The 2015 free agent class was supposed to be one of the best in history for pitching. Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, and Felix Hernandez were all slated to hit the market at the same time, and in doing so, break the bank and the budgets of three teams in the process. The things they say about best-laid plans applies here, however, as all the teams waiting for them to hit the market are going to have to wait a whole lot longer. First, Hernandez signed a seven-year, $175 million contract, and on Friday, Verlander inked an extension that could keep him in Detroit for another eight years at a cost of $202 million.
That leave Kershaw, but he's currently the property of the Dodgers, the team that just might have more money -- or, at least, more willingness to spend their money -- than any other in baseball. If Kershaw one-upped Verlander's deal by going nine years at $220 million tomorrow, people would just accept that as the natural follow-up, kind of like Verlander's deal is for Felix's. If this happens, whether it's tomorrow or a year from now, that cleans out that 2015 market before it could ever form as anything other than a dream in wealthy teams' minds.
The Red Sox are one of the teams that could have afforded one of these hurlers. Whether they would spend the money or not is unknown -- given the direction of the current front office, it's probably safe to say they wouldn't, though -- but the opportunity won't even be there. Think of this as a reminder of how important it is that the Red Sox currently have three young, highly regarded pitchers in their possession.
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Matt Barnes was selected in the 2011 draft, and finished the 2012 season, his first in pro ball, as a 22-year-old at High-A. He's likely coming up in 2014 at the very earliest -- he has to prove he belongs in the high minors, first. Allen Webster wasn't drafted by Boston, but was acquired in the Punto trade with the Dodgers. While Barnes is generally regarded as the better prospect, it's because Webster has had issues with his command over the years. He has major-league stuff -- not potential major-league stuff, actualized major-league stuff -- and needs to work on commanding it. Boston already seems to be getting him to that point, and if they can pencil him in for work as soon as this season because of it , that's huge for both now and the future.
Then there is Rubby De La Rosa, also brought over from the Dodgers. While not a prospect thanks to a brief stint in the majors in 2011, he's just 24 years old, and, if he qualified, would still be a top-100 prospect like the other two. De La Rosa might end up a reliever, but he has a chance to be a quality big-league starter, and has already had success in his limited time in that capacity.
Add them all up, and you have three starters combining for 17 seasons of team control. That's 17 player seasons that the Red Sox don't need to pay Verlander or Felix prices for, and while none of the three are expected to be those guys or replicate their production, there is also a trickle down effect to contracts like theirs. When you raise the ceiling for pitcher contracts -- and Verlander's is the richest ever for a pitcher -- you bring up the middle guys, too. That's how you get Anibal Sanchez making $80 million over five years for being a little better than average, or Edwin Jackson signing a long-term deal (finally), or Kyle Lohse receiving a qualifying offer because eventually, someone was going to bite.
If Barnes, De La Rosa, and Webster can all become rotation members on future Boston teams, they don't have to worry so much about those kinds of pitchers or contracts. They'll still have Clay Buchholz a few more years yet, and Felix Doubront could turn into someone who sticks in the rotation for the rest of his five seasons of team control as well. If one of them turns into Boston's next ace, then even better for them, given what the market for someone who actually is an ace seems to be these days.
The holes they eventually need to fill don't exist yet, but in a couple years time, they will: John Lackey's deal, not counting his option, ends after 2014, Ryan Dempster is only in town for two years, and Jon Lester might very well be on the list of super-rich, front-line starting pitcher free agents in two seasons' time. These arms -- as well as other promising pitchers in the Boston system -- have time to figure themselves out, giving the Red Sox time to sort out their future as well.
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