It's hard to find a Red Sox fan who's entirely happy with the rotation, and even harder to find one who doesn't think they'll need some kind of help come the trade deadline. With so many question marks involved, even a positive outcome for Boston will likely leave one spot open to be filled by either minor leaguers, or a mid-season acquisition. And however strong the Pawtucket rotation may be, if the Sox are in need of a top-tier arm, there's no replacement for the trade market.
There's obviously a lot of baseball to be played between now and the trade deadline, and there's no way to be sure who's going to be on the market when July rolls around. But let's look at some of the more realistic in-season options that might be available for the Red Sox whether they wind up needing an ace, or just another back-end arm to eat some innings.
We may as well start with the obvious one. The team's connection to Cole Hamels has been as persistent as any trade saga in recent memory. The Phillies have, for whatever reason, clearly keyed in on Boston as their best trade partner, and while the Red Sox have not proven willing to move either of their top pieces in Blake Swihart or Mookie Betts for the Philadelphia ace, the Phillies haven't given up the hunt.
The hope for the Phillies is that, a few months from now, the Red Sox will find themselves in a situation where they're that much more desperate for starting pitching. It's strange how taking a few months off a contract can actually increase its market value when those months are April, May, and June.
For the Red Sox, they'll hope that the market will still not be willing to meet the Phillies' asking price, and Ruben Amaro Jr. will be willing to capitulate as his threat of holding out on a Hamels deal loses more and more punch with each offseason that passes.
Obviously if a deal were to get done Hamels would be a huge addition to any Red Sox rotation, no matter how many of their gambles pay off. It's just a matter of finding the right price point which, right now, seems damn near impossible.
Cincinnati has been holding out hope that maybe, just maybe they can extend Johnny Cueto before he hits free agency. But once Opening Day has come and gone, a rebuilding Reds team will likely be forced to move their ace at the deadline.
Cueto seems a more realistic target for the Sox than Hamels, since it's the extra years on Hamels' contract that are driving the price so high. Still, Cueto will not come cheap. He hasn't produced an ERA over 3.00 since 2012, and there will be no shortage of suitors for him at the deadline, as he's the obvious ace target headed into free agency after the 2015 season.
If the Red Sox like the look of their longer-term options--Miley, Buchholz, Kelly, or their various minor league arms--but still need a top arm at the front of the rotation for the tail end of 2015, there's really not much reason for them to target Hamels over Cueto. There should be a pretty obvious gap in their market values given the difference in the lengths of their contracts, allowing the Red Sox to get the push they need for the end of the season while keeping hold of top prospects like Swihart.
Let's get this out of the way: the Nationals are going to be good in 2015. Really, really good. We're not talking about buying a few useless months of a free agent to be off a team that's fallen out of contention.
Still, the Nationals have one of the most ridiculous rotations the game has seen in recent memory, leaving Doug Fister the fourth man in line. And the Red Sox have quite a bit of depth in their lineup. Shane Victorino, for instance, is very likely to start the year on the bench, to say nothing of the Daniel Nava/Allen Craig situation.
Fister's story is strange, and filled with seemingly lopsided trades sending one of the league's better pitchers to parts unknown for peanuts. But we're not necessarily relying on that trend continuing here. It's not hard to imagine a scenario where the Red Sox have a very good player in the midst of a strong season sharing playing time in that crowded outfield of theirs (or even at first base) while the Nationals find themselves in need of another bat. If this sort of scenario comes to pass, Fister could present them with the ideal opportunity to trade surplus for surplus, making both teams that much better.
The Solid Second-Tier
Don't like Cole Hamels' price point? Can the Phillies perhaps interest you in a (heavily) used Cliff Lee?
Lee will have to establish his health before being considered a good option come July, and his age should keep him from matching up with the likes of Johnny Cueto in terms of price. But if there's an arm who could give the Red Sox ace-quality innings for a sub-ace price, it's Cliff Lee.
One big caveat: Lee does come with an incredibly expensive vesting option for 2016 should he throw 200 innings in 2015. If the Sox have plans to make big moves in next year's free agent market, they might be hesitant to bring Lee on board given how easily he could throw a wrench in said plans. On the other hand, if they expect to have money left to spend, honestly a $27.5 million one-year deal for a pitcher of Lee's quality could be right up their alley, even if he'll be 37 years old. Depending on those plans, Lee could swing from being the ideal pickup to an untouchable risk.
Photo Credit: Hunter Martin
Photo Credit: Hunter Martin
The White Sox traded for Jeff Samardzija just two months ago, but heading into 2015 they're certainly not a lock to contend. It's entirely possible that by the time July rolls around Chicago will be looking to get any value back from the artist occasionally known as Shark before he hits free agency in the offseason.
Samardzija was tied to the Red Sox often enough this offseason that we've established he'd be a pretty good addition to Boston's rotation. If the likes of Cueto are taking the spotlight and the Red Sox just need a solid #2-3 for their rotation rather than an absolute savior, Samardzija could be a good high-quality, under-the-radar target for Ben Cherington come July.
Also I learned to spell his name, and it'd really be a shame to let that effort go to waste.
The Mets might be headed in the right direction, but they're probably still not that likely to contend.
Yoan Moncada appears to be in playing shape
The long layoff after leaving Cuba doesn't seem to have hurt his training at all.
Jon Niese isn't part of the problem, exactly. He's not as impressive as his last three years of ERA would suggest given the environment he plays in, but at the very least he's a solid back-end arm who can be relief on to keep his team in games. Given that he's under contract for 2016 with team options for two more years, the Mets aren't exactly under the gun to get value out of him, however.
Still, the Mets have some really good young arms in that rotation, to the point where Niese is not exactly a key piece for their future. Filling up the back-end of their rotation with guys like Niese isn't likely to be ideal for the Red Sox with Wade Miley and Joe Kelly under contract and so many minor leaguers fighting for a spot, but if they do find themselves in need of a boost in 2015 who can also provide help in the long run, they could do quite a bit worse than Niese.
Like the White Sox with Samardzija, the Rangers didn't exactly trade for Yovani Gallardo in hopes of falling out of contention and trading him away in July. But they're going to need some big bounce-backs from some very disappointing players to really stand a chance.
Gallardo's star has fallen some since the early days in Milwaukee, as he's changed in recent years from a top strikeout arm to something more run-of-the-mill. But he's been a reliable option year-in and year-out, with even an outlier 2013 being less bad than simply mediocre.
With just one year left until free agency and the Rangers' payroll crowded with big names delivering small results, Gallardo is perhaps the most realistic target on the list for a Red Sox team just looking to solidify their starting five, rather than revolutionize it.
A brief AL East stint with the Orioles in 2013 didn't quite go as planned, but after a decent year with a terrible Astros team in 2014, Scott Feldman has largely put the specter of an unlucky 2012 season behind him. Now with three solid years in four attempts, it's hard to deny that Feldman can cut it on a major league mound, however much that may surprise Rangers fans who saw him struggle so much in his early years with the team.
Of all the options, Feldman is certainly the least exciting. He's not the player the Red Sox will target if they go into July with a bad rotation that's been entirely bailed out by the lineup, but the one to add if the Sox are happy with four out of five spots and just need to avoid the Kyle Weiland situation they found themselves in in 2011. Or perhaps as a second target after adding one of the names in the first two tiers.
The Astros aren't completely incentivized to move him, mind, given that he's under contract for another year at just $10 million. But even if 70-92 looks like a miracle in the wake of three seasons with over 100 losses, the Astros are still not in a position to really be aiming for contention anytime soon. Count Feldman as a target the Sox could pick up fairly cheap, then flip elsewhere in 2016 without much hassle. He's the guy you'll forget was even here, which is a lot better than, well, Kyle Weiland, who you remember for all the wrong reasons.