The Red Sox will be in the market for one top-tier pitcher in free agency, but not two according to Rob Bradford, who says the Red Sox will not be completely revamping their rotation in the open market.
It's easy to see where the speculation would come from. As of this moment, Boston's rotation in 2015 looks something like Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly, and...well, a handful of question marks. Rubby De La Rosa is the most likely of their myriad young arms to get a spot in the rotation, but it's hard to imagine the Red Sox trying to sell a team featuring Brandon Workman, Anthony Ranaudo, Allen Webster or any of the various untested starters as even the fifth man.
That leaves the Red Sox needing two pitchers, and given the unreliable nature of Clay Buchholz, it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect that they'd be looking for two front-line pitchers, leaving Buchholz as more of a high-upside number three.
It also makes sense given that the Red Sox have a lot of money and relatively few spots to fill in the field. Barring trades, the Sox have locks in Dustin Pedroia, Mike Napoli, David Ortiz, Yoenis Cespedes, and Rusney Castillo. Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts can both be assigned to the minors, but it's fairly hard to imagine either one starting the year in Pawtucket. That leaves just a catcher to play alongside Christian Vazquez, whether as a starter, back-up, or something in between, and presumably some attempt to answer third base, where Will Middlebrooks is only the starter by default at this point and Brock Holt's steady decline has left him looking more like a super-sub. There's the bullpen to think about, sure, but if the Red Sox are reluctant to spend on a starter, I can't imagine they're getting in the big-name reliever market at eight digits or more.
And how much do the Red Sox have to spend to fill those spots? Well, at the moment, they're on the line for around $100 million in average annual value for 2015. Factoring in the various non-roster expenses, that should give them somewhere around $75-80 million before hitting their presumed soft cap of the Collective Bargaining Tax threshold.
And y'know what? That makes it pretty hard to justify not going after two top arms if they're not planning to get complex and move around a bunch of pieces to spend their money elsewhere.
Bradford says that the reason the Red Sox would not want to go after two top-of-the-line pitchers is because they have so many options in the minors. And that's true. But if the Red Sox enter the season with a payroll of, say, $140-150 million and have Joe Kelly and Clay Buchholz as two of their three most reliable starters, they will have missed the point of developing all these players in the first place.
The advantage of having cheap players is not because you're aiming to win the most while spending the least, but because it enables you to fill holes with all that money saved on other positions. Joe Kelly and Clay Buchholz are the cheap arms in the rotation. You can even reserve a fifth spot to cycle through the other various arms in an attempt to find one that sticks. But having a rotation of one new acquisition, one oft-injured arm, an upside guy like Kelly coming off a down year, and two unproven prospect-types is a problem that money is supposed to fix, not an opportunity to ensure even greater financial flexibility.
In fact, if ever there's been a time for the Red Sox to spend, it's now. They have two long-term commitments in Rusney Castillo and Dustin Pedroia who really only add up to one large contract between the two of them. Meanwhile they've got players filtering into the majors who, however many of them stick, will be under team control for basically the length of these long-term pitching contracts we're talking about. Eventually they will become more expensive under arbitration, and the Red Sox will want to extend some of them, but so long as top talents require six-year deals, there aren't going to be more perfect opportunities to align them with their cheap prospects.
It's way too early to be crying cheap. The 2015 season doesn't start for seven months, after all, and more than any other year we really have no idea what the roster will look like come April given all their redundant pieces, money, and trade possibilities. Still, the Red Sox have a clear need in the rotation for high-quality pitching. One which doesn't seem to be reflected by what Bradford is hearing. They've done nothing wrong yet, but it's concerning news all the same.