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How the Red Sox rotation can survive a pitching trade

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The Red Sox might trade a pitcher, but if the rotation has depth, it needs just about all of it. If the Sox trade one of their top-five starters, another shoe has to drop.

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Over the weekend, rumors of a Red Sox pitching trade have gone from a little smoke to something just short of a raging fire. Miley, Buchholz, and Kelly, oh my! And there's no surprise that the Sox have suddenly become a prime target for those shopping for starting pitchers given just how many of them the Sox seem to have lined up between the majors and the minors.

I've already spent enough time talking about why this might not be the best idea for Boston. About how adding David Price gave their rotation a huge boost, but still left a lot of question marks to fill out the rest. So I'll try and avoid just nay-saying the idea and instead head in a slightly different direction.

Say the Red Sox do make a trade. Particularly one involving one of Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly, or Wade Miley. Let's focus not on whether or not the Sox should trade any given one of those players, but instead on how any of those trades could actually lead to an improved Red Sox team, rather than just one with one fewer pitcher.

1. Clay Buchholz

So the Red Sox trade Clay Buchholz. Why do they trade Clay Buchholz? Because he's unreliable. That's always been the key with the now nine-year veteran. One day he's amazing, the next he's hurt, the next he's terrible.

It all averages out, though, to a good pitcher. Clay Buchholz brings the average quality of the rotation up against what his replacement would do if the Red Sox were to stay in-house. All the Red Sox can be hoping for, then, is reliability, and...well, they're not going to get that either. Henry Owens, Brian Johnson, and Joe Kelly could all be good. Or they could all be terrible. They are as uncertain as Buchholz himself, which is no small feat.

If the Red Sox trade Buchholz, then, they're probably not done when it comes to the rotation. It's possible they just see his value as being at a high point right now, with his contract reasonable, a team option in hand, and a lot of teams apparently on the hunt for pitching that doesn't cost quite so much. If they either convert their return from the Buchholz trade or just some prospect bundle into a more reliable pitcher, even if that pitcher isn't quite as good as Buchholz at his best, that's a plan with a clear goal in mind: improve consistency, even if it's at the cost of some quality.

It should be said, though, that the Red Sox could just trade Buchholz and slot one of their three backups (Kelly, Owens, Johnson) into the rotation in his place. It would be surprising, and probably not a great idea, but on some level it is a like-for-like substitution, just with less payoff. Presumably in this case they'd have gotten quite a bit in return for him, as it's hard to imagine the Sox being willing to downgrade their rotation otherwise.

2. Joe Kelly

This one is fairly straightforward, and doesn't need much explanation. As it stands, Joe Kelly is on the outside of the rotation looking in. The Red Sox are clearly intrigued by his late-season performancec in 2015, but he still had a bad year overall, and can be stashed away in Triple-A if need be.

If Kelly's name is coming up in trade talks, though, the Red Sox are certainly going to listen and hope that someone out there values him highly. They would probably be happy to turn this potential headache into, say, the bullpen help they seem to be looking for, and they do have other lines of defense in Henry Owens and Brian Johnson. There's no overwhelming need to trade him, but also no real need to follow up on a Joe Kelly deal. It can stand alone.

That being said--and I'm actually kind of surprised to see myself say this--if the Red Sox can find another way to get what Kelly would bring back, they should probably avoid this deal. Simply because removing Kelly does not lead to improving the top five spots in the rotation. If he's not presumed to be taking one up, the Sox cannot in turn offer his spot to anyone better. Kelly is the only one of this trio who, in being traded, would not allow the Sox to do anything to actually make up for the loss. And while he's one of three lines of defense in the minor league, with this many question marks, the Sox should be in the business of taking all the lottery tickets they can get rather than sending them away for luxuries, Joe Kelly included.

3. Wade Miley

Where Buchholz is unreliably great, Miley is reliably okay. He'll hold down the fort at the back end of the rotation, maybe even be a little bit better, but you're not likely to get great things--or terrible things--from him. He will be neither David Price, nor Allen Webster.

And at risk of parroting myself for the hundredth time, the Red Sox need that right now. They really, really do. Of the seven other pitchers ostensibly on the starting pitching depth chart, David Price is the only one who can really be relied on. Clay Buchholz gets hurt, Rick Porcello was a dumpster fire last year, Eduardo Rodriguez, Henry Owens, and Brian Johnson are all inexperienced, and Joe Kelly is...well, he's Joe Kelly.

So if they trade Wade Miley, how do they make all that work? How do they go into the season without relying on winning more than 50% of their coin flips just to avoid a 2011 Weiland-style disaster? Presumably by going out and getting a better Wade Miley. The fact is that of the Red Sox' four rotation slots behind David Price, Miley's is the easiest to upgrade. Rick Porcello is stuck due to his contract. Clay Buchholz is high-quality, if unreliable. And Eduardo Rodriguez is one more year like 2015 removed from being pretty much exactly what the Red Sox want, so he's not going anywhere.

Wade Miley, though? He's an innings eater. That's valuable. He's...fine. Above average, even, depending on what stats you choose to look at. But even above average can be improved upon. There are good workhorses out there. And if the plan for the Red Sox is to trade Wade Miley knowing they've got a Wade Miley improvement lined up, then it's easy to see why they'd entertain the thought.

Just so long as they have that plan, be it for Miley or Buchholz. For all that Boston has depth to trade from, so much of that depth is so uncertain that they can't really afford to deprive their rotation of too much of it. They can change how that depth is structured, what qualities it emphasizes, etc. But they can't deal away one of the more productive or reliable arms and expect it to take that hit without any added help.