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Boston Red Sox Free Agent News: 16 Ways They Can Still Upgrade the Rotation

Frank LennonCorrespondent IOctober 24, 2016

Boston Red Sox Free Agent News: 16 Ways They Can Still Upgrade the Rotation

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    With the recent signing of Aaron Cook to a split minor league/major league contract (read the details here), Red Sox GM Ben Cherington shows that he is sticking to his guns about avoiding big-ticket free agents. 

    He is living up to what he said in his initial press conference: that he would approach this off-season patiently, not overreact to the September collapse, and focus on low-risk, high-reward signings and trades. "But we need to add some pitching depth," he said. "Most likely, we'll do that through some good, creative, perhaps buy-low acquisitions."

    Taking him at his word, I am going to remove three of the highest profile (and most expensive) starting pitchers from consideration in this slide show: Edwin Jackson, Hiroki Kuroda and Roy Oswalt.

    Jackson is 28, and he turned some heads with his performance down the stretch (5-2, 3.58 ERA in 13 games) for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011.

    He is another one of those average pitchers (4.46 ERA over nine seasons, with an unremarkable WHIP of 1.476) who has an over-inflated sense of his own value. He is  seeking a five-year deal at approximately $12 million per year according to Wallace Matthews, and the sad part of it is that someone will probably belly up to the bar with a four-year offer, due to the scarcity of available starters.

    Fortunately, that's well beyond the Red Sox price range.

    Kuroda, who will be 37 in 2012, is nearing the end of his career. He earned $11.7 million in 2011 and Andrew Marchand of ESPN.com predicts that "Kuroda figures to receive at least $12 million on a one-year deal." 

    Last summer, the Red Sox expressed interest in Kuroda at the trading deadline, but the Japanese pitcher told the Dodgers he would not waive his no-trade clause. He clearly stated that he did not want to go to an East Coast team.

    According to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, the potential landing places for Kuroda are "wide open," and he is willing to consider all offers, regardless of location.

    Hiroki Kuroda also easily be the top starter the Red Sox could pull in this winter on a one-year deal. But he would also eat up what little budget remains. Cherington will not pursue him.

    Combine Oswalt's age (34) with the bad back that slowed him down last season and you have a recipe for free agent disaster.  

    Despite the fact that back pain limited him to 145 innings in 2011, some team will still offer him a multi-year deal for big money. The last thing Boston needs is another highly-paid resident on their pitching MASH ward, which already features a number of walking wounded. 

    There are a number of other rehab candidates available with equally high upsides at much lower risk…several of whom you will read about on the slides to follow.

Paul Maholm

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    According to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, the Red Sox are among several teams kicking the tires on 29-yeqr-old free agent lefty Paul Maholm, who had a 6-14 record and a 3.66 ERA for the Pirates in 2011. He is another wounded warrior who has been on the DL because of shoulder surgery.

    A first round pick of the Pirates out of Mississippi State in 2003 – he was a college teammate of Jonathan Papelbon—Maholm has gone 53-73 with a 4.36 ERA in seven major league seasons. Granted, those numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt, since he pitched all seven years for the Pirates.

    First, the positives: He's a ground ball pitcher; slightly less than half the batters he faces get the ball in the air (although Cook has an even higher career ground ball rate). Maholm also had a pretty good ERA (3.66) last year for a team that faded badly in the second half. Three seasons ago (2008) he pitched 206.1 innings for the Pirates, posting an ERA of 3.71 and a K/BB ratio of 2.21.

    The negatives, in addition to the salary vs. injury question, include doubt that he will ever approach the 2006 numbers again, especially in the AL East. After all, the NL Central is not exactly Murderer's Row.

    He's also not going to miss many bats, especially in the hard-hitting AL East. For his career, he strikes out only 5.55 batters per nine innings, striking out only 14.3 percent of the batters h has faced. 

    He earned $6.25 million in 2011, and the Pirates declined a $9.75 million option in October. They bought him out for $750,00. He will still be seeking a multi-million dollar deal for perhaps two years. While I think the Red Sox can get a greater bang for the buck (just look at the Cook deal: $1.5 million on a prorated contract)—he might be worth it if he would take a one-year deal.

Chen Wei-Yin

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    A sleeper might well be Taiwan-born Chen Wei-yin, a 26-year-old lefty who pitched with the Chunichi Dragons in Japan before becoming a free agent this offseason.

    Chen pitched for the Chinese Taipei national baseball team in 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games.  He won the 2009 Central League ERA title with the lowest ERA (1.54) in Japan in more than 40 years.

    This remarkable performance came after he had Tommy John surgery after the 2006 season.

    Chen has a career ERA in Japan of 2.59 in 89 starts (127 appearances). He has registered 7.2 strikeouts per nine innings, with a very respectable WHIP of 1.09. He went 8-10 with a 2.68 ERA in 164.2 innings over 25 games (24 starts) in 2011.

    On the plus side, he won’t cost a posting fee, and Bobby Valentine's experience in Japan may cause the Red Sox to take a second look. Rumors are that a number of teams are evaluating him. One of those teams is the Orioles, who, according to the Orioles Insider blog of the Baltimore Sun, have had an eye on Chen for a while. "There definitely is some thought about making Chen the club’s second import from Japan’s pro league," concluded the blog.

    Despite the fact that he is considered to be one of the better young pitchers in Japan, I am concerned that he may be starting to break down—a real problem with starters from the Japanese league. Reports out of Japan suggest that he has lost some velocity on his fastball (which was only low 90s at its best) due to a leg injury.

    Tom Verducci's superb Sports Illustrated piece described the "Third-Year Wall" problem which seems to plague Japanese pitchers who come to MLB

    Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine told Verducci, "The anecdotal assessment suggests starting pitchers have a two-year window of success followed by a rapid decline, followed thereafter by disappearance. Even a lot of the relievers have had success quickly, reaching a hot peak followed by a rapid decline."

    For details, please go to "The Third Year Wall" at this link.

    For the same reasons that I recommended avoiding Yu Darvish, I would also stay away from Chen.

Bartolo Colon

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    In 2011, Bartolo Colon had a surprisingly good bounce-back year pitching for the Yankees (8-10 record, ERA of 4.00, 135 K in 164.1 innings). This was his highest strikeout rate since 2001, and it was earned in the AL East.

    Colón did not pitch in 2010 due to ongoing right shoulder pain and damage to the rotator cuff, ligaments and tendons. He also lost the 2006 season due to a partially torn rotator cuff.

    But his shoulder reconstruction — featuring stem cells from his own body — stood up surprisingly well last year. (He did have a stint on the DL, but that was due to a hamstring injury.)

    There's no question he has the chops if he's healthy. After all, he won the American League Cy Young Award with the Angels of Anaheim">Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2005.

    However, let's not forget that he had a previous stint with the Red Sox in 2008 that did not end well. He was called up to Boston in May after doing well in Triple-A, and made seven starts. But in September the Red Sox put him on the suspended list after he went home to the Dominican Republic to handle "personal matters" and decided not to come back.

    The old adage "once burned…" should come into play here.

    There's also the issue of his weight. 

    Speaking of the controversial stem cell surgery described above, the hefty right hander said, "Being porky saved my career." Known as the "round mound on the rebound" last season in New York, he proudly added, "Doctors said they'd never seen so many fat stem cells in one person."

    One other warning sign: He is reportedly in training for Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest 2012.

Joe Saunders

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    I almost left the 30-year-old Saunders off this list, given that he was expected to earn as much as $8 million in arbitration this year before he was non-tendered by the Diamondbacks. He is asking for a three-year deal and will probably settle for two, but given the Red Sox salary cap concerns I think they have better options.

    He has been a reliable innings-eater, however, having thrown at least 186 innings and made 31 or more starts in each of his past four seasons. The Angels drafted him in the first round in 2002, and was once the #2 starter in the Los Angeles rotation. He has a career record of 69-52 with a 4.16 ERA in 161 starts over seven seasons. He went 12-13 with a 3.69 ERA and 1.307 WHIP in 212 innings last year.

    On the minus side Saunders does not throw hard, and gives up a lot of home runs (25 or more in each of the past three years.) 

    Saunders appears to be another one of those middle-range starters with an inflated sense of his own value, and there has been little action so far toward signing him.

    Even if his demands become more reasonable, I still think some team more desperate than the Red Sox will give him a multi-year deal.

Ross Ohlendorf

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    Princton grad Ross Ohlendorf, one of the most intelligent players in MLB, majored in Operations Research and Financial Engineering. He wrote his thesis on the amateur baseball draft, and concluded that "even though many of the investments did not work out, the upside on those that did was so great, signing the high picks to large bonuses appears to have been a very smart investment.''

    Ohlendorf now has the opportunity for a practical application of his studies. He needs a new contract with a new team after being released by the Pirates last month, following an injury-ridden, below par season in which he went 1-3 with a 8.15 ERA and 1.94 WHIP— the worst numbers of his five year career. To be fair, he only pitched 38 innings, and was shut down when his latissimus dorsi strain acted up again.

    Experts in Pittsburgh disagree about why he was released. Some say the Pirates are concerned about his shoulder injury, while others argue that it was because of his contract.

    Despite 2010 numbers that looked pretty bad on the surface (1-11 record in 2010), Ohlendorf won a $2.025 million arbitration case before the 2011 season. He argued that he was the best pitcher in the Pirates rotation, having posted an 11-10 record with 3.92 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 2009. And, despite the horrific 1-11 record in 2011, he incurred all those losses with an ERA of 4.07. Over his last ten starts before he hurt his shoulder, he was lights out: 2.35 ERA with a 1.15 WHIP, numbers better the number one starter on many other teams.

    Bill Brink and Michael Sanserino of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that the signing of  Erik Bedard was the key reason for Ohlendorf's release. A clause in his arbitration victory stipulated that he could not earn less than 80 percent of his previous salary, or about $1.62 million, making him too expensive for the penny-pinching Pirates.

    As Marc Normandin effectively argues on Over the Monster, his injury issues may cause many teams to shy away, "in the same way Alfredo Aceves was scooped up late into last off-season's game due to a history of back trouble. That worked out well for Boston, as they were rewarded for their risk-taking with 90-plus innings and a player still under team control."

    The bottom line is that Ohlendorf has shown he can pitch if he is healthy.

    The Red Sox can certainly afford $1.62 million if he could regain his 2009/2010 form.

Scott Kazmir

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    The left-handed former Tampa ace who once started Game One of the World Series has experienced an inexplicable loss of his mechanics to the point where his mental struggle led to his release by the Angels last summer.

    Is he washed up at 27? Or is he a valuable enough reclamation project to take a chance on him with a minor league contract?

    Once considered the top pitching prospect in the entire Mets organization, he went to Tampa in the infamous Victor Zambrano trade. He made his Major League debut with the Rays in 2004 at the age of 20, and for a while he held many of the franchise's career pitching records. He is still among the team's all-time leaders in strikeouts, ERA, wins, and starts. 

    Sometime in 2008, nagging injuries affected his mechanics (or perhaps it was the other way around). Either way, the Rays traded him to the Angels in the middle of the 2009 season. After a promising start in his new surroundings, Kazmir's once-promising career went into a tailspin.  

    His shoulder problems returned, leading to several stints on the DL, and his performance deteriorated during the 2010 season. Kazmir lost 15 games that season and his 5.94 earned-run average was the highest in the majors among pitchers who threw at least 140 innings.

    Kazmir and the Angels organization entered the 2011 campaign with high hopes. However, despite a rigorous off-season training regimen, Kazmir arrived at spring training with no velocity and little command. According to Kevin Baxter of the Los Angeles Times, Angels manager Mike Scioscia called Kazmir's struggles "baffling"; he was placed on the DL and sent to extended spring training to "sort things out".

    After working on his mechanics for a month, Kazmir was sent to Triple-A to make some rehab starts in preparation for his return to the majors. Shockingly, he did even worse, posting a 17.02 ERA in 5 starts, walking 20 in 15+ innings. 

    He was released by the Angels on June 15 despite having $14.5 million remaining on his guaranteed contract.

    According to Sam Miller of the Orange County Register, Kazmir participated in Occupy Wall Street, and is on a production team making movies. He tried to start a comeback last month by pitching winter ball in the Dominican League, but he still hasn't found what he has apparently lost. Even at that level, he gave up two hits, two walks, and four earned runs in the first one third of an inning that he pitched.

    This once-promising career is now on the scrap heap.

    However, Kazmir is still young, he's left-handed, and he has enjoyed success at the very highest levels.

    While I would not necessarily commit much to him yet, the Red Sox have little to lose by keeping an eye on Kazmir and perhaps offering him a minor league deal if he shows any signs of recovering his All-Star form.

Ben Sheets

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    Sheets was a four-time All-Star and Olympic Gold Medalist, but his career has also been hampered by injuries.

    After eight relatively successful years with the Brewers, where he was known for excellent control (he has a career 3.62 ratio of strikeouts to walks) Sheets lost his entire 2009 season while rehabbing from elbow surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon.

    In January 2010 Sheets signed a one-year, $10 million contract with the Oakland Athletics. In July, the As shut Sheets down for the rest of the season due to a torn flexor in his right elbow. He had gone 4-9 with a 4.53 ERA in 20 starts.

    A's manager Bob Geren said no surgery is currently planned, although Sheets needed an operation to repair the same injury when he missed the 2009 season for the Milwaukee Brewers.

    There has been almost zero hot stove chatter about Sheets so far, leading some to believe that his career may be over.

Chris Young

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    Chris Young, when healthy, can be a dominant pitcher. Like Russ Ohlendorf, Young is a Princeton grad. He has a career ERA of 3.74 and a WHIP of 1.20, and batters have hit only .216 against him.

    As with many others in this slide show, his dominance is totally dependent on his injury status. Unfortunately, his injury history is a long one.

    Due to a variety of shoulder and arm injuries, Young has made only 40 starts since 2007, and has only pitched 120 Major League innings since the beginning of 2009.  Last year, after a promising start with the Mets (1-0 record, 1.87 ERA, 22 strikeouts, and a WHIP of 0.96 in four starts), he was shut down due to a reaggravation of a 2009 shoulder injury. He underwent surgery to repair a re-tear of the anterior capsule.

    Young, according to sources, may be missing some time in the beginning of the 2012 season. 

    Adam Rubin on Twitter reports that the Mets are seriously considering bringing Young back on a minor league deal. GM Sandy Alderson said that he recently met with the veteran right-hander in San Diego

    The Mets signed Young knowing perfectly well that he was a health risk the first time, and the contract was structured as such.

    So, should the Red Sox also pursue him?

    In this case I would say no.

    Unlike Aaron Cook and Paul Maholm, Young is a fly ball pitcher, recording just 28.2% of outs on the ground, as Matt Kaufman points out on RisingApple.

    Combined with a career BABIP of .248, Young would be a risk at hitter-friendly Fenway Park. Kaufman believes that Young's stats (and subsequent rep) have been inflated by the fact that he has played the bulk of his career at pitcher friendly Petco Park in San Diego. 

    I agree; Young's ERA at Petco is 2.85, but it is 4.20 everywhere else.

    I would let the Mets sign him.

Javier Vazquez

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    The Red Sox used to salivate when they faced Vasquez in a Yankee uniform. Vasquez is 3-8 lifetime against Boston, and 1-4 at Fenway. So why should the Red Sox even consider him?

    Believe it or not, several experts believe that Vasquez is the best pitcher left on the free-agent market (OK, it's a weak market…) But he quietly had another good season last year, posting a 3.63 ERA with the Marlins. After a slow start, he finished with a bang. According to D.J. Short of Hardball Talk, Vasquez finished with a 10–5 record, 1.92 ERA and 115/19 K/BB ratio in 126.2 innings in his final 19 starts. "Only Cliff Lee andClayton Kershaw had a lower ERA over the same time span," notes Short.

    During that period he had a 29 scoreless inning streak, the longest in Marlins history, during which he struck out 28 batters while only walking 4. He even finished the season with a complete game.

    The 35-year-old right-hander has certainly been around. In addition to the Marlins, he has pitched for the Atlanta Braves (2009), Chicago White Sox (2006-2008), Arizona Diamondbacks (2005), New York Yankees (2004, 2010) and Montreal Expos (1998-2003).

    In 2010 he became the third active pitcher to beat all 30 MLB teams (the others are Barry Zito and Jamie Moyer.)

    One reason that teams have not made a strong effort to sign him is because Vazquez indicated that he was leaning toward retirement at the end of the season. Joe Frisaro of MLB.com hears that the Marlins aren’t expecting him back and are looking at other starters. Adding to the uncertainty, Jon Paul Morosi of FOXSports.com tweeted this week that at least one MLB executive believes Vazquez will pitch in 2012.

    In Short's view, options will be limited for Vazquez if he decides to return, because he prefers to pitch on the East Coast in order to make it easier to travel to his home in Puerto Rico.

    It would be interesting to see Vasquez end his career with a dominating year in Boston.

Zach Duke

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    In 2004, Zach Duke led all minor league pitchers with a 1.46 earned run average (24 earned runs in 148.1innings pitched). He followed that up with a dynamite rookie season for the Pirates in 2005 (8-2, 1.81 ERA in 14 games).

    Since then, however, it's been all downhill for the 28-year-old left-hander.

    After several disappointing seasons, Pittsburgh traded him to the Diamondbacks in November 2010. Not unexpectedly, he had another disappointing season, posting a 4.93 ERA and 32/19 K/BB ratio over 76.2 innings. 

    Arizona declined his $5.5 million club option for 2012, paying a $750,000 buyout instead.

    For his career, he has a 4.56 ERA and a WHIP of 1.49.

    It's hard to imagine him succeeding in Fenway Park (or the AL East, for that matter.) He doesn't strike out many batters, he issues too many walks, and he tends to give up the long ball.

     


Jon Garland

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    The 32-year-old Garland has been a relatively consistent workhorse until this past year; he underwent shoulder surgery in July, which may explain why he is unsigned.

    Garland has had a rather productive career which has spanned 12 seasons with five teams. He has a record of 132-119 with a 4.32 ERA and a WHIP of 1.380. His best season was 2005 when he went 18-10 with a 3.50 ERA while pitching for the White Sox.

    In his last four seasons, all in the National League., Garland has gone 51-51. He earned $4.4 million with the Dodgers last year, but did not come close to his 2012 option for $8 million, which would have vested had he pitched 190 innings in 2011.

    He may well be worth a look. Having missed out on that vesting option, Garland undoubtedly has something to prove, and he may be available on a one-year, affordable deal. 

    He doesn't overpower batters, but he does induce a lot of ground balls. and he's been pretty durable throughout his career. Last season was the first time since 2002 that he didn't at least approach 200 innings, and he has averaged more than six innings per start during his career.

    He has pitched reasonably well against the Yankees and Rays in his career, with an ERA of under 4.00

Brandon Webb

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    The big negative: due to shoulder injuries, Brandon Webb hasn't thrown a pitch in the majors since Opening Day of 2009.

    The big positive: he's a former National League Cy Young Award winner and three-time All-Star. Featuring a devastating sinker, Webb was one of the best pitchers in MLB over a four-year stretch from 2005 through 2008, starting 33 or more games and pitching more than 200 innings each year for Arizona.

    Webb, who has  a career record of 87-62 with a 3.27 ERA, underwent rotator cuff surgery in August.

    Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reports that Webb began a throwing program in late December and his agent, Jonathan Maurer, said his client's arm feels "strong and loose.''

    It's possible that Webb may never pitch again. After all, the Rangers took a chance on him last year with a $3 million, one year deal, and he never made it to the mound for Texas due to the rotator cuff problems. 

    The point is, his track record has at least earned him a look. What is there to lose with an incentive-laden minor league deal?

Jeff Francis

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    The Red Sox might want to kick the tires if for no other reason than Theo Epstein is looking at him for the Cubs.

    He's left-handed, and he pitched 183 innings in 31 starts last year for a bad team in Kansas City, walking only 1.9 batters per nine innings. His career numbers are nothing to write home about (4.78 ERA, 1.430 WHIP), but he pitched for six of his seven seasons at Coors Field, which would inflate any pitcher's numbers.

    A shoulder injury caused him to miss all of the 2009 season. Prior to that injury, he was considered one of the more promising young pitchers in the game. In 2007 he earned some Cy Young votes for his 17-9 record with a 4.22 ERA for the Rockies.

    He has the same kind of Colorado history as Aaron Cook; there is pretty good evidence showing that pitching in Colorado produces more wear and tear on hurlers due to the altitude. Marc Normandin wrote an excellent analysis of that phenomenon for SBNation.com when he covered the Ubaldo Jiminez trade last year.

    However, Francis held up pretty well for the Royals last year. The fact that he's not a hard thrower may also work in his favor injury-wise; he features a mid-eighties fastball and a mid-seventies change-up. His third pitch, a mediocre curve, comes in even slower. 

    Having said that, that kind of a scouting report does not give me a lot of confidence in his ability to pitch in the AL East.

     


Rich Harden

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    The Red Sox almost traded for Harden at last year's trading deadline, but backed out at the last minute due to concerns about his health. (There may have also been some reservations about a fly-ball pitcher heading into a homer-friendly ballpark.)

    There was good reason for the injury concern; he has not pitched as many as 150 innings in a season since 2004. He has earned a reputation as one of the most injury-prone starters in the league. 

    His stuff is so good, however, that every year some team signs him up in hopes that "this will be the year" he stays healthy. Last year he averaged 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings; for his career, the number is 9.2K/9. That is pure swing-and-miss stuff.

    In retrospect, Harden pitched better for the As after the deadline than Erik Bedard (whom Boston acquired instead of Harden) did for the Red Sox, so you never know.

    I'm a little surprised that Harden is still on the free agent market, but the longer he remains unsigned the better the chances are that the Red Sox might be able to get him for an incentive-laden package. The problem is, someone will offer him a big-league deal. The question is, what's your risk tolerance? Harden is a total roll of the dice at this point in his career. 

    On the plus side, he's still only 30 years old, and he would probably be affordable. He signed a $1.5M contract with the Oakland A’s that included performance incentives for 2011, and I would imagine that a similar deal might lock him up this year.  

    A bigger issue may be that some teams may think he is worth more as a reliever than as a starter. Charlie Saponara, writing on Firebrand of the American League, argues that the Red Sox should sign him for the bullpen and the occasional spot start.

    That may well be worth considering, but that does not solve the fifth starter problem.

Vicente Padilla

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    Padilla, 34, is another injury waiting to happen, but he can get people out. He had several reasonably successful seasons with the Phillies and Rangers, but has pitched only 251 innings over the last three years. He has undergone two surgeries recently, one to fix a nerve problem in his elbow and the second to repair a disc problem in his neck.

    However, he is reportedly throwing 95 in Nicaragua this offseason, and might be worth a look.The Pittsburgh Pirates are supposedly considering him

    Mike Axisa wrote a very interesting blurb about Padilla on the Yankees Yes Network: "Anyway, there’s not point in exploring Padilla as option because he and Mark Teixeira hate each other. It dates back to even before their days as teammates with the Rangers, and back in 2009 we saw that mini-blowup after Padilla hit Tex twice in a game."

    That would be interesting if he came to Boston, wouldn't it?

Armando Galarraga

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    One of the most enduring baseball images of recent years is the picture of umpire Jim Joyce giving the "safe" sign that cost Galarraga his perfect game in 2010.

    Galarraga never again reached the level of that performance, and he was traded to Arizona in January 2011.  He went 3-4 with a 5.91 ERA in eight starts for the Diamondbacks, and was released in May. He has since been pitching in the Venezuelan League.

    I have no rational reason for suggesting the Red Sox consider this guy.

    I would just like to see him get another chance, especially given the grace with which he accepted a devastating blow.

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