The Red Sox entered the 2015 season without a clear ace. They had a pitcher with the capacity for the role, but a tough 2014 after an abnormal offseason made it difficult to assume that Clay Buchholz could be that guy for Boston. He showed flashes of his old self in the second half of last summer, though, and had his regular winter routine in place since he wasn't recovering from an arm injury any longer, so there was at least reason to believe he could be the leader Boston's five starters needed.
To this point, he has been, but you wouldn't know it by looking at his record. Buchholz has just three wins and six losses on the year, despite pitching about as well as he ever has. His ERA is 3.82, but that's misleading, as he had one disaster start where he allowed nine earned runs against the Yankees: in his other 10 starts combined, Buchholz has allowed just 20 runs. Cut the New York appearance out of things, and Buchholz has a 2.77 ERA while averaging 6-2/3 innings per start.
You can't actually just erase that start, but that's not what we're trying to do here. That loss was on Buchholz, clearly: what about his other starts, though? He's allowed three or fewer runs in eight of his 11 games. He's allowed two or fewer runs in seven of them. Two of Buchholz's losses are in games in which he allowed a single run: two of his three wins came in starts in which he shut out the opposition. This isn't just a thing that happens in Buchholz's starts, either: the Sox have the second-worst OPS+ in the American League, with the third-fewest runs scored per game. Since May, they have scored just 2.8 runs per game.
None of that is on Buchholz, though. He's been the ace the Red Sox needed all along, and at his current trajectory, that will be more apparent the further behind him that one awful start gets. As it is, he's striking out nearly four times as many batters as he's walking -- which would be a career best -- and has the loftiest strikeout rate of his career. He's keeping the ball in the park and on the ground -- FIP has him at 2.94 for a reason, you know. Buchholz would probably be even better if not for the defensive trouble behind him, which has resulted in a .319 batting average on balls in play, but even with that conspiring against him, he's still managed to shut down opponents almost entirely more often than not.
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And yet, there are still talks of acquiring someone expensive in both dollars and prospects like Cole Hamels before the July 31 trade deadline. Hamels is incredible, and he would pitch wonderfully for the Red Sox -- there is no doubt that this is the case. He would be worth whatever Boston had to send to the Phillies to acquire him in terms of his own performance. But if he's just going to end up losing games where he's only allowing two runs, as the Sox have done in Buchholz's starts, then what's the point of committing dollars and promising kids to him in the present?
This is not to say that the Red Sox should never acquire Hamels or someone like him. As of now, though, they aren't in a position to think that this would be the answer to their woes. Yes, bumping Joe Kelly from the rotation by acquiring Hamels would be helpful, as it would improve both the rotation and the bullpen, but again, if the lineup isn't scoring any runs, it barely matters who is on the mound.
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Should the Red Sox spend the next two months repairing their broken reputation at the plate, then Hamels is an appealing target at the July 31 trade deadline. He would give the Red Sox two forces at the top of the rotation, and would act as insurance for a staff leader should Buchholz suffer an injury, as has happened to him in the past. If the likes of David Ortiz and Mike Napoli just don't pick up the slack, though, and the performance of the youths like Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Blake Swihart aren't in a place where they can make up for the veterans' failings, then Hamels might make more sense as an offseason target than an expensive, in-season one, when a number of playoff hopefuls are in the mix.
Hamels would still need to be there in the winter, of course, and that clouds things considerably: do the Sox push to acquire him in July knowing that his real work lies ahead of him once 2016 kicks off, or hoping that they will perform better offensively in the season's final two months? Is it worth the risk of thinking the duo of Buchholz and Hamels would be enough to get the Sox to the postseason, even if the lineup remains mostly dormant?
It's difficult to answer these questions now, so the next two months are crucial. What we do know with the information 2015 has given us, though, is that the Red Sox are already wasting the ace they have. Until they figure out how to avoid doing that, Hamels as a cure-all is nothing more than a fantasy.