Last night, news broke that Stephen Strasburg had signed an extension with the Washington Nationals, taking him off the upcoming free agent market, and putting Clay Buchholz in a situation which he likely can't believe any more than I can. Because without Strasburg around, it's not hard to argue that he'll be the best starting pitcher available in the offseason.
No, really, look at this bunch. Sure, you can find some names to compete with him. Edinson Volquez, Doug Fister, Scott Feldman all come to mind based on their past performances, while Rich Hill and Mat Latos could set themselves up for a nice payday by finishing their years as well as they've started them. But otherwise we're mostly talking about guys north of 40, a bunch of quadruple-A depth options, and a bunch of team options that will absolutely get picked up.
Buchholz, it should be mentioned, has just such an option. $13 million for 2017, much as in 2016. And right now that might not seem very tempting the way he's been pitching. But given the alternatives, it's hard to deny that a one-year gamble on the ever-frustrating pitcher could be worthwhile, especially given his pattern for following bad years with good ones, however short.
At the end of the day, though, I expect this has a lot less to do with Buchholz than the rest of the rotation, and more specifically, how it looks at season's end.
My best guess at the moment is that the Sox do have three or four locked in options for 2017. David Price's start to the season is...troubling, but they can't really do much more than push ahead and hope that Dustin Pedroia's advice will fix him, or that his peripherals will simply win out. Rick Porcello is making his extension look awfully good, and seems very likely to be a prominent member of the rotation. Eduardo Rodriguez still has to prove himself some, but also seems to be a pretty safe bet. And while it's probably too soon to say Steven Wright is the next R.A. Dickey, competing for the Cy Young award while tossing knucklers, it's very hard to fake a run this good with that pitch as anything short of a viable major league starter.
When does it make sense to call up Andrew Benintendi, Yoan Moncada?
Boston's two hottest prospects aren't knocking on Fenway's door just yet. But when they do, should the Red Sox answer, or hold off?
That leaves Clay Buchholz. And oh, it does not look good right now. It's kind of telling that last night's performance--four earned runs in five innings--was almost hopeful, not because Buchholz racked up huge peripherals (2 BB, 2 K) or anything like that. Just because it wasn't a complete disaster like most of his outings have been. Relative to the 2016 Buchholz norm, this was just...not so bad.
And that's why it's easy to imagine that, by year's end, he won't be in the mix.
This Red Sox team is at 19-13 despite a 2-5 record in game's started by Buchholz. They have one of the best lineups this city has seen, particularly relative to the rest of the league (the Red Sox' wRC+ of 121 is the highest by any team since the 1931 Yankees), and an excellent bullpen. This is a good team that could be made great with one easily identified improvement.
And Dave Dombrowski is just that much more likely to make that improvement knowing how ugly the market will be in the winter to come. If some of those arms with a few years of team control are made available by teams that aren't looking to contend in 2016 or, realistically, 2017, you can expect the Red Sox to be heavily involved in the trade talks, and frankly, there aren't many teams better equipped to swing a trade than Boston.
And if they pull that off, if Rodriguez can carry over his 2015 success, and if Rick Porcello and Steven Wright avoid totals meltdowns, there just won't be much room for Buchholz in 2017, even if he is one of the best arms available in free agency.
If they don't...well, $13 million on one year is probably a much shorter gamble than other teams will be forced to take with arms in such short supply.