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It's time to revisit Clay Buchholz' option

Suddenly, it's starting to look like a foregone conclusion that the Red Sox will take advantage of their team option on Clay Buchholz.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Clay Buchholz brings the sort of reliability to the table that can usually only be found in geothermal phenomena. Clay Buchholz is good. Then Clay Buchholz is injured. Then Clay Buchholz is bad. Then Clay Buchholz is good. The amount of time spent in each stage is variable, but their sequencing is not. And now, after 2.5 months injured and 4.5 months bad, it looks like we're reaching one of Clay Buchholz' good periods.

Over the last three weeks, despite being yanked back and forth between the bullpen and rotation, Buchholz has pitched to a 2.05 ERA over 22 innings of work. Those numbers are even better when we excise the few bullpen outings and focus only on Buchholz' starts. And with no clear timetable for Steven Wright's return, it now seems like there's nothing standing between Buchholz and a spot in the rotation for the rest of the season. The stage is set perfectly for Buchholz to produce another one of his strong stretches, and do so with no small amount of national attention.

The caveats: this is just three games, and they haven't come against the stiffest of competition. But when Buchholz is bad he can't even beat the worst, and even three games is pretty convincing when it follows Buchholz' pattern like clockwork. We don't have to look too far back to see this happening, either. Buchholz had a 7.02 ERA when he was shut down on May 26th in 2014, his last bad post-injury season. After returning in June, he pitched to a more respectable if still somewhat unimpressive 4.64 ERA with a .673 OPS against and 93:30 K:BB. In 2012, the effect is far more pronounced. On May 21st he allowed five runs in five innings to the Orioles to see his ERA hit a ridiculous 7.84. The rest of the way, even if we include an eight-run disaster in the final game of the season when everyone just wanted to go home, Buchholz pitched to a 3.41 ERA. Exclude that outing and it's a ridiculous 2.93 ERA.

So with history on his side, it seems likely that Buchholz will at least be reasonable over the final few weeks. And if that's the case, the Red Sox will very likely pick up the team option they once seemed certain to decline. Amusingly enough, this may have even been the right move before he started pitching well again:

The logic, simply put, was that for a team that expects to be bad it's hard to really take advantage of unused payroll. By allocating a chunk of that to Buchholz, you get a chance to make a trade that could contribute to future contending teams, and if he's awful and gets hurt, well, the team wasn't going anywhere to begin with. $20 million may seem like a lot, but the reality is that the difference between $20 million and $7 million (which probably sounds more reasonable based on Buchholz' results at the time) for a general manager that isn't going to be able to do much to tip the scales with that extra $13 million may as well not exist.

The Red Sox, though, are not expecting to be a bad team. Far from it. If they commit $13 million to Buchholz' option and he's a complete wreck, getting hurt and failing to give them even his customary months of excellence before doing so, that's not something they can absorb without any effect, particularly if it left them with one rotation spot unfilled. That, the optics at the time, and the apparent end of Buchholz' opportunities in the rotation with the addition of Pomeranz and revival of Rodriguez were why it was largely assumed Buchholz would be cut loose when the year ended.

If Buchholz continues his late success, though, then suddenly picking up that option seems a lot less egregious. In fact, it would start to look egregious not to. Not just because if Buchholz is good then he's likely to be very good indeed for a while, but because the other options--not just for the Red Sox, but for the rest of baseball--are so utterly atrocious.

It's territory we've covered before, but go find your favorite source for free agent listings and look at the starting pitchers. If you're wondering why there's a blank space there it's because your brain is protecting you from the horror that is the FA market without Stephen Strasburg. Your big names are probably Rich Hill, Jeremy Hellickson, and Doug Fister. That's a 37-year-old who has struggled with blisters, a guy with a 4.35 career FIP who's likely to come with a qualifying offer and be out to lock up one big payday on the back of his first good season since 2012, and a ground ball pitcher who's suddenly giving up fly balls and home runs.

You know what looks pretty great up against those options? A year of Clay Buchholz for $13 million to tide a team over until the likes of Arrietta and Darvish hit the market after 2017.

That's not to say the Red Sox have to trade him, either. The first half of 2016 as much as any year should prove to them the need for starting depth, and they've got a reasonable roster solution with Steven Wright heading to the bullpen. Lest we forget, that's where he first found success with the team, and certainly there's precedent for a knuckleballer moving to relief until he's needed elsewhere.

That being said, it would not be surprising if demand for Buchholz with a few more strong starts to his name actually proved too great to ignore. It's strange to think, but if Buchholz is back to being good Buchholz, even if it's only likely to last a few months, that's still a few months more than anyone can expect to get out of most of the other pitchers available.

We'll find out for certain over the next few weeks, but at the moment, the Red Sox seem to have weathered the storm with Buchholz. It was a decision that cost them no few wins in the first half of the season, but that is a sunk cost. If, indeed, they've come out at the other side, they owe it to themselves to now reap the rewards for sticking it out, be it by letting him pitch until he winds up on the disabled list again, or by sending him elsewhere for whatever return the market provides. Whichever path they take, though, the Sox will likely have the chance to secure what would be one of the best pitchers on a barren free agent market on a bargain contract. They can't pass that up.