During the 2019 season, 15 different pitchers made at least one start for the Boston Red Sox. Most of those contributors will be back next season, but with health always a toss-up and 32 of the team’s total starts off the board now that Rick Porcello is a free agent, there is a glaring need on the mound.
For teams like the Red Sox, there’s good news. This year’s free agent class has a couple high-profile starting pitchers on offer. Sparked by their sensational work in the postseason, Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg are both set to make a ton of cash. Then there are guys like Hyun-Jin Ryu and Madison Bumgarner who are primed to collect a ton of cash as well. However, spending the aforementioned tons of cash doesn’t seem to be the way the Red Sox are planning to go this winter. That strategy is causing plenty of head-scratching and hand-wringing but if they don’t want to go after the mega money superstars, there are still solid starting pitchers on the market. Among them, Julio Teheran stands out as a good fit for the Red Sox and it’s not for the first time.
Durability may be the biggest selling point for Teheran. The right-hander will be entering his age-29 season in 2020 and unlike Nathan Eovaldi, who signed with the Red Sox prior to his age-29 season last winter, Teheran doesn't have a history of missing time. Teheran has logged at least 174 innings in every season since 2013, with a low of 174 2⁄3 frames this past year. That’s not to say he’s never been hurt, but that kind of track record shows that he has been incredibly reliable. The Red Sox could use that a year removed from watching Chris Sale, David Price and Eovaldi all miss some significant time.
Just being able to absorb innings isn’t the only selling point for Teheran, however. Teheran has usually been an above-average pitcher with some upside for more. With a career ERA of 3.67 (110 ERA+), its clear that he’s a starter most teams would like to employ. Looking at his more recent work, Teheran has posted an ERA+ of better than 100 in three of the last four seasons, including a mark of 119 this past year. That would have ranked third behind Eduardo Rodriguez and Price for the Red Sox among players to make at least five starts. He has also posted a sub-4.00 ERA in each of the last two seasons, although the underlying metrics indicate that he has gotten a bit of help there, with marks of 4.83 and 4.66 in FIP over the last two seasons, respectively, as well as an xFIP above five in 2019.
The fielding independent numbers need to be considered, but there’s still evidence that Teheran is a solid starting pitcher who would nicely fit with the Red Sox. But what about that upside I mentioned? It might take an optimist like myself to see it, but its there. First of all, Teheran is a two-time All Star, so he’s rubbed shoulders with the upper pitching echelon before, even if his last appearance was in 2016. Secondly, he has driven down his home run per fly ball rate in each of the last two seasons while surpassing a 20 percent strikeout rate in both campaigns as well. Even if those aren’t overwhelmingly exciting numbers, you can begin to construct a positive picture with them.
There are still red flags to wade through with Teheran beyond those field independent statistics I brought up earlier. He didn’t exactly inspire confidence with in the last month of the regular season, posting an ERA of 11.12 across 11 1⁄3 innings in his final three starts. In addition, his control has become a bit more suspect. He accounted for the most hit batters in the National League last season and his walk rate rose to 11 percent or higher in each of the last two seasons, which is not something he’d done in his first seven years in the major leagues. On top of that, his hard contact allowed rate has been on an upward trajectory in recent years and although he’s been durable, he’s put a ton of mileage on his arm ever since making his MLB debut back in 2011 and becoming a permanent starter for the Atlanta Braves in 2013. Then there’s the fact that the Braves didn’t bring him back despite having a club option and that he barely got any work in the postseason.
Even with those warning signs, in an ideal world, we’re talking about the Red Sox adding Teheran as a middle of the rotation arm at best and a fifth starter at worst. Assuming health for the rest of the starters — even if that’s a tremendously large assumption and unlikely to happen — Teheran would just be asked to go out there every five days and put together some quality innings. He’s more than capable of that. If he can also build on his recent improvements, reverse some of the negative trends and get back to being the type of pitcher who is in the All Star discussion, then all the better. For the Red Sox, that’s a gamble worth making.