It’s hard to know where to start with a rotation that doesn’t have much of an identity right now. All four players currently in it – Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey and Felix Doubront – all have immense natural talent. However, their inability to harness it as a collective whole coupled with chronic under achievement in the past few seasons has left fans with more questions surrounding the rotation than answers.
And answers. Oh boy, answers. Everyone – from writers to fans – seems to have one.
But what’s the Red Sox answer? So today, instead of looking at things through the lens of my own needs and wants, we’ll throw the Red Sox under the microscope and attempt to figure out what their approach to the offseason has been so far. Let’s jump right in!
To start off, let’s eliminate the wrong courses of action.
What wouldn’t make sense for the Red Sox to pursue would be a high-priced free agent pitcher. By high priced, I mean a pitcher who’s in search of a four year deal or greater on the open market. There are a few reasons for this, of which include:
If Lester and Buchholz don’t bounce back, will a big ticket signing make much of a difference?
If Lester and/or Buchholz don’t bounce back next year, it really doesn’t matter who the Red Sox bring in. The rotation will stink. Why pay big money and incur that kind of risk for something that doesn’t improve your situation?
If Lester and Buchholz do bounce back, why would we need a more expensive version of what we already have?
If Lester returns to his old form and Buchholz can stay healthy, there’s no need to spend big dollars on a front-end starter when you’ve already got two. In this scenario, it makes much more sense to go with something less flashy, less expensive yet complimentary. When you couple that argument with the fact that the Red Sox could have as many as four pitching prospects peering in through the window over the course of the next two seasons, it makes no sense to go any bigger with a deal than you have to. While I can understand doling out 2 years to avoid rushing the development of said prospects, going long in years simply doesn’t make sense, either.
So if it’s not a big name pitcher, then what kind of hurler might the Red Sox be looking at? To answer that question, it’s probably not a bad idea to examine their performance over the past three years and identify the trends in the rotation to best identify their current needs.
When I took a glance at the Red Sox collective performance from the 2010-2012 seasons, they utterly failed to do two things:
1.) Not walk batters
2.) Keep them from scoring once they got on base
In fact, the Red Sox have the 5th worst BB/9 in al of baseball over the course of those seasons. They also own the fourth-worst LOB% over the same period of time. Walks are turning into runs and a complete inability to stop the running game seems to be making a bad situation even worse.
Giving up walks is almost always bad. Giving them up when you have a total inability to keep them from scoring is worse. Finding a pitcher who can keep the self-inflicted damage to a minimum should probably be a priority. Thus, the pitchers the Red Sox have pursued so far in the marketplace have profiled as those who come with a low BB/9 attached to them.
What’s been rather baffling to some about this offseason is that the Red Sox have been tied to pitchers who all seem to be primed for a steep regression next year. Guys like Kyle Lohse, Ryan Dempster and Joe Blanton have all been brought up as pitchers who’ve received a phone call from Ben Cherington at some point this winter, and while they certainly don’t fit a traditional sabermetric search criteria on their own, it’s pretty obvious why the Red Sox seem to be interested in these guys: they don’t walk a lot of batters.
In fact, check out the walk rates of the players they’ve almost traded for, almost signed and have been rumored to be interested in. They all have low walk rates. In fact, five of these pitchers comprise five of the top six free agent starters available by BB/9 (Greinke is the other).
The similarities don’t end there. The second big commonality amongst this group is that they’ve all got significant question marks surrounding them, likely bringing the length and dollar value of their deals down, making them riskier, but team friendlier investments given the Red Sox current situation. With Kuroda and Dempster the issue is age. With Haren it’s his health. With Lohse it’s whether the past two seasons were a fluke or not. With McCarthy, you have to wonder about his head. Everyone has an issue.
However, these pitchers also share one more thing in common: they’ve had seasons in the past where they’ve gotten the job done. There’s a record of results that’d suggest they could be of great value to whomever seeks to retain their services. With that said, there seems to be a bit of upside here, even if some of these players are a little long in the tooth.
With so many question marks in the Red Sox rotation, wouldn’t it just make more sense to double down on the question marks that are already there by introducing another one? If the signing fails, you lose little. If it succeeds, you have the opportunity to add a ton of value – whether that means flipping the player for prospects in the future – or – supplementing an already improved rotation. It simply gives you the best chance for success.
What needs to be continually re-emphasized here is that I don’t think the Red Sox are as worried about the regression as everyone else is. They want a pitcher who can come in this year and not blow his own foot off. If he can continue to do that next year, then great but I don’t think it’s a requirement. By then, the Red Sox will have a whole cavalry of pitching prospects on their way to the bigs, ready, willing and able to do all the things said pitcher can do better, for less and without the risk.
With Blanton, Haren, Kuroda and McCarthy all off the board, I’d expect the Red Sox to start getting more aggressive in their pursuit of Lohse. While I’m not crazy about him, he seems to fit the profile of the kind of player they’re courting: a pitcher who doesn’t kill himself with walks, isn’t afraid to pitch to a little contact, and has a chance to build value in the short term.
It’s not sexy, but at least the logic makes sense.