The last-place Boston Red Sox began rebuilding for next year by making a number of deals before the July 31 trade deadline. However, the Red Sox still have a long way to go this offseason and among other things must look to fill gaping holes in their starting rotation (see last week's Red Sox Early Free Agency and Offseason Primer). Below are the top 10 targets for Boston to pursue this winter, ranked in order of how great a priority each player should be.
10. Edinson Volquez, SP
In his first full year in the big leagues in 2008, Edinson Volquez posted a 17-6 record with 206 strikeouts in 196 innings for the Cincinnati Reds. He's never been able to replicate those numbers, but in 2014 the 31-year-old Dominican is putting together his best season since. After signing a one-year, $5 million contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates last December, Volquez is 11-7 with a 3.45 ERA and a career-best 1.28 WHIP.
Volquez isn't the ace Boston needs, but he might be an effective fourth or fifth starter who would come at a much more affordable price than some of the other bigger-name free agents.
9. Pablo Sandoval, 3B
Will Middlebrooks and his .183 batting average just isn't getting it done for the Red Sox at third base, and prospect Garin Cecchini may not be major league ready by next year. Pablo Sandoval will be the top free agent on the market at that position. Sandoval is enjoying his best season since 2011, batting .288 with 15 homers and 64 RBI.
At 28 years old and in the prime of his career, Sandoval may command a longer and more expensive deal than Boston is willing to offer, especially given its much more pressing need of starting pitching.
8. Ervin Santana, SP
Ervin Santana is currently working under a one-year, $14.1 million contract he inked with the Atlanta Braves back in March, and his strong performance this season (13-7, 3.53 ERA, 1.27 WHIP) is likely to earn him a similar yearly salary going forward.
For his career, the 31-year-old righty has a very respectable 4.13 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP. Now in his 10th season, Santana will be one of the better arms available on the free-agent market this winter. Should the Red Sox fail to land any of the other starters on this list, they might be willing to spend money on Santana.
7. Koji Uehara, RP
Koji Uehara is the only significant player on Boston's roster who is about to be a free agent. Locking in their closer for 2015 might be the Red Sox's first order of business this offseason.
On the other hand, the club must also be wondering if the 39-year-old reliever is finally showing signs of age. Uehara has been scored upon in four of his last five appearances (while also blowing a save in the other) and seen his ERA jump from 1.27 to 2.36.
6. Giancarlo Stanton, OF
Having already belted 152 career home runs at just 24 years of age, Giancarlo Stanton is regarded by many as the best young power hitter in the game. So why doesn't he rank as a higher priority on this list?
With the recent acquisitions of Yoenis Cespedes and Rusney Castillo, another outfield bat is anything but a pressing need for Boston. NESN.com's Ricky Doyle writes:
Reeling in Stanton this offseason admittedly would be the best-case scenario for the Red Sox, almost regardless of the package they’d be forced to assemble...But if Boston really wants to avoid a potentially serious pain point in 2015, the organization must exert itself on the starting pitching market with the same ferocity. Otherwise, the club’s recent efforts to improve its uninspiring offense could go down as a classic case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.
The prospects necessary for a trade to pry Stanton away from the Miami Marlins might better be used to go after a front-of-the-rotation pitcher.
5. Cole Hamels, SP
Don’t think in 30 years of covering baseball I’ve ever seen a team (the Phillies) spend so much time scouting another team (the Red Sox) and not pull the trigger on a deal. Even after the trade deadline, the Phillies have had a scout in Boston, St. Louis, and Anaheim watching Boston’s young players. The match would be Cole Hamels for young players, and it may very well heat up this offseason. Hamels, according to a source close to him, would be open to a deal with the Red Sox.
In addition to being a potential No. 1 starter, Hamels' contract could appeal to a Boston ownership that has shied away from signing veterans to long-term deals. Hamels will be paid $23.5 million for each of the next four seasons, with a team option for $20 million in 2019. The Red Sox may prefer to trade for the high-priced 30-year-old than go after a free agent who would require a more lengthy contract.
4. Chris Sale, SP
Chris Sale is a 25-year-old left-hander in the midst of his third consecutive outstanding season as the ace of the Chicago White Sox's staff. Over his five-year career Sale has struck out 707 batters in 649.2 innings to go along with a 2.77 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP.
Sale is also owed a total of just over $27 million for the next three seasons, with club options for 2018 and 2019 at $12.5 and $13.5 million respectively. Considering this, is there any chance the White Sox might actually be willing to deal him? From Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald:
OK, chances are, they won’t. Then again, they might finish last in the AL Central and are headed for their fourth losing season in six years since their last playoff appearance. Clearly, the White Sox have enough needs that they would have to consider moving Sale if they were overwhelmed.
And few teams have as many assets with which to overwhelm them as the Red Sox, who could offer a package of [Henry] Owens, [Blake] Swihart and [Mookie] Betts as well as a major league-caliber hitter the ilk of Allen Craig.
At the very least, it would give White Sox GM Rick Hahn something to think about.
That's a lot to offer for one guy, but Sale is the kind of pitcher who can be an Opening Day starter for years to come.
3. James Shields, SP
James Shields is not of quite the same caliber as some other names near the top of this list, although he is having a very good season for the Kansas City Royals (12-7, 3.38 ERA, 1.24 WHIP).
Oddly enough, because Shields is 32 years old Boston may actually be more eager to sign him than a younger free-agent pitcher. While it will still take a hefty sum to get him, Shields' age could keep him from demanding an extended contract.
2. Max Scherzer, SP
The 30-year-old Max Scherzer was the American League Cy Young winner a year ago and an All-Star in both 2013 and 2014. Over the last three seasons with the Detroit Tigers, he has a combined record of 52-15, a 3.28 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 691 strikeouts in 589.2 innings pitched.
Scherzer ranks among the elite starting pitchers in baseball and is likely to be the most coveted free agent on the market this offseason. The only thing that keeps him from earning the No. 1 spot on this list is the unique situation involving the Red Sox and Jon Lester.
1. Jon Lester, SP
In each of Lester's last 15 starts, he's pitched at least six innings and given up three or fewer earned runs. But his impressive performance of late isn't why Lester should be the Red Sox's top target this winter—he's already proven his value to Boston with 110 career wins and two World Series titles in a Red Sox uniform.
Over the last nine years Lester enamored himself to Boston's fans, and if the franchise could bring him back only months after acquiring an All-Star (Cespedes) for him, it would be a coup of spectacular proportions.
Upon being traded to the Oakland A's, Lester said that he would still consider signing with the Red Sox again in the offseason. Via ESPN.com:
I'm glad with where I'm at, and I understood where [Red Sox GM] Ben [Cherington] was at. At the end of the season, it's not going to change my mind about going back there if they are aggressive and competitive and do the things they say they're going to do. Boston is definitely a place I would go.
Considering the fact that the Red Sox and Lester were unable to come anywhere close to agreeing on a new contract over the course of the year, the odds may be slim that the two parties will see eye to eye on what he is worth this winter.
Regardless of how likely Lester's return really is, an effort to make it happen should still be Boston's No. 1 priority.