The Red Sox need pitching. Of that there's now doubt. After a year of garbage from top-to-bottom, the Red Sox rotation is in need of a serious overhaul. The front office has admitted as much.
The only question is: how do you go about it?
The Sox are always at a disadvantage when trying to acquire pitchers in free agency. Their park, after all, is the perfect place for pitchers to see their statistics die. From the wall in left, to the cheapo homers around Pesky's Pole, and the great cavernous gulf that can make even ground balls in that direction into triples, there's not a lot of reason for starters to come to want to come to Fenway if they've got their eyes on the hall of fame or another big payday down the line.
But things are worse this offseason because even for a team without any quality in the rotation, they've got too many starters.
Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Felix Doubront. Not a one of them coming off a season that can really be considered acceptable for anything beyond a back-end starter on a first division team, not a one of them really the sort that can simply be dumped.
For Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, it's a matter of past results. Obviously neither one of them is going to be dropped by the team given what they did even just in 2011 (though 2010 is certainly a much better year for both). If it weren't for these last two games, we might even have been completely comfortable calling Buchholz a #2 starter given how impressive his recovery was after the beginning of the season. Unfortunately, though, a 4.56 ERA and eight runs in under two innings against the Yankees does not breed confidence.
For Felix Doubront it's a matter of potential and price. Still well shy of arbitration, Doubront showed enough promise early in the year and even in these last couple weeks that his middle-of-the-year meltdown can be overlooked if not ignored. The thing is, just like the Sox are gambling on a return to form from Buchholz and Lester, they'd have to gamble that Doubront's struggles were fatigue-related, and that this season will have helped him adjust enough that he can get past that hump in 2013.
As for Lackey, it's all about the money. A $16 million dollar man is not going to be simply released, especially with Tommy John Surgery offering its bizarre brand of hope--both that 2011 was an injury-caused aberration, and that it will have worked its magic on him as it has on a number of other pitchers in recent years.
The thing is that leaves one open spot, and even in a best case scenario where the Sox get, say, Jake Peavy (contract details aside), the rotation still looks like a giant gamble. That would be fine if there was plentiful depth, but heading into the offseason Chris Hernandez and Zach Stewart represent the best the Sox have to offer in that direction (keep in mind, Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa have not pitched in Triple-A). We saw what the options were in terms of finding sixth and seventh starters in free agency last year. Aaron Cook simply isn't going to cut it.
So how do you get around this issue? Presumably you have to take some of those four risks and turn them into more solid options, or simply remove them from the initial rotation, selling free agents on an open rotation spot.
The only one who could really be an option for that first route is Felix Doubront. He's young, cheap, and interesting. There are plenty of teams out there who don't expect to really contend in 2013 who could trade a soon-to-be FA for him. It's not exactly what you want to see out of the Sox, trading a homegrown player like that, but it might be necessary.
As for the other option, either Doubront or Lackey could be the odd man out there. Doubront can be stashed in the bullpen for a while (though that has its own dangers) while the Sox wait to see who works out and who doesn't--a risky option such as he is would look a lot better as depth than as part of the starting five. Lackey is a bit harder to hide away, on the other hand, but he's the one they could deprive of a rotation spot given how awful he's been in his time here.
Then there's the other option, and it's the one I hate to mention almost as much as I hate to endorse it: the six-man rotation.
Oh it's an awful thing to talk about. It can and has caused so many problems throughout the years. But the hope here would be that by going into it with the intent to keep it temporary--only lasting until someone is clearly in crash-and-burn mode--the Sox could make it work. It would open up that extra room the team needs in the rotation to entice free agent pitchers to come to Boston, and allow the gambles to pan out as they will without crippling Boston's chances with some bad luck.
One major problem with the Red Sox' situation heading into 2013 is that they've got lots of short-term money and only so many roster spots to spend it on. Some of that can be offset by the presence of these gambles--players who can pan out big to max out the utility in one spot more than just a heap of average free agent starters could. The problem is fixing things after one or two fail to come through. And while the Sox can easily stash away bullpen depth in the minor leagues, the same is not true for starters. Opening up that sixth rotation spot, even if just for a few weeks, could keep the Sox from having to turn to the likes of Aaron Cook and Zach Stewart.