As the Winter Meetings are set to get underway on Monday, some actual, real-life rumors about the Red Sox popped up on Sunday. Said rumors came from Jason Mastrodonato of the Boston Herald, who reported Red Sox officials were in contact with Rick Porcello about a possible deal to bring him back in free agency. It should certainly be noted that there is no indication any deal is close, but this is the first real rumor we’ve heard about a concrete move the Red Sox could make this winter.
This doesn’t really qualify as a major surprise, to be fair. There is a large and clear hole at the back of the rotation left by the departure of Porcello himself in free agency, and we’ve heard since before the 2019 regular season even ended that the righty could be interested in remaining with the Sox. If this were to happen — again, it doesn’t appear to be imminent by any stretch and there are other teams reportedly interested as well — Porcello is the kind of pitcher who would garner some strong reaction on both sides of the issue. I’m honestly not really sure where I stand in all of this, so let’s try to figure that out and look at some cases for and against bringing him back.
For: Buying low
I was never really a fan of business and didn’t take any of those classes in college — I did take AP Economics in high school, but if you know my high school you know that’s not really saying much — but I know the concept of buying low and selling high. Anyone who plays fantasy sports knows it, in fact. It’s certainly not as simple as it’s made out to be, and the difficult part is being sure you are at the lowest or highest point. With Porcello, there is an argument to be made that this is the time to buy low. The righty’s performance has been uneven for years now, but he’s never been as bad as he was in 2019. The juiced ball seemed to uniquely destroy his game, and he went through some issues with control that were just so out of character. For better or worse (I would argue the latter, but that is not what this post is about), baseball is absolutely obsessed to finding ideal value in every contract right now. Buying low is the way to do this, and for a guy with Porcello’s track record who will only be 31 in 2020 it’s not hard to imagine this is the low point in his value.
Against: Is it as low as it will go?
Like I said, everyone knows about buying low and selling high. It’s one of those basic concepts often peddled as some high-minded concept rather than a thing everyone knows and understands. The reality, as I mentioned above, is more complicated. Perhaps this is buying low on Porcello. Or, perhaps, this is buying on a pitcher who is on his way down and will never be a truly valuable pitcher again in his career. Consider that, while his ERA was inflated at 5.52, his peripherals were also plenty discouraging. His strikeout rate fell to its lowest point since joining the Red Sox, his walk rate was merely good instead of great, and he allowed hard contact far too consistently. As a result he was below-average in park-adjusted FIP in addition to the poor ERA, and his park-adjusted DRA was a whopping 24 percent worse than league-average. It’s easy to say you should buy low. It gets more complicated when there’s no guarantee this is actually the low point.
There’s something to be said about having players who actually want to be here. I wouldn’t say that chemistry is overblown, but I would probably argue that we don’t know as much as we think. Teams that are winning will always get credit for their chemistry and teams that are losing will be under scrutiny. We won’t look for bad chemistry if a team is winning unless it’s made obvious to us. As a certified human, I like to think I know a little bit about human nature and I am comfortable saying humans generally perform better at whatever their job is when they are comfortable. Porcello has been outspoken about liking Boston and perhaps (this is total speculation; there have been no reports to this effect) he’d take a slightly lesser deal to stay here. If all else is close to equal between two possible free agents, you take the one who wants to be here more, right?
Against: Which baseball?
This offseason is weird in terms of trying to project performance because we are missing an extremely basic piece of information about the coming season: What’s the baseball going to be like. It’s a stain on the league that this is even a question — do whatever you want with the ball, but be open about it — but this is where we are. Last year, as we know, MLB had bouncy balls that resulted in absurd offensive numbers around the league. Pitchers like Porcello, who were prone to home runs as it was, seemed to suffer the most. Everyone gave up more homers, but for pitchers like Porcello they jumped from an acceptable rate to a nearly untenable one that resulted in too many short outings. If the 2019 baseball is back for the 2020 season, Porcello is a lot less valuable than he would be if they went back to a more stable ball. That this is even part of the equation makes things much more complicated, and thus is in and of itself an argument against Porcello.
For: Cost of doing business
We all know where the Red Sox stand with their payroll and my feelings on that. We don’t need to re-litigate all of that. Whether we like it or not, the simple fact is they don’t want to commit too much money, which means they have to look for bargains for this open rotation spot. Porcello would presumably count as that. The starting pitching market has generally been a bit more robust than expected, but this is still a guy who was projected by MLB Trade Rumors to make $11 million over one year and by Jim Bowden to make $9 million on a one-year deal. There will be cheaper options available, but Porcello is right on that line productive and affordable. If you think there are two clear top tiers on the market with Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg in one and Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dallas Keuchel and Madison Bumgarner in the next, Rick Porcello is the best projected pitcher by FanGraphs in the next tier. That is roughly the production Boston is looking for, and a relatively cheap one-year deal is intriguing given their presumed spending plans.
Against: Other pitchers exist
Porcello is, by that one projection, expected to be the best of that next tier, but that is far from a guarantee. Guys like Tanner Roark, Wade Miley and Brett Anderson have also been solid in recent years and could feasibly be signed for even less money. The Porcello market is at the point where a contract closer to $15 million is not out of the question, and the Red Sox may not be game for that. A cheaper deal for a safer pitcher like Roark — his ceiling is certainly lower than Porcello’s, but he’s been consistently average-ish for years now — should not be discounted just because of our familiarity with Porcello.
For: Moving market
Generally speaking, the free agent market is moving more quickly than it has in the last few years. That is exciting as a baseball fan, and it also means other teams can’t really sit on their hands or they’ll be left without a chair when the music stops. Specifically, the catcher and starting pitcher markets have been moving more than any others. Zack Wheeler, Cole Hamels, Michael Pineda, Jordan Lyles and Adam Wainwright have come off the market. More, including maybe Cole, are expected to sign in the coming week. Teams looking for starters have to move quickly, and if the Red Sox are close on Porcello there is value in just getting it done rather than trying to push for a little more in savings and risk being left with nothing.
Against: Change isn’t always bad
Five years is a long time. I was still living in Massachusetts five years ago. Marvel movies were only on Avengers: Age of Ultron five years. Ben Cherington was still the general manager five years ago. Porcello has been in Boston for five years, and while there have been some really high highs (Cy Young and World Series, both of which are pretty neat), there have also been some really low lows. That includes this past season. As things have arguably stalled out for both the Red Sox and Porcello, sometimes two sides need to move on for things to get back on track. Like a relationship with two people who still love each other but have hits ruts in their respective lives, moving on is sometimes the only option to push forward with life. It’s not easy, but sometimes the writing is one the wall. It might be time for the Red Sox and Porcello to break up. There’s no real way to quantify this, of course. It’s a decision to be made based on gut feel.
I am not much clearer now than I was yesterday on this issue! Selfishly, I would like the Red Sox to add someone else to their rotation, not because I dislike Porcello but rather that I need a shakeup. It’s exciting as a writer to have a new subject about whom I can write, ya know? The Red Sox front office probably won’t factor that into their decision, though. More objectively, it’s hard to deny the possible reunion makes sense given Boston’s need and Porcello’s likely asking price. If it gets up above $12 million for the year I’d move on, but at that price or lower I think you have to at least think about sticking with the guy you know, even when you know his flaws as well.