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Red Sox trading Clay Buchholz would carry significant risk

If the choice is between trading Buchholz or going over the luxury tax limit, it’s an easy decision from here.

Division Series - Cleveland Indians v Boston Red Sox - Game Three Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Winter Meetings have begun, and the moves for the Red Sox shouldn’t be far behind. Or, at least as bored baseball fans, we hope the moves are coming. All offseason, the front office has downplayed how active they’ll be this year, and so far their actions have backed up those comments. Yesterday, Dave Dombrowski met with the media and he continued the same kind of talk. Specifically, he mentioned the new CBA, its effects on teams that surpass the luxury tax and what it means for the Red Sox. The end result, he says, is that he’d like to stay below that $195 million line. He was sure to clarify that this was a preference, not a mandate, but it speaks volumes about how we can expect the rest of the offseason to go.

Speaking as a Red Sox fan, this decision makes me upset. Clearly, it’s not all about the money. At least it shouldn’t be. I don’t think I need to convince anyone that the team can afford to support a $200+ million payroll. Rather, it appears the new CBA has brought on these new goals. Not only does the penalty for offenders get more strict over the course of the new agreement, while the threshold moves up very slowly, but teams who surpass the threshold are now forced to pay more in compensation for signing big free agents. I still don’t believe the penalties are so severe that the team should concentrate in getting under $195 million, but my opinion doesn’t matter here.

As it stands, the Red Sox can expect to have a payroll somewhere in the $190 million range. In other words, they don’t really have much money to spend. That leaves them with just a couple of options. One is to spend a little on a reliever and rely on in-house options to fill the hole in the lineup. I think this is the most likely option. The next option is to fill both holes and just go over the luxury tax limit. Finally, they can make some trades to move money around. This final scenario has already started to be discussed, and the most obvious trade candidate would be Clay Buchholz.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Now, dealing Buchholz wouldn’t be the end of the world. Even back when they picked up his $13 million option, the possibility of a trade was always open. He’s arguably sixth on the team’s depth chart in the rotation right now, making him expendable. Given how bleak the open market is at his position, Buchholz could theoretically bring back a reasonable return despite his poor performance for most of 2016.

Even with all of that being said, this is a move I’d be wary of. While he may be the sixth starter right now, depth is an incredibly important thing to preserve over such a long season. Just a few weeks ago, I wrote about the team’s rotation depth. I posited that Boston was in a good position here, but that hinged on them having six legitimate options for their five spots. Clearly, they are going to need someone beyond their top five, and making the top depth option one of Brian Johnson, Henry Owens or Roenis Elias is a massive downgrade. This is particularly true when you look at the risk involved with the bottom-three of Drew Pomeranz, Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright.

Plenty of people are still mad about the Pomeranz deal, and some of them may exaggerate just how risky he is next year. I’m relatively high on the left hander, and think he’ll be a key member of the rotation. I won’t deny the clear risk, though. This past season was an outlier in his career, with the best stretch he’s ever had. There were tangible changes — specifically with his repertoire — but that also means teams have all winter to scout these changes. Last year was also the first time he made 30 starts in a year. That track record suggests he could feasibly flame out, leaving the team in need for a new, more permanent option.

Similar cases could be made for Rodriguez and Wright. The former still has all of the potential in the world, and he showed flashes of it towards the end of the season. On the other hand, he’s yet to make it through a full season on a consistent basis, and has struggled to maintain command of all his pitches at the same time. The latter was one of the biggest surprises of the first half, and was arguably the team’s MVP to that point. He struggled after that time, though, and then eventually missed the rest of the year due to injury. Knuckleballers are inherently unpredictable as it is, and Wright’s spotty history doesn’t make believing any easier.

Obviously, Buchholz also carries a fair share of risk. If he didn’t, trading him wouldn’t even be a conversation. We all know by now that health is a legitimate concern, and no one would expect a full season out of him. Beyond that, the performance is inconsistent at best, and even when he improved in the second half last year the peripherals weren’t exactly where we’d want it to be.

Still, even with that risk, I’d rather have him in the mix for that rotation. If everything goes according to plan, he’d be a long relief option for most of the year, just filling in here and there when needed. In this scenario, they could live with trading him. Things don’t always go according to plan. They’ll likely need three or four extra starters, with one of them making at least 15 starts. Getting rid of the safest option you have for those potential starts is one worth considering. If they truly don’t want to go over the luxury tax limit, they’ll need to get creative to improve this roster. Unless they can get someone to take Pablo Sandoval’s contract (unlikely, to say the least), trading Buchholz is probably the one way to do so. They’d almost certainly regret losing that depth. The Red Sox are in a nearly perfect win-now window. This is the time to take the luxury tax penalties, as all of the costs can be covered up by banners.