, effectively ending his time with the Red Sox, Boston has no such depth piece in place in the majors.
They don't lack for starting pitching depth, of course. Brandon Workman, Anthony Ranaudo, Allen Webster, and Matt Barnes will all likely be at Triple-A Pawtucket, in the rotation, awaiting the moment they're needed. Henry Owens isn't as close, but he's at Double-A again after dominating the level for six starts, and could be in Pawtucket before too much of 2014 goes by. Whether any of these arms are truly big-league ready to the degree a healthy Dempster would have been is a legitimate question, but the Sox at least have plenty of potential answers to work with.
As we've seen many times before, though, teams should attempt to acquire as much pitching depth as their rosters allow. There's still one rotation spot in Pawtucket unaccounted for even with all of those prospects, assuming the Sox are going ahead with plans to shift Rubby De La Rosa to relief. Considering a source has told Comcast Sportsnet's Sean McAdam the Sox are searching for a veteran starter to sign to a minor-league deal now that Dempster is gone, it's probably safe to assume, barring a six-man rotation, De La Rosa will indeed relieve.
That same source apparently told McAdam that there is no deal close to being finished for said veteran starter, leaving things open entirely to speculation as to who it could be. There is a very short list of big-league arms left who might deign to sign a minor-league deal in the hopes of getting a more significant opportunity, so sussing out who the Sox could sign isn't difficult.
The Red Sox have had interest in Capuano in the past: back in 2011, when Boston's playoff chances grew slimmer by the September day, they attempted to acquire him from the Mets before he became a free agent. He's coming off of a tough 2013 in which he posted an 84 ERA+ and made just 20 starts for the Dodgers, but has had enough success in his career to be an average starter all told. His recent issues could push him to a minor-league deal -- the fact he's still a free agent as of the start of spring training is at least evidence of this possibility -- and there is room to project a quality season out of him, should an opportunity arise at the major-league level.
Capuano throws plenty of strikes, and has punched out over three times as many batters as he's walked since returning to the majors in 2010. He's homer prone, and the fact he's struggled against righties in his career won't work well in Fenway, but there's still enough to like here for Capuano to be a solid depth piece. Getting him to sign a contract might be difficult, as Capuano could very well wait for someone else's major-league starter to get hurt and then just take their spot, but if he's willing to sign in order to get into camp and get back to baseball, a minor-league deal could happen.
Garland returned to the majors in 2013 after missing a large chunk of 2011 and all of 2012 recovering from shoulder surgery. While he was awful last year, he can be forgiven for that, thanks to the combination of rust and Coors Field: pitching for the Rockies is not the greatest setup for a comeback. Until shoulder surgery interrupted his career, Garland was a consistent, back-end arm who could log 200 innings or so with ease, and did so with ERA+ around the league average. From 2006 through 2010, Garland tossed 1,020 innings and posted a 104 ERA+, pitching in the varied environments of US Cellular, Chase Field, Petco, and both Dodgers and Angels Stadium.
There is no guarantee Garland would be able to return to his old, useful form, but coming off of major shoulder surgery and a disastrous Rockies' stint, he's likely amenable to a minor-league deal that helps him work his way back to a more permanent big-league stay. The AL East might not be perfect for him, given his homer tendencies that crop up in spite of his grounder-centric style, but he's not a bad option as far as potential big-league arms a team can stash in the minors.
Santana is unlikely to sign with the Red Sox, but he does qualify as a starter who could ink a minor-league deal, at least to start. The Mets bought out Santana's option season on his six-year, $137 million contract, making him a free agent while he attempts to return from left shoulder surgery that cost him the entire 2013 campaign. If Santana is healthy -- and that's one of the largest "ifs" of the 2014 season -- he can be a productive big-league arm. He's still just 35 even if it seems like he's been hurt for longer than that, and while he looked a bit rusty and susceptible to homers in 2012, he was inducing swings and misses and keeping walks to a minimum. There is at least potential here for Santana to continue to be productive, but he needs to be in one piece.
Given that, Santana seems more likely to sign on with a club who does not have a full rotation, or, at least, has more question marks than Boston. It's not impossible he joins up in a crowded Boston scene -- Jose Mijares, Rich Hill, and others have already done the same with the defending champion Sox -- but it's still Johan Santana, so expecting as much is setting yourself up to be disappointed.
Saunders was terrible for the Mariners in 2013, posting a 5.26 ERA despite a pitcher-friendly home park and division, but he's not that far removed from his typical league-average work. Sure, Saunders isn't exciting, but finding someone who is, who is also willing to head to Rhode Island instead of Boston come April, is going to be difficult, if not impossible: those pitchers might get better opportunities elsewhere. Saunders might be a little boring, in that he's an arm who relies on his tendency to induce low batting averages on balls in play, getting opponents to ground into double plays, and keeping walks to an acceptable minimum in order to succeed, but in a pinch, if it keeps the prospects in Pawtucket where they could still need to be come in-season rotation injury time, someone like that would do.
Jeff Karstens, should he be far enough along in recovery from labrum surgery to merit a look. Jeff Niemann, in the exact same situation as the previous Jeff. Then there's Dalier Hinojasa, whom the Red Sox have already signed -- the Cuban-born pitcher is expected to be a starter during the spring, so the Sox might just end up keeping him that way at Pawtucket now that Dempster has departed.