That the 2015 Red Sox have one of the worst starting rotations in baseball is little secret. Heading into Wednesday, the club's starters had posted a 4.82 ERA, with only the Phillies and Rockies performing worse this season.
There are plenty of indications, from the rotation's far more average FIP of 4.06 to a staff-wide batting average on balls in play of .311, that some of these struggles are due to poor fortune. Still, the results have been consistently bad, and they come off the back of an offseason in which the quality of Boston's rotation came under severe scrutiny.
Indeed, much of last offseason was spent waiting for Ben Cherington to add an ace to a starting staff otherwise filled with question marks. Given the club's woeful pitching and poor overall performance in 2015, the prevailing notion is that the Red Sox will correct their failings of last winter and add an ace to lead the rotation.
One can bet, in other words, on another offseason of frenzied ace watch in which Boston is linked to just about every top starter imaginable.
Yet what if the Red Sox fail to acquire an ace this offseason? What if the price for a frontline hurler again proves too costly for Cherington, and Boston enters 2016 without that dominant starter everyone expects the team to obtain?
Considering all the good pitchers entering free agency this winter, most observers haven't even considered such a possibility. With the likes of Jonny Cueto, David Price, Jordan Zimmerman, and (probably) Zack Greinke hitting the open market, Cherington should have plenty of options to mull over. This doesn't include anyone available on the trade market, with Boston's strong farm system serving as another potential avenue through which it could add a starter.
Given this landscape, a second straight offseason in which Cherington opts not to acquire a frontline pitcher would surely be met with incredulity and the brandishing of pitchforks.
That doesn't mean the Red Sox are guaranteed to land a big fish in free agency or via trade, however. After all, many of the same things were said last winter when Boston never made that long-expected deal for Cole Hamels.
Sorry, "Texas Rangers' ace" Cole Hamels. (Photo credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)
What other choices do the Red Sox have, then, if they don't make a significant upgrade to the rotation?
The club does have more in-house options to turn to this time around. The emergence of Eduardo Rodriguez has given them a young, cost-controlled starter with plenty of talent. Both Henry Owens and Brian Johnson look ready for extended opportunities in the big leagues, and even Steven Wright has shown the ability to succeed in the majors as a back-end arm, or at least as depth. Add in the likes of Clay Buchholz, Wade Miley and Rick Porcello (remember that contract), and that's at least six starters Boston must figure out how to juggle already.
For this reason, perhaps Cherington decides to go a different route and strengthen other areas of the team, rather than committing over $200 million to a free-agent starter. The Yankees and Royals have both demonstrated how dominant bullpens can help paper over middling rotations this season. Maybe the Red Sox trade from their prospect stash to add a dominant reliever or two and also pursue someone like Tyler Clippard in free agency.
Considering how poorly Boston has pitched in 2015, an inability to obtain a big-name starter will lead to heavy criticism and be branded as an utter failure. But the Red Sox have shown a reluctance to commit big money to pitchers in their thirties, which is exactly how old this offseason's top free agents are. And Cherington (along with most GMs around the league) hasn't shown any willingness to deal away a big package of prospects for a starter either.
Seen from this perspective, it might be a bit foolish to expect the Red Sox to fork over the money that someone like Cueto or Price will command.
And even with an ace, Boston will also need to solve its defensive issues. There's no denying that both Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval have hindered the rotation's performance in 2015, and Cherington will need to find a solution for where those two veterans will play next season.
All this talk of an ace, from Hamels to this winter's free-agent class, papers over the reality that the Red Sox need to improve in a number of areas. Their defense has been a massive disappointment, and the bullpen's outlook doesn't look much better.
As a result, seeing Cherington pursue a less costly number two or mid-rotation starter this offseason shouldn't necessarily come as a surprise. Adding a few dependable, high-end relievers, while bringing in someone like potential health risk Scott Kazmir, or reuniting with the 37-year-old John Lackey, wouldn't stir up as much excitement among Red Sox fans, though it could prove to be a more shrewd strategy than handing $200 million to an aging starter.
Such an approach would only hurt Cherington's approval rating among Red Sox fans, but there's a chance it helps make Boston a better team in 2016 and beyond.