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The Red Sox should look to the trade market, not free agency, for starting pitching

A look at the pros and cons for trading for these eight likely available starting pitchers.

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Seattle Mariners v Oakland Athletics Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

The Boston Red Sox are in a difficult place this offseason when it comes to adding starting pitching. The free agent market has some nice players at the top of the market, but each of them comes with a caveat.

Max Scherzer, who has been my personal number one target since this past trade deadline, in the past has expressed an interest in staying out west. Logic dictates that the Dodgers would want him back. Carlos Rodón, who had an unexpectedly impressive season last year is both highly risky and finished the season with health issues. The reigning AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray is available, but considering his inconsistent career before 2021, is this really a player you’d want to give a huge contract to and give up a draft pick to sign?

If you drop down to the next tier, this group is full of guys with just as many question marks. Clayton Kershaw is likely to either resign with the Dodgers or finish his career in his home state of Texas. Kevin Gausman has enjoyed a career resurgence with the Giants, so why would he tempt fate by returning to the AL East?

All of this is to say that the Red Sox really ought to start exploring the trade market for starting pitching. Below are eight targets who may be appealing, and more importantly available, to the Red Sox.

Let’s start in American League with the Oakland Athletics. After a 2021 that saw them finish in third place in their division and miss the playoffs, the team has many free agents and is rumored to be shopping its star corner infielders Matt Chapman and Matt Olson. It stands to reason that Chris Bassitt, Sean Manaea, and Frankie Montas may be available for trade, as they are all also looking at some significant salary increases through the arbitration process.

Bassitt and Manaea are both more likely to be traded than Montas considering they each only have one arbitration year left and are projected for big raises in 2022. Manaea is projected by MLB Trade Rumors to make $10.2 million while Bassitt is projected to make $8.8 million. Those numbers don’t make a lot of sense for an Athletics club set not wanting to spend big money on salary.

Oakland Athletics v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Manaea is a soon-to-be 30-year-old lefty coming off a career high 179 13 innings where he pitched to a 3.91 ERA. Looking under the surface he backed up that performance with a very strong 20.3 percent K-BB rate. On the other hand, it should be mentioned that he did allow 25 home runs, which was a career-worst mark for him.

Bassitt had the superior season between the two and is right handed, which is my personal preference for Fenway Park. He will be entering his age-33 season and is coming off a year in which he threw a career high 157 13 innings with a very strong 3.15 ERA and a career-best 1.06 WHIP. He allowed a career best batting average against and posted a career best K-BB rate of 18.8%. His expected ERA backed up these numbers coming in at 3.45.

Heading into his age-29 season in 2022, the right-handed Montas will be the most difficult pitcher to pry away from the Athletics. Not only did he have the best season out of these three pitchers, but he is the youngest and has two more arbitration years left. He is projected to make $5.2 million next year after hitting a career-high in innings pitched with 187—his previous high was 96. He was excellent by any measure striking out 207 batters while also limiting home runs and walks.

Out of these three, the guy I would target is Bassitt. His age and salary should make him cheaper than the other two and I prefer this steady right hander that would be an excellent number three starter for the Red Sox. A package centered around one of Jeter Downs, Bobby Dalbec, or Jarren Duran could be very appealing to the Athletics who are looking for controllable young first division regulars.

Moving over to the National League, the Cincinnati Reds have been rumored to be shopping young ace Luis Castillo and veteran Sonny Gray. One other player I think may be available is Tyler Mahle who has the same amount of team control left as Castillo—two arbitration years.

Starting with the soon-to-be 29-year-old righty Castillo, he doesn’t seem like the perfect fit for the Red Sox in part because of his prospect cost (which may be as high as all three of those aforementioned prospects), but also because of his career 53.9 percent ground ball rate. The last two seasons that ground ball rate has been pushing 60% which is great if you don’t have Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers on the left side of your infield. The cost and the type of contact here make him a no go for me. He projected to make $7.6 million in his second year of arbitration.

Next up is the 32-year-old, smallish right hander Gray. The former Yankee has had at least three seasons where he pitched like an ace, but his size (listed at 5’10”) and his diminishing fastball velocity make him a risky proposition. His fastball velocity was a career low 92.6 mph average which contributed to whopping 16.5 percent HR/FB rate. He is set to make $10.66 million with a club option of $12.5 million for 2023. Like Castillo, Gray is a ground ball specialist with a career rate of 52.3%, this makes him a hard pass for me.

Mahle is the most interesting option from the Reds, a player set to get a healthy arbitration raise with a $5.6 million projected salary from MLB Trade Rumors for 2022 and has another year of team control after that (under this current CBA, at least). Mahle is coming off a career year in 2021 that saw him throw 180 innings with a 3.75 ERA while striking out 210 batters. Unlike Gray his fastball velocity is climbing and was a career best 94.2 MPH last year and unlike both Gray and Castillo he doesn’t rely on groundballs with a career rate of just 42.1%. He will likely be close to as expensive as Castillo, think maybe Duran, Dalbec, and Bryan Bello. I would make that deal though.

The last two potential trade targets are Kyle Hendricks and Germán Márquez. The Chicago Cubs appear to be tearing down and at $14 million for 2022 and 2023 Hendricks is pricey. The soft tossing control artist has been extremely effective during his career with a 3.36 ERA over his first eight seasons. However, last year was his worst season to date, he pitched to a 4.77 ERA with a 4.99 expected ERA. He throws a lot of innings, but he may be too risky and too expensive for the Red Sox taste.

Lastly, it wouldn’t be the offseason if we didn’t mention the potential of trading for Márquez. No one knows what the Rockies will do since they are run by a bunch of manatees choosing idea balls so guessing what they will do is a fool’s errand. The only certainty is that they will act against their best interests as a baseball club. Being in the same division as the Padres, Giants, and Dodgers is not ideal and Márquez would likely be better used on a contending team.

Over his career the soon-to-be 27-year-old Márquez has a 3.85 ERA on the road compared to a 4.73 mark at Coors Field. He is due to make $11.3 million in 2022, $15.3 million in 2023, and has a club option for $16 million in 2024. He has extremely good stuff and I believe with a pitch mix alteration he could lower his career 48.7% ground ball rate. He would be costly in terms of prospects, maybe something like Downs, Duran, and Bello, but he may be worth it.

In summation, the trade market and the Red Sox improved farm system makes me like the idea of trading for a pitcher a whole lot more than going out and spending money on one. If I had to rank them in order of how I would pursue them in terms of ability, expected cost, and all other factors my top three would be Bassitt, Mahle, and Manaea with Márquez coming in a close fourth. I would not pursue Castillo or Gray. If the Red Sox can trade for one of these guys and sign a lower-tier free agent pitcher like Drew Smyly or Johnny Cueto, they will be in excellent shape for 2022.