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Breaking Down The Starting Pitcher Market: The Top Starters

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The Red Sox could use some pitching help, but should they give up a draft pick to get it?

Alex Trautwig - Getty Images

The Red Sox lineup might not need a ton of tweaking for 2013: getting back a healthy David Ortiz and Will Middlebrooks could likely do more for the offense than any of the available free agents.* The rotation, on the other hand... well, that's in need of a makeover. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz should both be better than they were, Felix Doubront has a year of experience under his belt, and even John Lackey should help out, as he's already roughly a year removed from Tommy John. But that's just four arms, and if Lester can't return to his pre-2012 form, then not a one is a top-of-the-rotation hurler. There might not be one of those guys on the market, either, but Boston could possibly add another two to complete the rotation.

*Well, besides Josh Hamilton. But we're going to pretend he's not an option for sanity's sake.

The free agent market is going to be a bit different this time around, though, thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement. The Elias Rankings for players are gone, as is offering arbitration in order to receive compensation picks. Instead, clubs give their departing players qualifying offers to entice them to stay, and also to qualify the team for compensation should the player in question leave for another. Qualifying offers are the average of the top 125 salaries in baseball, a figure that comes out to roughly $13.3 million.

The difference between this and the arbitration system used previously is that players are not guaranteed to merit compensation. Players don't need to be ranked by someone -- i.e., Elias -- giving them the standing that allows them to be worth compensation. The decision is made entirely by the club who had the player under contract. This keeps relievers from being worth compensation -- except for in the most extreme of cases -- but also allows someone like, say, the Tigers, to make Anibal Sanchez the equivalent of a Type A free agent in years past, simply by extending a qualifying offer to him.

Why do this? It will do one of two things: scare off potential buyers because of the high-priced one-year commitment, or allow the team to secure a compensation pick for a player of their choice.

There probably won't be many cases like Sanchez (in fact, Sanchez himself can't receive a qualifying offer, since he was acquired mid-season), but the key is that there could be, should teams want to. The Red Sox, thanks to finishing with one of the nine-worst records (the Pirates maintain a top 10 pick due to their failure to sign Mark Appel in the 2012 draft), will only have to give up their second-round pick rather than a first if they sign a player who has received a qualifying offer. With that in mind, who is out there that might be worth sacrificing their second-round pick for? We'll look at the starting pitchers who might receive qualifying offers from their clubs in the coming weeks.

Zack Greinke: Greinke made $13.5 million in each of the last two seasons, so if the Angels don't re-sign him immediately, he's very likely to receive the qualifying offer prior to a more formal, long-term contract. The Angels are also intent on signing Greinke, so he might not be as available as his free agency suggests -- it's no secret Los Angeles plans to decline the options of both Dan Haren and Ervin Santana in order to give them the money to talk bug money with Greinke.

The Red Sox have never shown interest in Greinke, and neither have the Yankees. And while you certainly don't want to play armchair psychologist about the reasoning behind that, it's hard not to notice that large market teams don't tend to get involved in Greinke discussions. (And no, the Angels do not qualify in the same large-market breath just because they put Los Angeles in their name.) Aside from any of that, Greinke is easily the top arm available this winter, and because of that, is unlikely to interest the Red Sox for the same reason Josh Hamilton is a no-go. Too much money, too many years, and Boston just got out from under a whole lot of that -- they probably won't put themselves right back there with different players so soon after that.

Jake Peavy: Peavy will have his $22 million option declined by the White Sox, making him a free agent. The White Sox will then likely send him a qualifying offer, because Peavy, while not worth $22 million, is still worth that $13 million or so. Of course, if Peavy accepted after the declining of his option, the White Sox would have saved just $5 million -- the buyout is a whopping $4 million -- but hey, $5 million saved is $5 million to spend elsewhere.

What separates Peavy from Greinke? Peavy is more of an injury risk, and over the last few years, has much less overall success. He's the perfect candidate for a money-heavy one-year deal, or possibly a two-year contract with some incentives or an option built in. He has averaged just 146 innings per year since his first full season in Chicago in 2010, and owns a 106 ERA+ in that time, but 2012 was a reminder of what Peavy is when he's right: 219 innings, a 129 ERA+ and 3.37 ERA despite a homer-friendly park, and four times as many punch outs as free passes. If Boston can get Peavy for a year or two, using their immense financial space to limit the length of the deal, then he could be worth sacrificing a second-round pick for. There is certainly risk, but the upside is as great -- if not greater -- than anyone in Boston's current rotation.

Shaun Marcum: Marcum is not guaranteed to receive a qualifying offer, but given he'll be just 31 in 2013, has averaged 173 innings per year over the last three, has previous success in the American League East, and a career ERA+ of 112, the Brewers have nothing to lose by giving it to him. It's very likely someone will approach Marcum with a contract that will have a lower average annual value than the $13.3 million of the qualifying offer, but will still feature more guaranteed dollars. Marcum would likely take that. Now, whether that contract is of the two-, three-, or four-year variety is something to be seen, though, the first two are more likely given he spent 71 days on the DL due to elbow tightness in 2012.

With Marcum, it's all about price. Because of the injury concerns -- more recent than Peavy's -- he's a bit more borderline in terms of being worth sacrificing a draft pick for, even a second-round selection. If the Brewers do not give him a qualifying offer, then Boston should look into him. Otherwise, it's probably best to look elsewhere.

Hiroki Kuroda: There are two negatives to giving up a pick for Kuroda. The first is that he'll likely only be in town for a year, as he'll be 38, and one-year deals seem to be his M.O. The second is that the Yankees would receive a bonus draft pick in the sandwich round, courtesy of the Red Sox. Other than that, though, it's hard to complain about an arm that Red Sox fans wanted this time a year ago. If anything, there are fewer questions now, as Kuroda succeeded in a tough AL East, with a 3.3 K/BB and 219 innings.

Boston's rotation would have looked far different had Kuroda been in it. It wouldn't have been enough to save the season, but it would have meant a whole lot less of Daisuke Matsuzaka and Aaron Cook. He remains appealing for that reason, and since bolstering the rotation with someone who will be there for every start is a priority, he's worth the sacrificial draft pick. Kuroda has averaged 206 innings per year over the last three seasons, and owns a 120 ERA+ in that stretch. Jon Lester can match the innings, Clay Buchholz the ERA+, but no Red Sox hurler on the roster has achieved both of those concurrent with Kuroda.

Edwin Jackson: Jackson seemed like an easy pitcher to give up a draft pick for, but that was before his end of season struggles. Jackson ended up with a 98 ERA+ with the Nationals, and had his lowest inning total since 2008. His 6.54 ERA in September marred an otherwise fine campaign, and kept Jackson from approaching 200 innings. Boston should be interested in him if the Nationals do not submit a qualifying offer, but if they do, then they should look elsewhere for starting help. There are others who can produce at the same level or close to Jackson, and they won't cost the Red Sox a draft pick.

Ryan Dempster: It's hard to judge Dempster too much for his Texas stint, where he posted a 5.09 ERA in 12 starts and 69 innings. Reason One: Dempster struck out over a batter per inning while posting a 2.8 K/BB. Reason Two: homers were the primary issue, and homers for a Texas pitcher are just something that happens. However, Dempster did give up half of the 10 Rangers' homers while on the road, so the homer rates aren't that far apart. It makes you wonder if Dempster is a better fit for the NL, where he can get away with more, and gets to face the opposing pitcher. That being said, it was all of 69 innings in the AL -- his only 69 innings in the AL -- so it's hard to say for sure based on this.

It does make you wonder if he's worth the draft pick, especially since over the last three years, Dempster has been just a little better than average, not the elite-looking starter he appeared to be in 16 starts with the Cubs. If the Rangers don't give him the qualifying offer, then Dempster can be on Boston's radar. With the offer, though? Pass. [Edit: Dempster was traded, so the Rangers can't give him a qualifying offer. Don't worry, by this time next year, the new CBA will be totally drilled in to my head, instead of just 75 percent of the way.]