As the winter meetings get underway in San Diego, pitching is the clear priority for the Red Sox. For many fans, that means one thing, and one thing only: sign Jon Lester.
But the Red Sox need more than just one pitcher, and when it comes to who that second (and perhaps even third) arm should be, there seems to be no consensus. In fact, there seem to be few positive opinions of any kind when it comes to the subject. While the Sox have been connected at one time or another to plenty of arms scattered throughout the league, the reaction to all but a few of the more pipe dream scenarios has been pretty negative. Red Sox fans don't seem to know who they want--at least not within the realm of reason--so much as who they don't.
At this point, it seems time for a gentle reminder: three of the 2014 Red Sox' last five games were started by Allen Webster, Anthony Ranaudo, and Steven Wright. That list contains exactly zero pitchers the Red Sox should be comfortable having in their rotation.
I'm not claiming that the options that have been made available to the Red Sox are fantastic. Ian Kennedy is the name currently in the news, and he certainly has his flaws. As a slightly wild fly ball pitcher, he seems an imperfect match for Fenway Park, and his American League history is far from impressive. It's perfectly legitimate to voice these concerns, and if the Red Sox come away from the offseason with just an Ian Kennedy to show for their troubles in the rotation, then it's safe to say they've failed. No question about that.
The problem comes when we as fans start labeling these pitchers as a "number three" or "number four" arm and turning up our noses at acquiring them at all as a result. When we look at our current roster, see Joe Kelly and Clay Buchholz, and say "nope, there's no room for Ian Kennedy here."
It doesn't matter how you judge Buchholz and Kelly. Right now the Red Sox don't have a third and fourth, or fourth and fifth starter. Right now in Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly, the Red Sox have a first and second starter. They also have third, fourth, and fifth starters in, if the end of 2014 is any indication, Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster, and Anthony Ranaudo. That they are woefully below the league average for those roles doesn't make it any less true.
This is why the idea of dividing these pitchers into tiers and making decisions based on that is just not terribly helpful. If the best pitcher on the team next year is a "number two," the second best a three, and the rest an assortment of fourth and fifth starters, then yes, Boston's rotation is going to be weak. That doesn't mean the Red Sox were wrong to acquire that number three starter, either, since the alternative is another number five, or number six, or number seven. When the specter of Webster and Ranaudo loom large, Red Sox fans just don't have the luxury of turning up their noses at decent rotation options.
This is not to say that every potential acquisition should be welcomed with open arms. If the Red Sox are going to pay Shields money to pick up Brett Anderson, some outcry is in order. If they're trading away all their best young players for the privilege of paying Cole Hamels quite a bit of money, there are reasons to be concerned that are not at all related to the quality of the rotation.
When it comes to signing mid-level free agents for mid-level money, or trading away Yoenis Cespedes, who is the most obviously on his way out player in perhaps the whole league, to pick up an average arm, us beggars really can't be choosers. Or, well, we shouldn't be. Trading for Ian Kennedy or Rick Porcello or any of the other half-dozen decent pitchers that the Red Sox could reasonably get in return for Cespedes will improve this team, full stop. And pretending we're too good for that after giving Allen Webster 11 starts goes beyond arrogance into the realm of delusion.
As much as the Red Sox need someone like Jon Lester to get their pitching corps up to snuff, it might be even more important just to push the dregs out of the back end of the rotation without having to rely on Triple-A starters like Henry Owens in the process. Maybe they find some way to do that with a player like Mat Latos, Hisashi Iwakuma, or Johnny Cueto. But there's a reason Red Sox fans want those players, and it's for that same reason that their teams won't exactly be eager to send them to Boston. More likely, though, it's going to come down to slotting a third starter into the second slot in the rotation--the sort of solution which feels unsatisfactory right up until you see Allen Webster starting in Triple-A and remember that there but for the grace of Ian Kennedy go the Red Sox.