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Taking a look at the second-tier of free agent starting pitchers

While most of the focus has been on who will be Boston's next ace, here are some names who could fill out the middle of the rotation.

Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason is still very young (and hasn’t even started for a couple teams), but there is already a clear talking point that will likely dominate the entire winter. Who is going to top the rotation next year? Will the Phillies come down in their demands for Cole Hamels enough for the Red Sox to pony up? Will Boston be willing to shell out the commitment it will take to land Jon Lester or Max Scherzer? Is James Shields good enough to be comfortable with him being the major move made this offseason? All of these are important questions, and will be speculated on ad nauseam for the coming months. However, the front office also needs to find out how to fill in the rest of the rotation. This is a roster that lost not only Lester, but also John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront since July 1. There is more work to be done than finding a number one pitcher, and luckily there are a few mid-rotation guys who will be available and affordable on the free agent market.

Brandon McCarthy

After landing in Oakland in 2011 and turning himself over to sabermetric ideas, McCarthy totally turned around his career. He turned himself into an All-Star caliber pitcher in his two years there, posting a 120 ERA+. He’s come back down to Earth since then, though he is still a very useful pitcher. He’s settled in as an unspectacular league-average pitcher who limits his walks and keeps the ball on the ground. His home runs did see a spike in 2014, but one should keep in mind that he was pitching in the home run-friendly parks in New York and Arizona. While Fenway has an unfair reputation as hitter-friendly, it is actually below-average for home run hitters. It should be noted, though, that the other AL East parks do present some problems for home run-prone pitchers. One thing that McCarthy does not do, however, is strike out a lot of batters, meaning he relies on a good defense behind him. Assuming the Red Sox can get a good defensive third baseman (both Chase Headley and Pablo Sandoval would fit that mold), they should be solid support behind him, making McCarthy a good number three pitcher.

Photo Credit: John Sommers II

Francisco Liriano

Here is the most intriguing possibility on the free agent market, in my opinion. We all know that Lester, Scherzer and Shields should be outstanding, and McCarthy is who he is at this point. Liriano, though, possesses the type of upside that could make whatever contract he signs a steal. On the other hand, he has enough potential to bust that any contract he signs could be a borderline disaster. Injuries have always been a problem for the soon-to-be 31-year-old, as he’s made 30 starts just once, and has never thrown 200 innings. When he’s on the mound, though, he can be very good, slotting in as a potential number two pitcher. In his last two years in Pittsburgh, he finally starting limiting his walks which led him to 111 ERA+ in 323-1/3 innings. Strikeouts have never been an issue for the southpaw, setting down more than a batter an inning in each of the last three years. The Pirates have gained a reputation of saving pitchers careers, but it’s unclear if Liriano can keep up that success in a new city. If the price is reasonable, it’s a risk well worth taking for the Red Sox.

Justin Masterson

This is a name that I expect to hear a lot of this winter, if for no other reason than his former connection to the team. Ben Cherington would love a good buy-low candidate, and that is exactly what Masterson represents. He’s coming off a disaster of a season, and should be had for a very minimal deal because of it. With that being said, is it even worth the time hoping he’ll bounce back? There are plenty of reasons to be worried about his future, and there’s enough risk where it may not be worth it no matter how reasonable the money is. Consider his atrocious 5.88 ERA (63 ERA+) this past season, and the fact that he has had more below-average seasons as a full-time starter than above-average.* He showed some serious flashes in 2013 and 2011, but those years have been surrounded by disappointments. At some point, you stop looking at potential and start looking at track record, and Masterson may have passed that point. He’s an option to fill out the rotation, but shouldn’t be a top one.

*We are using ERA+ as a barometer of average in this case.

Ervin Santana

Santana is another player whose career fascinates me. He’s had so many ups and downs, and in the end its come to form an almost perfectly average player. From what I hear about him from the general public, it feels as if public perception of the right-hander is still swayed by his abysmal 2012 season with the Angels. He’s been much better since then, though, especially in 2013 with Kansas City. In the last two years, with the Royals and Braves, he’s thrown 407 innings and put up a 3.58 ERA (108 ERA+) with a K/BB ratio just a shade under three. In other words, he’s a perfect fit for the middle of the rotation. As he’s about to turn 32-years-old and is not an elite pitcher, he could be had for a very reasonable contract, too. The biggest issue with Santana in his career has been home runs, and that could potentially be an issue with a return to the American League. If the Red Sox did sign him, they’d have to expect an increase in home runs over his career-low last season. On the other hand, he allowed his highest batting average on balls in play since 2007, so the decrease there should offset the slight home run increase, making him an attractive target.

Hiroki Kuroda

This one may be wishful thinking, but he is a free agent who has made a living off being a solid mid-rotation piece. Though he’s approaching 40-years-old, he’s continued to put up respectable numbers, posting a 104 ERA+ last season with peripherals that match his career norms. He’d also be available on a one-year deal, which would be great for a team still trying to figure out what they have in their minor-league pitching. Unfortunately, all signs point towards him either returning to Japan, New York or the west coast. If Boston could sign him, he’d just towards the head of this list, but it appears to be unlikely at this point.

There are plenty of options to fill out the rotation after the Red Sox acquire their top one or two pitchers this offseason. The market for pitching in free agency can get out of control quickly, and any of these pitchers could see a sudden spike in interest that would eliminate Boston from the bidding war. However, at least one of these pitchers should fit the team’s needs nicely. Without knowing how their markets will play out exactly, I’d prefer to see one of Liriano, Santana or McCarthy, in that order, with Masterson far behind them. There are obviously many different ways this offseason can go, but signing one of these guys to fill the middle of the rotation leaves them room to take care of their priorities. The big money and trade chips will likely be spent on finding an ace and a third baseman, but these are the types of mid-tier free agents who could make or break the offseason.