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Checking the Market: Starting Pitchers

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A look at the most important position group for Boston this winter.

National League Wild Card Game 1: Cincinnati Reds v. Atlanta Braves Photo by Adam Hagy/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The offseason is officially upon us, and the Red Sox should be active. Coming off one of the worst seasons in the history of the franchise (the length of which notwithstanding), they have plenty of needs all over the roster. To get us ready for all of the possible moves that could be made over the next few months, we’re going to spent the next week looking at every portion of the roster and the available players that could be targeted both in free agency and via trade. Today, we’ll look at the starting pitcher market.

Where the Red Sox stand

It’s not exactly a secret that the portion of the roster at which the Red Sox most need to improve is the pitching, and while the bullpen needs plenty of help in its own right the rotation is in most dire need for reinforcements. With that said, though, if you wanted to be a total optimist (what kind of sick freak wants that, I have no idea) you could talk yourself into them having something resembling a full rotation already. They have under contract as potential starters right now: Nathan Eovaldi, Eduardo Rodriguez, Chris Sale, Tanner Houck and Nick Pivetta. Boom. Done. Let’s move on!

Obviously it is not that simple, and really there is an argument that they should be looking to fill pretty much all of those spots. Against all odds, Eovaldi is the safest of the group, which does not speak well of this rotation. Rodriguez is a total wildcard. If he can be full strength then he moves ahead of Eovaldi, but after just being cleared to walk on a treadmill in late September, it’s hard to be confident in him being full strength. I’m not even sure we should be counting on him to have the stamina to start all year, though that is simply speculation on my part.

Beyond that, Sale will be back at some point next year, but it won’t be to start the season. He underwent Tommy John surgery late last March, and while the recovery has become less complicated in recent years the team won’t rush him back. I would assumed mid-June would be the earliest he’ll be back in the major-league rotation, with likely at least a couple weeks of rehab starts in the minors being needed before he returns. And finally with Houck and Pivetta, they both looked good in small samples to end the year, but handing both Opening Day rotation spots seems risky to me. I could live with them fighting for that fifth spot, but even if they don’t start right away depth will obviously be needed as the year goes on.

So, the way I slice it, they need at least two starters, and that is even being generous. I would prefer they add three legitimate starters to the roster. But whichever way you decide to go, it’s clear they need major help at this position.

Top Free Agent

Trevor Bauer

Although it’s a fairly deep year in terms of mid-rotation starters, there isn’t a ton of top-flight talent in this class. Bauer stands alone with that designation, although he will also cost any team that signs him a draft pick as he has already rejected the qualifying offer he received from the Reds. Bauer is a really interesting free agent in a lot of ways — some good, some bad — that I won’t totally get into in this space. But even putting aside some of the off-the-field and personality concerns some people have, I think there is an argument against giving him a big contract based on his on-the-field performance.

In 2020, Bauer was great. There is really no way to debate that. In fact, he’s probably the National League Cy Young favorite, though that ballot is loaded so it’s no guarantee. He finished the year with a 1.73 ERA and a 2.88 FIP that suggested he was great, even if not as great as that ERA. And as a former third overall pick, it’s not like this talent hasn’t always been here.

The concern, though, comes from the inconsistencies through his career. In 2019, he finished the season with an ERA of 4.48 and a FIP to match. His 2018 looked a lot like his 2020, to be fair, but then that was preceded by three straight seasons with an ERA in the 4’s. The ceiling here is clearly undeniable and we’ve seen it in two of the last three years, but more often we’ve seen a solid mid-rotation arm, but not a staff ace.

And even with this past season we have a bit of a chicken or egg situation with him and other NL Central pitchers. Were their numbers so good because they got to face bad Central lineups every time out? Or were the offenses so bad because they had to face such great pitching? For what it’s worth, by wRC+, the White Sox, Twins and Cardinals were the only ones in the top 19 in baseball, and of those three clubs Bauer faced the White Sox once and never had to pitch against the other two.

Bauer is going to get paid this year — I don’t buy that he’ll stick with his previous statements regarding signing one-year deals for his entire career — and he could be an ace. But especially for a Red Sox team that likely isn’t going to spend a ton this offseason (because nobody will), I’d rather spread it around a bit than give a large chunk to a talented but inconsistent arm like Bauer.

Other Free Agents

Kevin Gausman, Marcus Stroman, Charlie Morton, Masahiro Tanaka, Corey Kluber, James Paxton, Mike Minor, Chris Archer, Rick Porcello, Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly, José Quintana, Robbie Ray, Garrett Richards, Matt Shoemaker, J.A. Happ, Brett Anderson, Adam Wainwright, Taijuan Walker, Alex Wood, Mike Leake, Martín Pérez, Anthony Desclafani, Rich Hill, Jake Arrieta, Michael Wacha, Jon Lester, Aníbal Sánchez, Tommy Milone, Tomoyuki Sugano*

Don’t worry I’m not going to go through all of these names because at that point this will be a novel. It’s a long offseason and we’ll cover most of these guys at some point or another. Instead I’ll just focus on a handful, the first grouping being the qualifying offer players. Before offers were given out I viewed Gausman and Stroman as good top-end (relative to this market, anyway) options for the Red Sox. However, while I like both I would not be willing to give up a high second round pick for either. It wouldn’t surprise me if one or both took the qualifying offer anyway, which would make all this moot.

Colorado Rockies v Texas Rangers Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

So, moving down from them, if you don’t want Bauer and those two either aren’t available or you take them off your list, the next tier isn’t exactly great. Morton would be really interesting, but he’s said in the past he may retire if he doesn’t play in Tampa. I think Tanaka is underrated, but there isn’t really an ace ceiling. He’s more of just a solid mid-rotation guy. Kluber and Paxton as the most interesting of these guys to me. Both come with big risk coming off both injury and inconsistent performance, but they provide top-of-the-rotation upside and could be had for relatively cheap.

There’s also a solid cohort of old friends on this list, with Porcello, Lester, Pérez, Sánchez and Hill. Of those, Lester would probably be the fan favorite selection and I certainly wouldn’t mind that, albeit not as the top addition to the rotation. I would also point out that there are a few names with connections to Bloom in Tampa. I already mentioned Morton, and then there’s Archer, Odorizzi and Smyly. Odorizzi would appear to be the clear best option in that group.

And like I said, there is plenty of time to cover everyone else. MLB Trade Rumors predicted Boston would sign Quintana and Desclafani, for example. There are tons of options, even if none beyond Bauer really jump out as a true top-of-the-rotation type player.

Also, I put Sugano, one of Japan’s top pitchers, on this list with an asterisk. The Yomiuri Giants are considering posting him, but that is not yet official. If/when it does happen we’ll dive deeper into what he offers in this market.

Best Fit: It’s hard to pick just one name here with the Red Sox needing multiple arms, but if I were to choose just one I’d probably go with Corey Kluber. I expect the contract would be small enough that you could fit two more decent signings alongside him, and even in 2019 when he struggled before his injury, the peripherals suggested he was better than that. It’s a classic buy-low option.

Texas Rangers v Los Angeles Angels Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Potential Trade Partners

Orioles, Indians, Tigers, Royals, Athletics, Rays, Rangers, Diamondbacks, Rockies, Pirates, Giants

There are always players on the market who you don’t anticipate being there, and that could be even more true in such an uncertain offseason like this one. That said, these are the teams that stood out the most to me. The closest you can find to top-end targets here would be with Cleveland and Zach Plesac, Lance Lynn in Texas, or in Colorado with German Márquez. It’s unclear how willing any of those teams would be to part with them and each would cost a prospect package that hurt, but they would immediately become the best pitcher on the Red Sox. I also threw the Rays in here with Blake Snell because I figure that will be speculated a bunch this winter, though I don’t think they would actually trade him and especially not to a division rival.

After that it’s a whole lot of mid-to-bottom tier names. Madison Bumgarner could be an interesting get from Arizona, but he’s still owed a lot of money and is coming off a bad year. Johnny Cueto with San Francisco would be a similar type of pickup.

Joe Musgrove has some intriguing upside with Pittsburgh, and the same could be said for Matt Boyd with Detroit and Jon Gray with Colorado. Chris Bassitt is sort of an under-the-radar name who is getting a bit more expensive in arbitration which means Oakland could look to deal him.

Best Fit: If the Red Sox aren’t enamored with the top options in free agency, for which I think there is a fair argument, I would love to see them make a real run at Lance Lynn. It wouldn’t be a cheap acquisition, but he’s also a free agent after the season so the Red Sox would presumably be able to get it done even with their farm system. Going back to the start of 2019, Lynn ranks fourth among all pitchers in fWAR.