The Red Sox rotation has fallen very much in "mixed bag" territory to start the season, as excellent starts from Steven Wright and Rick Porcello were offset by a rough beginning for David Price, Clay Buchholz doing his usual even-year song-and-dance, and a steady stream of awful from the fifth starter slot.
Still, when Eduardo Rodriguez returns, assuming he does so looking at all like his old self, the Red Sox will be in pretty good shape. Granted, much of that rides on David Price being well-and-truly fixed, but the signs from his last start were so extraordinarily positive that I'm willing to believe that's the case until proven wrong. And, if he is, then a rotation of Price - Porcello - Rodriguez - Wright - X can actually be seen as yet another strength for a team that's already got plenty to be positive about.
Still, there's that X. Clay Buchholz? I might believe he could fill the role acceptably after a couple months on the DL, but not to the point where I'd be willing to put money on it. Joe Kelly? Crazier things have happened, but depending on the miracle transformation of Kelly into a consistently competent starting pitcher is asking for trouble. Henry Owens, Brian Johnson, and Roenis Elias? Their terrible performances in Pawtucket are really what make this situation so tenuous to begin with.
No, it's becoming more obvious by the week that if there's a solution to be found, it's going to come from outside the organization. And that presents its own problems.
Typically, the first place you look for potential trade targets is next year's free agent class. It's always easiest to convince a team to trade off an arm when said arm is already headed to different pastures come the offseason, particularly when that team isn't headed to October. But that class is just a barren wasteland. It seems entirely likely that, come July, teams will be fighting tooth-and-nail over the likes of Rich Hill and Jhoulys Chacin.
Under the circumstances, then, maybe it's not the run-of-the-mill trade the Red Sox should be looking for. A cookie-cutter deal for an upcoming free agent will just leave them in this same position come winter, after all, even if all goes according to plan with Price, Porcello, Rodriguez, and Wrigh: with no fifth pitcher, and no clear answers in free agency. Instead, they should be looking past 2016, and trying to set their rotation into 2017 and beyond, and that might just mean going big if they're going to go at all.
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The Red Sox are, of course, one of the teams best equipped to make a big deal for a team-controlled pitcher. Their minor league system has plenty of talent even with the unfortunate developments in Triple-A, and while they won't be eager to trade their premier prospects, they can afford to deal away quality while still maintaining a strong farm.
The bigger issue lies in finding the right name, frankly. Where short-term deals are limited due to the lack of quality in the upcoming free agent class, the potential for a big deal is limited because of where the good arms can be found. It's remarkably hard to find good, young arms on the teams that are not either in contention, or the sort that expect to be next year no matter how 2016 is going. Those that you do find tend to be struggling, or...well, on the Rays. Good luck trading for Drew Smyly, Dave Dombrowski.
There is good news for the Red Sox: this is not a decision the team has to make instantly, even if waiting could cost them a couple of wins (should they ever stop scoring six runs a game). Clay Buchholz will get another start, it seems. Maybe two as Eduardo Rodriguez' slow road back finally reaches the end. Then Joe Kelly will get his chance for that Perhaps one of the minor leaguers can even figure things out.. And, if the intervening months don't provide any clarity internally, they'll at least make it clear that some of the team currently hanging in the race are not, in fact, the sort of players who should be holding onto their pieces after all.
Whoever ends up selling, though, the Red Sox should be looking for a slightly longer-term solution. That doesn't have to mean trading for an ace if, indeed, one is even available. But it should probably mean trading for a pitcher they're more-than-comfortable with relying on for a few years. Someone in line with that fabled number two they were looking for last July. Hopefully this search proves more fruitful.