Last week, I was channeling my inner Mark McGwire when I triumphantly declared that I was not going to talk about the past, but instead focus on the future.  While I don’t plan on taking it quite to the extent Darryl alluded to on Sunday, I’m hoping to keep this going a little longer.  Trying to counterbalance the yettis of the Boston media brings me great joy, but after a while it becomes exhausting.  For the time being, I’d much rather try to evaluate potential solutions for the Red Sox in 2012.

Coming into Spring Training, many thought the Red Sox would have one of the deepest and most productive starting rotations in baseball.  Considering the reputations of the pitchers involved, it was hard to blame them.  Jon Lester had been teetering on the cusp of becoming a legitimate Cy Young contender, and looked ready to take that proverbial next step forward.  Clay Buchholz seemed ready to establish himself as the team’s number two guy.  Josh Beckett, despite his brutal primary stats, looked like a solid choice to bounce back from a lost 2010 season.  John Lackey‘s late season surge gave many reasons to be optimistic about his prospects for 2011.  Daisuke Matsuzaka, though disappointing overall, had the potential of being one of the most productive fifth starters in recent memory.  Lastly, if all else failed, they had the reliable Tim Wakefield to soak up a few starts.  Everything appeared to be on the “up and up” for the rotation.

Oh how wrong we all were…

First, Dice-K went down with a torn UCL in his throwing elbow that not only required Tommy John surgery, but also sidelined him indefinitely.  Next, Buchholz was forced to the DL with a mysterious lower back sprain in June that later turned out to be stress fracture that would cause him to miss the rest of the season.  Lackey struggled all season long, eventually earning the distinction as the man with the highest ERA (160 inning minimum) in major league history.  Finally, in September, Beckett and Erik Bedard simultaneously dropped like dominoes; leaving the Red Sox to do battle with nothing but Lester and a box of rocks at the most crucial time of the season.  Needless to say, as the rotation crumbled, so did the Red Sox.

Going into 2012, the rotation seems slightly inadequate.  While Lester, Beckett, and Buchholz seem likely to put in solid seasons, the fourth and fifth slots carry significant uncertainty.  As reported during yesterday’s press conference introducing incoming GM Ben Cherington, Lackey will miss the entire 2012 season after suffering a torn ulnar collateral ligament; thus requiring Tommy John surgery.  The fifth starting slot, currently vacant, lacks an obvious in-house replacement, and will likely require an external reinforcement.  Wakefield seems destined to be non-tendered; Alfredo Aceves appears to be better suited for a spot starter/long-relief role; and Kyle Weiland‘s repertoire isn’t strong enough to be anything more than a one inning reliever.  As a result, the Red Sox will need to look externally, either via free agency or trade, to fill the slot.

Who might the Red Sox look to sign?  The biggest free agent names this offseason will be Yankees ace C.C. Sabathia (assuming he opts out of his current deal) and Rangers SP C.J. Wilson.  As tempting as it might be to make a play for either pitcher, it’s ultimately nothing more than a pipe dream.  Given their already shallow rotation, the Yankees will be very aggressive in negotiations to retain Sabathia; potentially going as far as blowing all competing offers out of the water.  Essentially, the bidding is over before it even begins.  Wilson, as the top obtainable free agent starting pitcher on the market, will probably be grossly overpriced given his age and true talent level.  He’s a very good pitcher (10.5 fWAR over the last two seasons), but it’s not hard to envision a scenario where his production slides considerably early in his next contract.  With the Red Sox already paying more then $52M to five starting pitchers (two currently injured), it seems unlikely they’d be willing to pony up an additional $16-20M+ for another free agent pitcher.  Still, given the two glaring holes in the rotation, the front office will likely at least give it a shot.  We can probably expect them to try to drive up the price on the Yankees for Sabathia, while making a realistic (albeit unsuccessful) play on the sly for Wilson.

Instead, the Red Sox will probably look to sign someone from either the second-tier or value crop of free agents.  Here are a couple of realistic ideas of whom Ben Cherington and his staff might kick the tires on this winter.

Mark Buehrle – As a soon-to-be 33 year old entering free agency for the first time in his career, Buehrle will likely be interested in exploring the market in hopes of finding the best fit for his services.  Inside sources expect him to either return to the White Sox or sign with his hometown Cardinals, but there appears to be some growing flexibility.  At this point in his career, he’s best suited as a dependable, inning eating back-of-the-rotation pitcher on a contending team.  He works quickly, strikes out few, and seems to defy all logic when it comes to the DIPS theory.  He just finished a four year $56M contract where he produced 15.1 fWAR over the duration.  As a result, he won’t likely be looking to take a massive pay cut.  Provided he’s willing to accept no more than three years at around $11-12M per (a big if), he could be worth locking up.  Given his recent performance history, 2.5-3.5 fWAR per season seems like a fair projection through 2014.

Erik Bedard – The biggest mark against Bedard is that he can’t stay healthy.  Having only topped 160 innings twice in his career (and not since 2007), it’s probably not wise for the Red Sox to expect a full slate of 32-33 starts next season.  That said, he’s a high-reward talent that can pay serious dividends in the right circumstance.  Despite lower fastball velocity and a lower swinging strike rate, Bedard’s managed to retain a near elite level strikeout rate (23.1% in 2011).  If he can slightly lower his walk rate, while maintaining his neutral GB/FB ratio, he should be able to continue producing at a 3.50-3.75 FIP level. Considering his history with arm injuries, a one year incentive laden deal with a $2-4M base salary seems fair.  Anything beyond that, the Red Sox should probably pass.

Hiroki Kuroda – Despite getting little fanfare, Kuroda is one of the more productive middle of the rotation starters in baseball.  He doesn’t seem to excel at any one thing, but does a lot of things well.  He uses a sinker/slider combination to induce ground balls, and throws a splitter as his strikeout pitch (20% whiff rate).  The biggest roadblocks in signing Kuroda are likely to be his age, asking price, and his desire to pitch for a team not on the west coast.  Considering his solid performance last season, he’ll probably seek out a deal similar to the one year $12M contract he signed last winter.  Given he’s about to enter his age-38 season, the Red Sox might be a little apprehensive in meeting his demands.  Still, he’s a name to consider.

Roy Oswalt – A lot of this depends on if Oswalt handles his side of his mutual option.  The Phillies recently declined their option on him, but it’s hard to see Oswalt leaving $16M on the table to become a free agent.  Still, if his back has been given a clean bill of health, he may decide to test the market now if he feels he can make more money over the long haul while taking taking a paycut for 2012.  At 34, Oswalt is still one of the best middle-of-the-rotation starters in the game, and he’ll probably be looking for a rather expensive three year deal.  If so, the Red Sox would be wise to pass.  If his demands drop (to two years and a lower average annual value), he might be worth taking for a test drive; provided the appropriate medical provisions are written into his contract.

Paul Maholm – Maholm could be an interesting target if/when the Pirates choose to decline the $9.75M option they hold for 2012.  Although he’s by no means a sexy choice, he’s certainly a very useful pitcher that could certainly fill out the back of the Red Sox rotation.  He doesn’t strike out many batters (14.3% K rate); has average control (7.7% BB rate); and has topped 200 innings only one time in his six year stretch as a starting pitcher.  On the plus side, his batted ball profile is ground ball heavy (52.3% GB rate), and he seems to be one of those rare pitchers that has a natural ability to limit home runs.  I’m not convinced he’s an ideal fit for the Red Sox or the AL East, but he could be worth taking a one year flyer on.  Despite his potential salary for 2012, he could probably be signed for less if he hits the free agent market.

Joel Pineiro – Yes, it’s true.  We’ve already been there, done that with Pineiro once before.   Since he left the Red Sox midway through the 2007 season, he worked with Dave Duncan in St. Louis, developed a sinking two-seam fastball, and turned his career around.  Last season though, he took a step back as he struggled through nagging injuries for much of the year.  After seeing his FIP jump to 4.43; K% plummet to a career worst 9.8%; and his groundball rate drop below 50% for the first time since 2008, it’s safe to say signing him carries some risk.  Still, the outlook on Pineiro’s health is good, and there’s no reason not to expect him to return to being the 2 WAR pitcher he was in 2010.  Still, given his inconsistent performance history, either a one year incentive laden deal or a minor league contract with a Spring Training invite is probably ideal.

Jeff Francis – Few people will agree with me, but I really like Francis.  Most will look at his 6-16 record, mediocre ERA, and meh strikeout rate, and miss all of the positive qualities.  He’ll provide 180 innings of quality work, above average control, and will keep the ball on the ground.  On the contending team, he’s the quintessential back-of-the-rotation starter.  After signing a one year $2M contract with the Royals last January, his price should be even lower this year given his primary stats.  If he can produce another 2 WAR season in 2012 (as he did in 2010 and 2011), his sub-$2M salary would be a major bargain.

Dontrelle Willis – I promise you, I haven’t gone crazy.  After struggling mightily with control for three seasons, Willis finally took a step forward in his recovery from Steve Blass disease last season.  While he’s still a work in progress, quite a bit of upside remains.  I wouldn’t give him a spot on the 40-man roster to start, but signing him to a minor league deal with an invite to Spring Training is certainly a good place to start.  At the very least, they could stash him in Pawtucket as a depth option that they could call on when needed.  If it doesn’t work out, he can be released with little collateral damage.

So what are your thoughts on who the Red Sox should sign to fill the rotation the 2012 season?  Will they splurge and sign one of the big named free agents?  Will they take the value route?  Or will they stay in-house and go with either Aceves or Wakefield?  Make your opinion known!  If you think a player not included on this list could be a target, tell us who it is and explain why the Red Sox might be interested.