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With Chris Sale on board, a starter has to go

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You can never have too much pitching. But at some point, there’s just not enough space on the roster.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Sox have traded for Chris Sale. Their rotation is officially insane:

Chris Sale

David Price

Rick Porcello

Drew Pomeranz

Eduardo Rodriguez

Clay Buchholz

Steven Wright

As you might notice, that rotation is not only insane, but also very long. Seven men for five spots. You can make room for a sixth in the bullpen. But a seventh? That’s a bit much.

There’s an option where the Sox choose to just full-on push Drew Pomeranz back into relief to go with Craig Kimbrel, Tyler Thornburg, eventually Carson Smith, and perhaps even Joe Kelly to form an overwhelming bullpen to go with their suddenly overwhelming rotation. In that case they’d have to unload some relievers for pennies on the dollar.

There’s also a scenario which sees Eduardo Rodriguez in the minors, but he really doesn’t belong there, and it’s hard to see the Sox antagonizing the exciting young lefty by sending him down.

More likely, the Sox unload a starting pitcher. Not just because it’s easier than trying to shift Pomeranz back and forth as needed, but because the market is actually kind of desperate.

One of the most surprising things about this Chris Sale trade is when it happened. No, not because it didn’t happen in July—Chicago’s demands were exorbitant at the time and would have left the Red Sox running in place at the MLB level. Instead, it’s the fact that it came during an offseason with a remarkably dry pitching market. The Dodgers just signed Rich Hill to a three year deal, leaving pretty much nobody left on the market for anyone looking to improve their rotation in free agency.

So of course the team that lands the biggest prize available in Chris Sale is somehow the team that already has six starters. Now the Red Sox not only have an absurd rotation, but a rare commodity to dangle to whoever’s willing to help them restock their farm system a bit.

No, they’re not going to get a top-50 prospect back from a Clay Buchholz deal. But they will be able to get good value back on one of their starting pitchers at some point over the next couple months. We’ve already heard that the Mariners are likely to check in, and you can bet others will follow close behind.

Of the four pitchers outside of Boston’s Big 3, Clay Buchholz does seem like the most likely to be dealt. The Red Sox just traded for Drew Pomeranz, and while he waned in the second half he spent with the team, he still finished the year with a 3.32 ERA in 170 innings of work. They would likely have to be blown away by any offer to consider moving him given how easily he could make this a Big 4.

Eduardo Rodriguez is likely in a similar position, and the best indication of this is the fact he’s still with the team right now. He was by far the most obvious name to include in any Chris Sale deal if the Red Sox did not think he would be a significant help to the team in 2017 based on his overall results in 2016. That they did not end up shipping the young, talented lefty to Chicago suggests they see things differently, focusing in on his performances once he was further removed from his knee injury and not called up to make rehab starts in the majors, effectively. It’s possible Chicago just doesn’t like Rodriguez much, but given that they seemed to want him back in July before he’d really gone on his second-half tear (where he was on the fringes of top-10 status among AL starters), it seems more likely that the Red Sox actively held onto him, and will continue to do so barring an overwhelming offer.

That leaves us with Buchholz and Steven Wright. And man, it’s just hard to imagine getting a Wright deal done, simply because of his profile. If you take a shallow look, this is a guy under team control for four more years who just put up a 3.33 ERA season and has 263 innings of 3.58 ERA baseball under his belt. If he were a 26-year-old throwing fastballs, sliders, and changeups, teams would be salivating at the idea of acquiring him. Instead, he throws knuckleballs, struggled to maintain success in certain weather conditions last year, and ended up hurt after a pinch-running incident. Where do you even start your offer for a guy like that? Where do the Red Sox set their demands? If both sides closed their eyes and adjusted some for the risk of a knuckleballer and injuries and moved on as if Wright was a solid #3-#4 type pitcher with lots of team control, they might be able to find common ground. But I think the desire to avoid looking stupid—either for trading the All-Star for nickels on the dollar or for trading diamonds for fool’s gold—will keep both the Red Sox and other teams from really going too far in exploring those possibilities. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Wright is well-suited to be the sixth starter shifted in the bullpen given his rubber arm and decent success in the role.

That leaves us with Clay Buchholz. And while I’m sure many would rejoice sending him away, I think the Red Sox have to be prepared to feel this one sharply a few months into the season. Simply put: I wouldn’t bet against Clay Buchholz forcing his name into the conversation for the team’s top ace if he stuck around. We’ve all seen it before. When the guy is sufficiently removed from injury, he can be completely untouchable. 2013 will always stand out heads and tails above everything else with the ridiculous 1.74 ERA, but for all that 2015 opened on a relatively sour note with that disaster against New York, by the time he was done for the season, he held a 3.26 ERA. And of course, back in 2011, we were all hoping that 3.48 ERA Buchholz would be our savior late in the season when the Sox were throwing starts at Kyle Weiland.

Of course, all three of those years ended early. And that’s the story with Buchholz. He’s one of the better pitchers around for a half season. Then he’s hurt for the second half, terrible for the first half of the next season, and then shows some promise in the second half of that year before starting the cycle over with an exceptional burst of pitching. The Sox have to be prepared to watch that happen elsewhere.unless they’re willing to invest two full bullpen spots on starting pitching depth.

There’s some other small upside to dealing Buchholz, in that the Red Sox are currently sitting at around $6 million over the luxury tax threshold for 2017. Trading Clay Buchholz would put them about $7 million under. You probably shouldn’t expect the Red Sox to re-invest any of that money in the team right away. They seem to have settled on Mitch Moreland for their DH—or rather their first base, moving Hanley Ramirez to DH—and can fill their last bench spot internally with someone like Marco Hernandez. There’s some chance to flip Buchholz for another bat, but it’s always easier to trade MLB talent for MiLB talent than like-for-like, and the farm system could use some restocking besides. Yes it might feel a little off to give up any MLB talent for prospects after acquiring Sale, but with just one year left on his deal at a position serious depth for the Red Sox

It’s possible they will find themselves in a situation where they need to add payroll at the deadline, and do end up jumping back above. If they can avoid it, though, the Red Sox have made it clear that their goal is to duck under the luxury tax threshold, which is important for resetting the tax rate to 20% the next time they go over, down from the 50% that hits teams going over three straight years in a row. It will be even more important to stay under that limit in years to come. Depending on whether free agent compensation rates in the new collective bargaining agreement are determined by the team’s payroll in the preceding year or ensuing year (a distinction that I don’t believe has been made clear yet), it could even free them up to make moves in the 2017-2018 offseason without sacrificing significant draft picks or international bonus money.

So yes, if the Red Sox get rid of a pitcher, it will most likely be Clay Buchholz. And if they get rid of Clay Buchholz, they will probably watch him have some serious success wherever he goes. Hopefully, though, the “why can’t we get pitchers like that” comments will be held off by, y’know, all the other pitchers like that the Red Sox are expecting to have. Just without the unreliability. With Sale, Price, and Porcello atop the rotation, they’ve got a pretty good shot at shrugging the loss off.