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What Could Have Been: A Look At The Free Agent Pitchers The Sox Didn’t Sign

In light of the Corey Kluber move to the bullpen, where else could the Red Sox have spent their money last offseason?

Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Sox had numerous options to fill one rotation spot in 2023; a group that included starters who departed from the 2022 team, as well as a few free agents from other squads, and Japan. Ultimately, they chose to spend $10 million on Corey Kluber who, it was announced yesterday will tobe moving into the bullpen after a grand total of nine starts. Let’s check in on the players that the Red Sox moved on from after the 2022 season and the rumored free agent near-misses of the 2023 season, or as George Carlin might call them: “near hits”.

The Ones That Got Away:

Data via Fangraphs

Nathan Eovaldi (Rejected Qualifying Offer, 2 Years / $34M, Rangers)

Eovaldi opened the season with a shaky 5.40 ERA in his first five starts. Since then, he’s been a legitimate Cy Young candidate. Over his past five starts, Eovaldi is 4-0 with an 0.86 ERA, going 7+ innings in every start and throwing two complete games which has propelled him to the MLB lead in Innings Pitched. He’s pitched to contact in this amazing run, with a K/9 of just 7.56 over those five starts. His fastball, down in the second half of last year due to injury, has sat between 95-96 while maxing out at 99.

Michael Wacha (4 years, $26M, Padres)

Wacha signed very late in spring training, looking for a multi-year deal. Neither the Sox, nor almost anyone else, wanted to do that. The Padres were willing to go to as many as four years, if certain qualifiers hit. Like Eovaldi, Wacha started off slow but has been on a roll since. Over his past four starts, Wacha is 3-0, allowing just one run and 11 hits over 25 innings. He’s allowing weak contact for the most part with an 89th percentile Hard Hit%. Most recently, he shut down the Red Sox for six shutout innings last Sunday, while defeating Corey Kluber, who had replaced Wacha in the Red Sox rotation (awkard!)

Rich Hill (1 year, $8M, Pirates)

One of the most fascinating Baseball Reference pages to ever exist. 19 seasons, 12 teams, including three stints in Boston. Hill has gotten through five innings in 8-of-10 starts this season, good enough for a 4-4 record, with a solid 17-to-52 BB:K ratio over 52 2/3 innings. His 28.6% CSW (Called Strikes + Whiffs%) is remarkable for a 43-year-old who averages 87.7 MPH with his fastball. We might be looking at a Jamie Moyer career path, still kicking around near 50.

Connor Seabold (Traded to Rockies)

Seabold was DFA’d in January as a corresponding move when Corey Kluber signed, and was traded to Colorado days later in return for a Player to be Named or Cash. After seven appearances as a long reliever, Seabold recently moved into the rotation when German Marquez went for Tommy John Surgery, allowing 13 earned runs in 18 innings over four starts (6.50 ERA) with 8 walks and 12 strikeouts.

Boston would have been better off re-signing any of these pitchers than Kluber, and that somehow includes retaining Connor Seabold whose numbers are similar to Kluber’s despite being inflated from pitching at Coors Field. In fairness, they did extend the $19.7M Qualifying Offer to Eovaldi.

Endlessly Swiping Left:

Data via Fangraphs

(all stats entering play on 5/24)

Jacob deGrom ($37M AAV) and Justin Verlander ($43.3M) never felt like possibilities, and each of them has spent the majority of the season on the IL so far. The two pitchers have thrown 30 1/3 and 25 innings, respectively, although Verlander has returned and is beginning to get in a groove. The third highest AAV, Rodon ($27M) went on the IL early in spring training for the Yankees with a forearm injury and has since developed a “chronic” back injury. He’s begun playing catch but has no timetable to return. Chris Bassitt followed that group with a $21.0M AAV and has a 3.03 ERA in 62 1/3 innings, but all ERA indicators are near 5 with an 11.1% K-BB. Staying away from the top of the pitching market, filled with players with recent injury histories, has been a sound decision so far this season.

The Red Sox reportedly made strong offers to both Zach Eflin ($13.3M AAV) and Andrew Heaney ($12.5M), and likely showed interest in Kodai Senga ($15M), before settling on Kluber ($10M). Heaney has had two blow-up outings, but has five quality starts in his last six starts and the strikeouts are there, as always (52 K’s in 48 innings). Senga has struggled to find the strike zone, walking at least three batters in all but one of his starts. His 13.9 BB% is 5th worst of the 107 pitchers who have thrown 40+ innings, but a very high strikeout rate combined with an 82.1 Left On Base% has him pitching in and out of jams. He’s likely playing with fire. Eflin was probably the pick, although it’s hard to know how much of that is Eflin and how much of that is a credit to the Rays tweaking his pitching approach. His 2.7 BB% is 2nd best in the league; the anti-Senga. The Red Sox believed they had the same 3-for-$40M deal that Tampa signed Eflin to, which, as Alex Speier reported in December, he leveraged that offer to pitch in his home state of Florida.

Is that your final answer?

Of course, any of these options would have been preferable to what they landed in Kluber. With the exception of Senga’s walk rate (and Rodon’s attendance rate), Kluber ranks dead last in every relevant pitching category of the seven free-agent pitchers that the Red Sox were in on. Sure, Kluber’s salary is slightly lower than any of the others, but you get what you pay for.

The Red Sox refusal to go the extra mile for free agent pitchers throughout the Chaim Bloom era, whether that be an extra year or an extra dollar, has continued to haunt them. In 2021, they spent $9.5 million on Garrett Richards and $4.5 million on Martin Perez. As the calendar turned to August, Alex Cora needed to have the uncomfortable conversation with each of them that they would be moved to the bullpen. This season, Cora has had to move an even greater $15.35 million (Kluber $10M, Pivetta $5.35M) to the ‘pen before Memorial Day. With Pivetta’s 11.25 ERA and Kluber’s 6.00 ERA in the first inning this season, something makes me think these two will not be the 7th and 8th inning bridge to Kenley Jansen in September. As Michael Wacha carved up the Red Sox on Sunday afternoon in SoCal, greatly outpitching Corey Kluber, it was easy to see where the team went wrong in their off-season starting pitcher pursuit.

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