Johnson – Flickr’s wallyg

Leading up to the trade deadline, all signs point to the Red Sox being buyers.

It’s obvious what the team needs most: starting pitching. With Josh Beckett and Jon Lester not pitching up to snuff, the rotation has been in shambles all season long. Felix Doubront is having a typical rookie up-and-down season that you just have to ride out. Aaron Cook, while pitching well, does not have history on his side, nor the stuff for sustained dominance in the AL East. If Clay Buchholz hadn’t completely turned his season around, the rotation would look scary, indeed.

So what pitchers could the Sox go after to insert in the rotation?

Well, the easy answer here is Franklin Morales. He’s already on the team, so he wouldn’t cost anything to acquire. He proved that he might have the potential to be an upper mid-rotation starter, but for some reason, Boston moved him back to the rotation. And no, their explanation of Morales being better suited to a bullpen job than Cook doesn’t count in my book. Morales turned heads, has more of a future with the team than Cook, could be a strong starter, and would fill a position of need that is way more important than being a reliever.

But the decision is made, so we move on.

Josh Johnson

A lot of chatter has surrounded Johnson and his chances of being traded. The 28-year-old has ace talent but has been injured often in his career. There’s no question that when he’s actually on the mound, he’s an elite talent. He is signed through 2013 at a salary of $13.75 million, which is a very affordable sum for many teams. The problem here is that Miami will want a lot for Johnson.

Jayson Stark of ESPN writes that Johnson will be traded for “only for a package centered around a young, star-caliber player who isn’t arbitration-eligible.”

It’s important to keep in mind that the Marlins aren’t conducting a fire sale as much as they are moving on from the Hanley Ramirez era and trying to put together a new team that can win, and win quickly. It’s no surprise the talent they acquired are ready or near-ready for the majors. They won’t be trading Johnson for a Single-A talent. One of the only players that the Marlins would take from Boston that would net the Sox Johnson is Will Middlebrooks.

And that’s not happening.

Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza

Ryan Dempster should have been a Brave by now, but the trade fell apart after Dempster suddenly got picky about which contender to join. Right now, he’s still a Cub and unless the team can agree on a deal to send him to the Dodgers, he will remain in Chicago after the year. The Cubs won’t trade Dempster for anything less than the talent of a player who can be acquired in the first round of the draft, as they can just keep him and offer him arbitration in order to get that first-round pick in next year’s draft.

If Boston comes with a strong offer for Dempster, it’s possible he could accept a deal to Boston. It’s unlikely, though, despite his earlier contention that he would consider any contender. If he turns down the Braves, he probably turns down the Red Sox.

That leaves Matt Garza as the other Cub alternative (we’re not counting Paul Maholm here), and he’s been seasoned in the AL East to boot. Only, there’s a new problem. Garza suffered a triceps injury on Saturday and will have his next start pushed back due to said injury plus the birth of his child. The triceps strain is reportedly flaring up to the point where he might not pitch again before the trade deadline. Ben Cherington is not one to take risks on a player being fine if he can’t get on the mound before the deadline, so Garza looks like he’s out.

James Shields and Wade Davis

The Rays are inching closer and closer to opening their team for sale, and Shields will be among the first (only?) to go. He’s a strong, solid pitcher but is prone to inconsistency, which is flaring its head this year, but a lot of it is due to a spike in hits allowed, which might be because of Tampa’s suddenly porous defense. There’s no question the Red Sox would love to grab him, but here’s the thing. First of all, it will take a big package back to get Shields, and the Red Sox may not want to raze their farm to that point. Secondly, there are plenty of other contenders for Shields, including the Angels, who might be able to give the Rays what they covet most in a young catcher. (That would be Hank Conger).

Meanwhile, Davis is reportedly getting a lot of attention as well, as Stark mentions. However, his breakout season has come in the bullpen and it’s still a bit of a question mark how he would translate back to the rotation. Given he’s under club control through 2014 and potentially through 2017, the Rays would need a package back that they simply couldn’t say no to. I don’t see the Red Sox as fits for either player given the price, plus the fact both teams play in the same division and don’t particularly care for each other.

(By the way, don’t completely rule out a David Price deal, which seems inevitable eventually. Right now, though, it would take a stunning return, and the Sox don’t seem to have those pieces.)

Zack Greinke

Let’s not spend that much time here on Greinke. Riddle me this: Why would Ben Cherington give up a ransom for Greinke, when he would most likely just leave after the season as a free agent? Or even if he stays, does Cherington really want to add yet another massive deal to this team and to the rotation? The cost in both prospects to acquire Greinke and to resign him just doesn’t make any type of sense. Cherington absolutely must make moves with not just 2012 in mind, but 2013. I’m of the belief the Sox should absolutely be buyers, as this is still a quality team, but they shouldn’t be buyers for 2012 only given how the season has played out so far. That’s what Greinke would be.

Jason Vargas

Vargas is essentially a product of Safeco Field, as he pitches in very friendly pitching confines for the Mariners. His ERA on the season this year is 3.91 in 21 starts. That ERA drops all the way to 2.84 in Safeco and jumps to 4.67 away. That doesn’t really sound like a pitcher who could succeed in Fenway Park. Add in the fact that he doesn’t strike out very many batters and pitches to contact, Vargas isn’t really an upgrade over anyone the Sox currently have.

The Mariners would also certainly deal Kevin Millwood, but much like Vargas, he’s not really an upgrade over the current composition.

Francisco Liriano

The lefty is an interesting name and has been linked to Boston quite a bit. This is someone that could very easily end up in a Red Sox uniform. There are warts with Liriano — most notably his staggering inconsistency — but he’s really turned his season around since a brutal start. His combination of swing-and-miss stuff along with being under club control through 2013 should absolutely interest the Red Sox. His inconsistency and durability issues, however, might cause Cherington to hesitate enough that he won’t pull the trigger. Plus, what do the Red Sox have to give the Twins? Minnesota wants starting pitchers ready to go. Unless the Twins like Felix Doubront, there just isn’t a fit there — and it’s unlikely Boston parts with Doubront.

Joe Blanton

Here’s someone that would be interesting. Blanton has quietly put together quite an impressive season. His 4.70 ERA might not look like any great shakes, but he leads the NL in walks per nine with just 1.2 and boasts the league’s best K/BB rate. What’s really killed him this year have been the homeruns, as his 22 lead the National League.  as well. But getting out of Citizens Bank Park should do a lot for him, even if he’s heading to Fenway. Fenway is not as much of a homer haven as many make it out to be. Add in the fact he’s been a bit unlucky in stranding runners (in part to those homers), and he’s projected by xFIP to pitch a lot better than he has. With Philly locking up Cole Hamels, they need to shed cash fast, and Blanton’s $3 million left is a bargain to a team like the Sox even if he’s just a 2012 rental: the price for him would not be prohibitive.

These are the most popular pitchers on the trading block, but there are certainly others that could be had for the right price. Muddying the waters is that so many teams are close to playoff contention with the addition of the second wild card that it reduces the number of sellers. Of course, some of these buyers might be willing to surrender a pitcher for offensive help, but those available pitchers are a lot harder to pinpoint. If the Sox were to make someone like Jacoby Ellsbury or Ryan Kalish available, I’m sure a lot of interest would be sparked by buying teams that can move a pitcher.

Maybe Cherington will deal for one of the pitchers on this list. Maybe he’ll shock everyone and make a bold trade for a pitcher no one thought was available. Or maybe he’ll do nothing.

We’ll find out in five days.