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With Jon Lester gone, what's next for Red Sox rotation?

The Red Sox rotation was going to be full of holes even with Lester. There is work to be done.

James Shields is an option, but he is also just one of many.
James Shields is an option, but he is also just one of many.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

You might not like how it ended, but the chase for Jon Lester is over, as he's signed with the Cubs for the next six years. Or hey, maybe you're happy the Red Sox didn't commit $155 million or whatever to him instead. Either way, the Red Sox still had work to do in their rotation even if they had brought Lester back, and his guaranteed absence only emphasizes that point. What's next for the Red Sox and their rotation, in this post-Lester offseason?

To get a sense for what has to come next, we first need to know what it is the Red Sox are working with on the pitching side. The season doesn't begin tomorrow, even if the more panic-stricken act as if it will, but let's pretend for a minute that it does and the Sox need a five-man rotation set with what they have. This is the 2015 rotation if the Sox somehow impossibly whiff on every trade proposal and free agent offer for the rest of the winter.

Note: they will not do so, and if you actually believe they will you might need a vacation or at least a day off or something.

  1. Clay Buchholz
  2. Joe Kelly
  3. Rubby De La Rosa
  4. Allen Webster
  5. Anthony Ranaudo

Maybe you want to sub in Brandon Workman for either Webster or Ranaudo, but honestly, don't bother. Rather than dwell on the nightmare scenario above, whose sole purpose is just to show you how desperately the Sox need starters, let's look at the blueprints for the ideal rotation.

  1. Number one starter
  2. Number two starter
  3. Number three starter
  4. Joe Kelly
  5. Clay Buchholz

Those blank spaces are more appealing than the ones with names attached. The Sox have some work to do.

The obvious next steps are to give James Shields' agents a call, and then dial the Phillies to see what Ruben Amaro is looking for in exchange for Cole Hamels and the five years, $110 million remaining on his deal. If Shields is willing to sign for four or five years at $20 million or so per, wonderful. If the Sox can get Hamels without giving up Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, or Blake Swihart, they should do it in an instant. Neither of these situations is guaranteed, and the second is especially unlikely, but they should be at least be explored in case Ruben Amaro is willing to play the long game and take back legitimate low-level pieces for his ace.

The Sox should call -- and already seem to be doing so -- on the Reds' Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos. The Reds are willing to move Cueto to clear payroll space, but he'll likely cost a lot in prospects, too, so Latos might end up being more Boston's speed. Latos at the top of the rotation is not like Lester at the top, but there are ways to make it work anyway.

That number one starter doesn't have to be an ace. If the Sox got two very strong twos up top, and added a legitimate mid-rotation piece to that other empty spot, then they actually have the makings of a very good rotation. With the lineup they've assembled -- please remember we're in a situation where Xander Bogaerts or Rusney Castillo is probably batting eighth and that the team has an actual third baseman now -- "very good" can look pretty great. Depth isn't an issue, either, as the Sox have legitimate starting pitching prospects Henry Owens and Eduardo Rodriguez at Triple-A, and a slew of dudes who can fake it long enough in April or May if necessary.

The thing that the Red Sox most need to do is to treat Buchholz like a fifth starter. If he has one of his great years, that's a tremendous bonus, especially if it comes in a rotation that was designed with thoughts of Buchholz's unpredictability and recent failures in mind. If he's awful, the Sox have legitimate options to look at in place of him, as 2015 is the final guaranteed year on his contract, and Boston is unlikely to pay $13 million in 2016 to someone who was terrible two years in a row when they don't have to.

There are plenty of rotation permutations that will allow the Red Sox to achieve this goal. Hamels, Shields, Cueto, Latos, or someone like the Nationals' Jordan Zimmermann could sit at the top of Boston's 2015 rotation. If they're willing to part with the dollars and kids, they could even grab two of them. Someone like free agent Brandon McCarthy, or trade targets like Ian Kennedy, Wade Miley, or Doug Fister could fit into that two spot comfortably when they get to play in front of Boston's high-quality infield defense. Kelly can do a decent impression of a mid-rotation arm if the Red Sox want to take a chance on a Masterson comeback season by reuniting him with former pitching coach John Farrell. Someone like Gavin Floyd could be a solid addition, since last year's elbow injury was a freak fracture, and not a ligament issue.

Filling out the rotation will also allow for an improved bullpen, and on the cheap. Rubby De La Rosa could be a decent back-end starter, but he also has the potential to be a lights-out setup man or closer. Anthony Ranaudo isn't cut out for starting as is given his command issues and lack of a third pitch, but these are not problems in the pen, where his fastball and curve combination could realistically dominate for an inning at a time. The Sox still need to find a useful lefty reliever somewhere, but whichever of De La Rosa, Ranaudo, and Allen Webster remain after trades should be converted to the pen full-time to boost things from the right side further. Joe Kelly might not sound appealing on his own, but five or six solid innings followed by Rubby, Edward Mujica, Junichi Tazawa, and Koji Uehara does.

Things look dire in the rotation as of this writing, but the Red Sox have options, and are in the process of sorting them out. That's what's next for the Red Sox in this post-Lester winter, so we all need to hold off on panicking for at least a few more weeks until they do.