In the days leading up to and the weeks following the trading deadline, the Boston Red Sox made it clear that they plan on fielding a competitive team in 2015.
They made it clear with their actions, trading Jon Lester, John Lackey and Jake Peavy not for prospects years away from contributing, but for MLB players and Triple-A arms ready to make an immediate impact.
They made it clear with their words, with John Farrell insisting that the Sox "have every intention to compete and contend next year," as he told Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal. Ben Cherington put it another way, stating, "Our goal is to be as good as we can as quick as we can," according to TheScore.com's Greg Warren.
And they've made it clear with their money, signing Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo to a seven-year, $72.5 million deal that should give Boston its new leadoff hitter for the foreseeable future.
Yet if the Red Sox truly plan on fighting for the AL East crown in 2015, they have one glaring need: With Lester and Lackey out of the picture, the Sox need at least one true front-line starter to anchor a young, unpredictable pitching staff.
The Sox made a conscious decision to sacrifice pitching for offense at the deadline, and in some ways that makes sense. The Sox ranked just 27th in runs scored on July 31, and offense is generally more sustainable and easier to predict on a year-to-year basis than is pitching.
But after gutting its rotation of Lester, Lackey, Peavy and Felix Doubront, it's been pretty ugly for Boston's starters. Red Sox starting pitchers have a collective 5.28 ERA in the month of August and have allowed an opponent batting line of .274/.359/.415.
Red Sox rotation members posted a 4.04 ERA in the first half, so the drop-off in performance has been quite dramatic. Quite frankly, there's not a lot of cause for optimism in terms of looking for improvement, either.
Consider that the average MLB starter in 2014 has a 3.89 ERA, 3.86 FIP, 19.3 K% and 7.2 BB%, per FanGraphs. Now, look at how each member of Boston's current rotation has performed as a starter in Boston this year:
|Rubby De La Rosa||78||3.69||4.34||17.4||8.7|
Only De La Rosa has been even close to average, though the sample sizes with Kelly and Webster are particularly small. But given just how bad Webster and Workman have looked and just how unpredictable Buchholz is on a start-to-start basis, it's clear that the Red Sox need an infusion of dependable, high-end pitching talent if they want to compete next year.
Fortunately, the Sox have a lot of flexibility regarding how they can acquire the pitcher they need.
Henry Owens currently owns a 3.66 ERA in Pawtucket and was downright dominant in Portland earlier this season. He should be ready to contribute next season, and while he's not an ace, he does have the highest upside of any Red Sox minor league pitcher with the ceiling of a No. 2/3 starter, according to ESPN.com's Keith Law (subscription required).
Other than that, it's more quantity than quality on the Boston farm. Eduardo Rodriguez and Matt Barnes have mid-rotation upsides, but they can't be relied upon as definite contributors. Anthony Ranaudo, Brian Johnson and Edwin Escobar should all be available next year, but all profile as the back-end types that Boston largely already features in its MLB rotation.
But that glut of MiLB pitching talent ties into another route Boston can take to improve its starting pitching: the trade market. Every Red Sox fan may still have his or her heart set on Giancarlo Stanton, but it's more likely that if the Sox make a major deal this winter, it will be for a pitcher.
In addition to their abundance of starters in the high minors, the Sox are also overloaded in the outfield. Yoenis Cespedes, Castillo, Allen Craig, Daniel Nava, Mookie Betts, Shane Victorino and Jackie Bradley all figure to want MLB playing time in the outfield next year, and the Sox could easily ship out one or two of these players.
Betts, in particular, could be used as the centerpiece of a deal to land a premier starter. He's a potential explosive offensive talent but is blocked at second base by Dustin Pedroia and in center by Castillo.
One obvious trade partner is the Philadelphia Phillies, who could dangle Cole Hamels as they look to rebuild. According to Boston.com's Nick Cafardo, the Phillies have scouted the Red Sox in recent weeks, and Hamels himself would be open to coming to Boston in a trade.
ESPNBoston.com's Gordon Edes mentioned Chris Sale as a potential trade target earlier in August. And there are plenty of others teams who could be interested in selling off pitching this winter, too.
A deal for a pitcher of Hamels' or Sale's quality would require a gutting of the farm system, with Betts, and two or three of Owens, Blake Swihart, Manny Margot and Boston's young pitchers likely departing.
Paying that price in talent would be quite difficult, which is why the Red Sox may be best off adding to their pitching staff the old-fashioned way: through the free-agent market.
There are three pitchers slated to hit the market this winter who qualify as legitimate No. 1 starters for playoff teams: Lester, Max Scherzer and James Shields. Even after the Castillo deal, the Red Sox have little money tied up in players beyond 2015. The need is obvious, here, and the Sox have the financial flexibility to make a deal happen.
Of course, that doesn't mean the Sox are likely to spend big on a free-agent pitcher. As CBS Sports' Jon Heyman reported earlier in August, the Red Sox probably won't re-sign Lester, despite the left-hander's willingness to come back to Boston. And if the Sox won't shell out the big bucks for their homegrown star, it figures they're unlikely to be players for Scherzer, either.
Shields is perhaps a more realistic candidate, given that he shouldn't require quite the same commitment as Lester and Scherzer, but he'd still require a significant investment.
But the Red Sox don't have any pitchers in their organization capable of performing as even No. 2 starters in 2015, and it's a need they must address. If all it costs the cash-flush Red Sox is some cost certainty and financial flexibility down the road, that's a price they're better off paying than several top prospects.
Cherington himself has come out and said he doesn't think the Sox need an ace to be a competitive team. Here's what he told Boston.com's Nick Cafardo in early August:
It’s nice to have an ace at top of rotation, but you can be good in different ways. We’ve had really good teams without that. There have been teams that are contenders and in the playoffs that don’t have that.
That may be well and true, but the Red Sox need to add at least two and possibly three above-average pitchers to slot into their rotation in 2015 if they truly want to compete next year.
In addition to the big three starters, secondary rotation pieces like Justin Masterson, Josh Beckett, Jorge De La Rosa, Scott Feldman, Jason Hammel and Brandon McCarthy will also be available, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts. It would indeed be unsurprising to see one of the above end up with Boston next year.
But a legitimate top-of-the-rotation starter, capable and likely to throw 200 above-average innings and to show up when the lights are brightest, should flank any secondary acquisition. Without such a piece, it would be difficult to take the Sox seriously even if they did reach the playoffs in 2015.
The Red Sox have offense, they have prospect depth and they have plenty of back-end starters. What they need is a difference-maker on the mound, and they have the financial flexibility and organizational talent to acquire one.
Who Cherington acquires to anchor the staff next will go a long way toward determining if the Red Sox are to be perennial contenders.