The coming winter is going to be one of the busiest and most fascinating offseasons in recent memory. Dave Dombrowski has a lot to fix on this roster, and has a history of being very aggressive with his former rosters. Of course, one of the most important tasks for the new President of Baseball Operations is to rebuild a rotation that has been one of — if not the — worst rotations in all baseball. What makes this such an interesting thing to watch moving forward is there are so many different options here. He can chase that elusive ace, whether that means spending huge money in free agency or dealing multiple top prospects in a trade. He could go after one or two of the second-tier names out there. He could just throw his hands up and do nothing!
Apparently, Dombrowski is considering one of his options to be declining to pick up Clay Buchholz’s $13 million team option for 2016. This is one decision that should not be made; it would be very dumb.
To start, we all know that Buchholz is far from a perfect pitcher. There are a few extremely notable flaws in his game. For one, he has been remarkably inconsistent. While he’s looked like a legitimate ace at times, he’s also looked like someone who should be out of the game altogether at other times. That kind of inconsistency can be beyond frustrating. It’s not just his performance that’s inconsistent, either. The biggest issue with Buchholz has, of course, been his health. He’s currently on the shelf with a right elbow injury, making this the ninth straight season in which he won’t make 30 starts. He’s thrown more than 110 innings just three times in his career. Obviously, it’s really hard to rely on a pitcher that struggles so much to stay on the field.
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With that being said, this is a rotation that needs an enormous amount of help, and when he’s healthy, Buchholz is far and away the best pitcher on the staff. In fact, when he’s on, he’s one of the better pitchers in the entire American League. Look no further than his numbers before he was hurt this season. He pitched to a 3.26 ERA, the 28th best mark among all pitchers in MLB with at least 110 innings this season. His 2.65 FIP was even more impressive, better than all but five pitchers from that same group.
Earlier in the year, the team at Baseball Prospectus put together a couple of new pitching statistics — DRA and cFIP — that do a better a job of describing and predicting pitcher performance. Buchholz does well on these leaderboards as well. To wit, his 74 DRA- (DRA adjusted to league-average) is tied for 15th among the same group for above, and his 80 cFIP (on the same type of scare as ERA-, FIP- and DRA-) is 10th. Looking at all the numbers, it’s fair to say that he wasn’t just one of the best AL pitchers in the game before he got hurt this year. He was one of the better arms in all of baseball.
It wasn’t just last year, either. He had the same type of season back in 2013, except he might have been a little better! Buchholz threw 108 innings in that season, with a 1.74 ERA, 2.78 FIP, a 65 DRA- and an 88 cFIP. Before going down in June (he would eventually come back for the stretch run and the championship playoff run), he was probably the Cy Young favorite in the American League. Of course, he struggled in 2014, but some of that was due to not being fully healthy that year.
On top of those outstanding numbers, his option is relatively cheap, especially in this era of baseball where free agent contracts are becoming more and more bloated. The $13 million that you would spend on his option could not buy anything close to that kind of talent in today’s free agency. It will probably buy you more certainty, especially on the health side of things, but all pitchers carry some significant injury risk and the talent-level will be much lower. Paying that minimal price isn’t going to prevent a team with Boston’s financial power from doing anything else it needs to do to fix the roster. There’s enough young and cheap talent on the roster that money shouldn’t be a big issue here.
With Buchholz in tow, the Red Sox should have at least 3/5 of the rotation already in-house. They’d have him, Rick Porcello and Eduardo Rodriguez. Porcello has clearly not had the season we expected, but they’ve committed too much to him to give up so quickly. He’ll be here in 2016. Rodriguez has impressed in his rookie year even if it’s been far from perfect, and has separated himself from the other young arms. Wade Miley is also around for next year, but in my mind he’s a trade candidate. Between his low ceiling and affordable extension, he’s a good combination of being moveable and not a good fit for this rotation.
In addition to these names, they have guys to cover an injury if/when it happens to Buchholz. With guys like Henry Owens, Brian Johnson, Steven Wright and even Joe Kelly in the organization, there is plenty of depth. Even if a couple of them are likely to be dealt at some point, there should be a few left over and a couple more depth pieces added this winter. Buchholz, Porcello, Rodriguez, two new acquisitions and some solid depth should be a group that can be worked with.
Even if the Red Sox want to go in a different direction, Buchholz’s option should be picked up. What his relatively cheap option does is….well it gives them options. Like Miley’s extension last year, this is not a prohibitive cost. If Dombrowski feels the best chance at a competitive rotation in 2016 doesn’t include Buchholz, he can be traded this winter. Most teams in the league will be able to afford that $13 million strategy, and the upside should be appealing to at least a few clubs. His injury history will preclude him from bringing back a major piece, but at the very least he should be able to bring back a piece to help the beleaguered bullpen. That would clearly be preferable to letting him walk for nothing.
Looking at all the different angles, it really doesn't make sense for Dombrowski to let Buchholz walk at the end of the year. The only way that would make sense is if there’s something abnormal with his elbow injury, something that we have no reason to believe is true at this point. If I were running the team, he would have a rotation slot in 2016. Even if they don’t want to commit to that, though, they should be able to trade him for something that can help another area of the roster. What they can’t do is just let him leave for nothing.