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Rick Porcello extension is a risk the Red Sox can afford

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The Red Sox finally spent money on a pitcher in a deal that makes all kinds of sense for both sides.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Rick Porcello extension seemed to come out of nowhere. The two sides had discussed a deal previously, but it seemed as if it made more sense for the Red Sox to wait and see what they had in Porcello before committing to him long-term, while for Porcello another strong season could make him significantly richer as a free agent. No animosity, just business sense.

What we ended up with instead is a compromise, where the Red Sox pay Porcello the kind of money per year he would have received should his 2015 look like his 2014, but only had to pay for four years of it instead of the six or seven Porcello could have received. This is a deal with a very good chance of working out splendidly for both sides, and while there are risks, the upside was too obvious for each to ignore.

The main question with Porcello heading into 2015 was whether he would be able to replicate his career-best 2014. It mostly came down to whether you believed Porcello was the reason his numbers had been mediocre before, or if it was the Tigers' awful infield defenses that kept the groundballing right-hander from breaking out. It's pretty clear what side the Red Sox come down on, given they guaranteed Porcello $82.5 million over four years, but it's also easy to see why they would take that side. Porcello's 2014 ERA got the attention because it finally looked like he was a well above-average arm, but his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) suggests that 2013 was as good of a campaign, and that 2012 was actually the start of Porcello's emergence as that kind of arm.

Now, FIP can sometimes be leaned on too heavily, but you have to separate Porcello from his defense in order to see who he is. Before 2014, the Tigers had Miguel Cabrera at third base and Prince Fielder at first -- these are two of the worst defenders in baseball at those positions. When Fielder was traded to the Rangers and that move brought back one of the top defenders in the game at second while also allowing Cabrera to move to first base where he's a much better fit, everything changed for Porcello. He produced a similar FIP to his 2013, his ERA finally came close to matching up with it, and he was able to surpass 200 innings for the first time in his career since his hard work inducing grounders was actually paying off.

porcello
Photo credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

In short, the Sox are convinced Porcello is already a guy who can slot in as the number two in a good pitching staff, especially in front of Boston's superior infield defense. They are convinced that 2015 would only provide further evidence of this, and that it would serve to raise Porcello's price. So, rather than sit around and wait for Porcello's price to go up, possibly to a place Boston was uncomfortable climbing to, the Red Sox negotiated a deal that, from an average annual value perspective, is very player-friendly. From a years perspective, it's favorable to the Red Sox: Porcello is in his peak now, with his best years ahead of him, and they'll be done paying him guaranteed cash when he's heading into his age-31 season. That's young enough for Porcello to sign an even richer deal if he's still going strong, but also just old enough for the Sox to let someone else be the one to offer it.

If the pricing seems a little odd or aggressive, that's in part because it is, but also because Porcello is an oddity. He's 26 years old, and would have been a free agent at 27: quality free agents in general are a rarity at 27, never mind pitchers with his potential. As we've discussed before, Porcello is younger than that prospect you keep dreaming on, and he's already accomplished more than they ever might. Since he's still so young, though, the chances are very good that his best is yet to come. It's why the Red Sox chose to avoid signing James Shields, who is heading in the opposite direction, because the potential of Porcello is something they just don't have at hand.

If the pricing seems a little odd or aggressive, that's in part because it is, but also because Porcello is an oddity

The Sox might be paying a little extra on the average annual value side simply to keep Porcello from testing the market, and to guarantee they wouldn't be left without one of the big ticket pitching items of the offseason as they were this past winter. It might be a little more per year than some expected Porcello to get, but it's far less overall than what Johnny Cueto, David Price, Jordan Zimmermann, and maybe even Mat Latos will receive as free agents come this November. No, Porcello isn't Cueto or Price or Zimmermann, but he also isn't being paid to be those guys, and as Boston's pursuit of Lester suggests, the Sox have no interest in spending that kind of money on a starter. Hitters, hitters, hitters, and a Porcello where they can seems to be the plan. It's worked for this long, hasn't it?

Now, the Red Sox have Clay Buchholz for 2015 and another two seasons if they choose to pick up his options. They have Wade Miley for up to four seasons thanks to his extension and option, and Porcello for five. Just two rotation spots need to be filled by pitching prospects over the next couple of years if you assume that's not Joe Kelly's job to keep, and since the Red Sox have two in the upper minors with a good chance of being more than back-end arms, two spots seems like the proper number. They only have to go the free agent starter route if Henry Owens or Eduardo Rodriguez busts or someone suffers a catastrophic injury, and they'll have the financial room to do so even after extending Porcello.

Boston has $113 million in payroll commitments for 2016, which sounds more significant than it is. The Sox will lose Shane Victorino to free agency, but Boston preemptively filled that when they signed Rusney Castillo last August. It will cost money to pick up the options of David Ortiz and Clay Buchholz, but the max payout on Ortiz is around $16 million, and Buchholz accounts for just $13 million. Junichi Tazawa's raise through arbitration won't be huge unless he becomes Boston's closer this summer, and while Joe Kelly will see a bump in his first year of arb, it won't be massive unless he wasn't kidding when he said he's going to win the Cy Young.

You're talking about something like $160-165 million in payroll for the 40-man roster after accounting for Porcello's raise to over $20 million per year, leaving room under the $189 million luxury tax threshold even after you add in the $10 million in yearly medical costs and such that also apply to that total. That's room to re-sign Mike Napoli if the Red Sox want to, and that might not cost as much as you think since bringing Napoli back would likely signal the end of Allen Craig's Boston tenure, which accounts for $6.2 million for tax purposes. It's room to sign Mookie Betts or Xander Bogaerts or both to extensions that buy out their arbitration years and more right now should the Sox want to. It's room enough to do just about anything the Sox want or need to do for 2016 and beyond, and that's the primary concern when it comes to spending lots of money on a single player.

There is a risk that Porcello isn't who he showed himself to be in 2014, but that's about the only one the Red Sox are contending with by extending him early. They have plenty of space left under the luxury tax to make additional moves if necessary, should the rotation prove to need more than just a couple of prospects plugging holes. They get to avoid wading in the deep but expensive waters of this upcoming offseason's free agent class, and if Porcello turns out to be exactly what the Sox envision him to be, his deal manages to both be a steal for the Red Sox while also setting the youthful Porcello up for future riches.

It's a deal that should work for both sides, which helps explain why they were both so eager to make it happen.