When the trade deadline passed and the Red Sox had made no major moves, they effectively committed themselves to a big offseason. Under the current ownership, at least, this is not a franchise that is ever looking to enter "rebuilding" mode. The closest they came to that was in 2013, and we all know what happened then. When seasons go bad, as they have these past two years, the expectation is that the next year will be different—that the front office will do what it has to in order to put a competitor on the field.
For 2016, that's going to mean some pretty significant improvements. One of which is kind of a holdover from last year. The Red Sox need rotation help, and not in the same way they needed it last offseason. Headed into 2015, they had only Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly lined up. For 2016, for better or worse, the Red Sox do likely have at least four of five starting spots filled. Clay Buchholz will be back up front, and Wade Miley has done well enough to earn a spot in back. Like it or not, Rick Porcello will also be back, with the Red Sox obviously unwilling to give up on him this early. Add in Eduardo Rodriguez, and that's four men before we even touch on the likes of Brian Johnson, Henry Owens, and Steven Wright.
The upshot of this is that the Red Sox are not looking for quantity, but quality. As bad as things got this season in terms of pitching, the Red Sox have actually managed to find a handful of acceptable starting pitchers to go with the one they have to hope will join that group next year in Porcello. Adding a trio of starters like the Sox did last year would just leave them with a bigger logjam with guys like Owens and Johnson jockeying for position with offseason acquisitions.
No, any starting pitcher the Red Sox acquire this offseason needs to be the sort whose place in the rotation is unquestioned. I hesitate to use the term "ace", loaded as it is, but it's more or less what we're talking about here. The Red Sox could have a fine ace-free rotation featuring five no. three starters, but that's an awfully sketchy strategy to attempt to pull off when that rotation includes players like Rick Porcello (post-2015), Wade Miley, and a player with less than a year of major league experience. Porcello might bounce back, Miley might rise above the year he's having in 2015 (which has him looking like a serviceable fourth or fifth starter, just not a number two or three type), and Eduardo Rodriguez could even be that "ace" in a perfect world, but all three being above-average is quite the stretch.
So if the Red Sox are accepting and expecting certain low points in the rotation, they need high points to compensate. Ideally, Clay Buchholz would provide one of those high points, but...he's finishing another season with a long stint on the disabled list, and that tends to lead to disaster in the following year. If it's pessimistic to call his 2016 doomed, it's optimistic to believe it will be as good as his 2015 or 2013 seasons were when he was healthy.
Given all that, yes, the Red Sox need a big acquisition. And frankly, with all the uncertainty involved in their rotation, a guy like Carlos Carrasco or Tyson Ross doesn't cut in on their own. They're fine additions if the Red Sox are looking to pick up two starters, but not as the sole addition.
Looking ahead to the free agent market, there are players that fit the bill, certainly. Guys like David Price and Jordan Zimmermann would be strong acquisitions. But I'd like to make the case that this is not the way the Red Sox should be acquiring the front-line starter they need. After all, when dealing with the best-of-the-best, you also wind up siging players at or approaching the wrong side of 30 to the sort of super-massive deals that can cripple a franchise. If fans are sweating four years of Rick Porcello and Pablo Sandoval right now, they've forgotten the hopelessness of seven years of Carl Crawford.
This is not to say the Red Sox shouldn't be expecting to pay a lot of money over many years to whatever front-line pitcher they acquire, only that they should try and make sure those years are the ones they want to pay for. That's the sort of thing they can do if they were to go out and trade for a young, established starter entering arbitration, say, and offer him the same seven-year deal—if slightly cheaper given the arbitration years—they would offer a price or Zimmermann. Commiting $25 million a year to a player becomes a lot less painful when those last years come at age 32 or 33 rather than 37.
The tradeoff of course comes in the value of the prospects surrendered in trade, but there's never been a better time for the Red Sox to be moving talent and turning quantity into quality. By some accounts they have the best farm system in the game even after graduating the likes of Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Blake Swihart, and Eduardo Rodriguez. It's been a year of the rich getting richer with Yoan Moncada looking like a star-in-waiting, Manuel Margot making his mark on top prospect lists, Javier Guerra and Anderson Espinoza breaking out at the lower levels, and Andrew Benintendi coming in via the draft. The Sox will even have a high draft pick this coming year to work with.
The name thrown around most often of late seems to be Sonny Gray, and it would take an exceptional package for the Red Sox to pry him away from Oakland, but it's a package the Red Sox can afford. Even if they were to center a trade around the trio of Rafael Devers, Manuel Margot, and one of Brian Johnson and Henry Owens, they'd have an abundance of exceptional young talent in the majors to go with a top prospect in Yoan Moncada, a strong starting pitcher in the other of Johnson and Owens, and plenty of talent in the lower levels in Espinoza, Guerra, and Benintendi. They would be left with an ace, a healthy-if-diminished farm system, and little chance for a new despair-inducing contracts.
If we consider when the Red Sox have had the most success in free agency, it's been when looking for the right mid-level acquisition. These are the Napolis, Victorinos, and yes, Stephen Drews of the world (at least in 2013—let's just forget about his 2014 return). This is the sort of player the Red Sox might be looking for to replace Mike Napoli, whether said replacement plays at first, third, in left, or anywhere else on the field. It's not the sort of player they need for the rotation. With just one spot (barring even more, larger trades) to fill there, the Red Sox need to maximize the quality of the one player they acquire.
The problem will lie in finding a team that's looking to deal one of those young stars away. Gray's availability remains little more than a rumor. But if that player is out there—if a team is willing to deal one of the league's few young pitching stars for a big prospect package—the Red Sox need to be the team on the other end of that trade. They have the talent to make it work, the money to turn a few years of arbitration into a long-term deal, and the need to motivate them.