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Nowhere for Red Sox to put Cliff Lee

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Everyone seems to want Cliff Lee. But the Red Sox have nowhere to put him.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Cliff Lee last pitched in July of 2014. Elbow discomfort left him out for the rest of the year, with a torn tendon ending his 2015 season before it began. Now, with medical clearance, he's set to pitch again in 2016, and the Phillies paying his buyout means he's a free agent. Suddenly everyone's dreaming about the one-time ace being a surprise big-name acquisition for their team.

And by everyone, I mean pretty much everyone. Red Sox fans just got David Price? Well, they want Cliff Lee, and it's not hard to understand why. Even with David Price in the fold, the Red Sox rotation features:

  1. Clay Buchholz, who is a disaster when unhealthy, and has proven fragile to boot.
  2. Eduardo Rodriguez, who was impressive in his 2015 debut, but is still a sophomore with just 120 innings to his name.
  3. Rick Porcello, whose late-season surge was the only bright spot in a season that otherwise rivaled those of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval in terms of disappointment.
  4. Wade Miley who, while reasonably solid, was certainly also unspectacular.

If we're being completely honest, it's a group that could stand to be improved on. With Price in the mix, it's no longer a desperate need, but adding a #2/#3 type wouldn't hurt.

Here's the problem: who do you replace? The answer is obviously not Eduardo Rodriguez, because Eduardo Rodriguez is one of the best arms in that bunch at the moment. The answer is also obviously not Rick Porcello, because there's really no chance the Red Sox find a taker for his contract right now, and the chance of a bounce-back is too high to completely bail on the investment.

With another pitcher, the answer might be Wade Miley. Miley is fine as a back-end starter, but if the Red Sox were upgrading to a better arm, he's the easy one to push out. The problem is that Miley is also one of the more certain quantities in that rotation. He might not be great, but after David Price and maybe Eduardo Rodriguez (depending on how much you fear the sophomore slump), he's the guy who's going to go out there and be available week after week, and at least give the offense a chance to go out there and win the game.

Cliff Lee is not that. In the past, he was much better than that. But now, more than a year removed from his last start, at 37 years old, he is a risk. A big risk. There is every possibility that Cliff Lee will be ineffective, or effective for only a couple months before he hits the disabled list. And with the amount of uncertaintly they already have in their rotation, the Red Sox cannot afford to jettison one of their more reliable options for a question mark, lest they open themselves up to a 2011 situation.

For those who have followed the process of elimination here, that leaves us with basically one option: Clay Buchholz out, Cliff Lee in.

There's a certain contingency of Red Sox fans who drool at that possibility. Buchholz has proven unreliable due to health concerns, and given the frustrating nature of his now nine-year career and the fact that it's all come in Boston, many would be happy to be rid of him just to avoid the headache.

But for all that Buchholz is frustrating, he can also be quite good. If you want to give Cliff Lee credit for an underwhelming 2014 being the result of the injuries that eventually ended it, well, his last successful season was 2013, when he produced a 131 ERA+.

Clay Buchholz had a 132 ERA+ last year. No, he didn't go the distance, but you can hardly be confident in Lee doing so given his age and recent history.

Yes, the Red Sox could trade Clay Buchholz away and then sign Cliff Lee. It is an option available to them, and they could probably get a decent return. But they'd be making what amounts to a lateral move in terms of expected value, and giving up both Clay Buchholz' 2017 option, and the ability to make a qualified offer to him down the road. It's a lot of work to basically change the name of the risk. And while the name in question might be high-profile and come without Buchholz' frustrating history in this town, that doesn't actually make it better for 2016.