The horrific performance of the Red Sox rotation in 2011 has been well-documented. Nonetheless, in case you forgot . . .
The team’s starters had a 4.49 ERA that ranked 22nd in the majors and ninth among the 14 AL teams. The Sox received quality starts in just 71 of their 162 games, tied for 28th in the majors and second-worst in the AL.
The Sox got just 940 innings from their starters, a mark that was 25th in the majors and 13th in the AL. While the group had 7.03 strikeouts per nine innings (13th, 5th), the inability to command swing-and-miss stuff proved a major issue, with a 2.05 strikeout-to-walk ratio that was 26th in the majors and 13th in the AL.
And then, of course, there was September, when the Sox’ efforts to hold together their rotation with duct tape failed miserably, with water mains bursting everywhere. Sox starters had a 7.08 ERA, gave up 7.99 runs per nine innings (thanks to 13 unearned runs), averaged 4 2/3 innings a night and delivered just five quality starts in 27 games, playing a huge role in the 7-20 swoon that cost the team a postseason berth.
All that, combined with a few cold ones in the clubhouse during games, created what would appear to be the obvious impetus for change. Indeed, in his appearance on 98.5 The Sports Hub on Friday, Sox owner John Henry identified starting pitching as the foremost cause of his team’s collapse.
“The starting pitching failed,” Henry said. “If you look at the Baltimore Orioles in July, they had an ERA of [7.01]. You know what their record was? 7-20. … If your starting pitching fails, the team is going to lose.”
So starting pitching was a concern, and as currently constituted, the Red Sox’ 40-man roster features more possibilities than it does certainties. Indeed, he Sox’ options for change appear limited. However, as they plan for the offseason, the Sox can plan on one massive upgrade.
The return of Clay Buchholz – who was limited to 14 starts by the stress fractures in his lower back – for what is expected to be a full, healthy season will represent as significant a boost as the Sox can hope to achieve.
If Buchholz (6-3, 3.48) had remained healthy, joining Josh Beckett (13-7, 2.89 ERA, 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings, 2.4 walks per nine) and Jon Lester (15-9, 3.47, 8.5 strikeouts per nine, 3.5 walks per nine), the Sox would have been in the playoffs. But, in his absence, fill-ins such as Tim Wakefield (7-8, 5.12), Andrew Miller (6-3, 5.54), Erik Bedard (1-2, 4.03) and Kyle Weiland (0-3, 8.72 as a starter) could not keep the Sox from driving off the road.
While the Sox have a solid top-three to anchor their rotation for 2012 (barring an unexpected trade of any of those three pitchers), uncertainty remains beyond those spots.
John Lackey (12-12, 6.41, 6.1 strikeouts per nine, 3.2 walks per nine with opposing hitters putting up a staggering line of .308/.375/.477/.852) turned in the worst ERA by a starter who threw at least 120 innings in Red Sox history. He has virtually no trade value; if the Sox move him, it will be in a salary dump, at a time when he has three years and $45.75 million remaining on his contract.
Beyond that, with Daisuke Matsuzaka out with Tommy John surgery, the Sox don’t have an identified fifth starter. While the team might be able to roll the dice with its final rotation spot if it had any semblance of the Angels version of Lackey, given what he’s become, the team cannot afford to take such an unsettled approach to its No. 5 starter. And, of course, if the team elects to cut bait with Lackey, then it will have two spots to address.
So what are the options?
'FREE' AGENCY IS AN OXYMORON
There’s big-market free agency. By the Sox’ own admission, that hasn’t been a particularly fruitful avenue for the team’s improvement, with Lackey serving as Exhibit A of that notion.
There will be appealing high-end options. Most notably, CC Sabathia -- who has the right to opt out of his seven-year, $161 million deal with the Yankees -- has been the most consistent pitcher in the majors over the last five years. This will likely mark his fifth straight year with a top-five finish in Cy Young voting, in a stretch in which he’s made 33-35 starts every year, won 17-21 games, logged at least 230 innings with at least 197 strikeouts every year.
However, Sabathia is almost certain to return to New York, and even if he wasn’t, at 31, he’s nearing the danger zone in which even elite pitchers tend to suffer a pronounced dropoff.
C.J. Wilson (31-15 with a 3.14 ERA in two years as a starter) and Yu Darvish (likely to be made available to MLB teams through the posting process following a season in which he’s gone 17-6 with a 1.49 ERA and 261 to 37 strikeout-to-walk ratio for the Nippon Ham Fighters this year) both loom as big-name starters.
In addition to his significant success on the mound since moving to the rotation, Wilson does represent an intriguing possibility given that he adheres to the straight-edge lifestyle of abstaining completely from drugs and alcohol. What player to more dramatically alter the perception of the team’s indifference to pitchers drinking in the clubhouse?
But the Sox may be reluctant to invest heavily in pitchers. After all, the team already has committed more than $50 million (in both actual salary and payroll as calculated for the luxury tax) to its rotation for the 2012 season. Here are the Sox’ commitments for next year:
Beckett - $15.75 million ($17 million CBT)
Lackey - $15.25 million ($16.5 million CBT)
Matsuzaka - $10 million ($8.67 million CBT)
Lester - $7.625 million ($6 million CBT)
Buchholz - $3.5 million ($7.5 million CBT)
Salary: $52.125 million
Luxury tax total: $55.67 million
So, the idea of taking on another long-term contract for a pitcher -- an enterprise that has, by and large, gone poorly thus far for the Sox -- seems somewhat unlikely.
There are others who would be available on shorter-term and less-expensive commitments, including the well-traveled, durable 28-year-old Edwin Jackson and health risks such as Paul Maholm, Joel Pineiro and Rich Harden. But again, that's not a demographic in which the Sox have enjoyed significant success in recent years (see Penny, Brad and Smoltz, John), and would do little to present a stabilizing back-of-the-rotation option.
THE SHALLOW PROSPECT POOL
The internal prospect options are less than perfect. Prospects like Kyle Weiland and Felix Doubront who, at various times in 2010 and 2011, looked like they would be solutions for the rotation by the start of 2012, by the end of 2011 looked like nothing of the sort – at least in the immediate term.
Weiland was impressive in two-inning bursts but unable to sustain success, particularly in his second time through the batting order. Part of that related to the fact that he lost his delivery at times following his call-up to the majors in July; he wasn’t the same pitcher for the rest of the year that he’d been to that point in the year.
He will continue to be groomed for a potential starting role, but while he will likely compete in that role at the start of spring training, Weiland – who has two options remaining – will most likely be sent back to Pawtucket to start 2012.
Doubront won’t be. He’s now out of options, and given that the likelihood of a left-hander with a 92-94 mph fastball, curveball and changeup clearing waivers is virtually non-existent, he’ll be in the majors with the Sox in 2012 (barring a trade). But while he will be asked to compete in spring training as a starter, and he could end up in either the rotation or bullpen long-term, an injury-riddled and inconsistent 2011 season makes him an X-factor rather than a stabilizing rotation force.
The same, of course, is true of Andrew Miller, who showed sporadic promise but was riddled by the same inconsistency at the big league level that has plagued him throughout his career. Miller, like Doubront and Franklin Morales, is out of options, and it is hard to imagine the Sox carrying all three left-handers on the big league roster in 2012.
At any rate, the Sox’ prospect pool hardly offers the kind of security blanket that the team could use to round out its rotation. Within the organization, they have pitchers with promise, but none who offer a guarantee of upgrading one of the worst starting staffs in the majors out of the gate in 2012.
All of that makes the idea of shifting some members of the 2011 bullpen into the rotation all the more intriguing. Alfredo Aceves showed a starter’s pitch mix (fastball, cutter, curveball, changeup) en route to a 10-2 record and 2.61 ERA in 114 innings, including a 9-1 mark and 2.03 ERA out of the bullpen.
Most impressively, in 13 outings of at least three innings, he had a 1.38 ERA. A case could be made that he was the Sox’ most valuable, and most consistent, reliever. He will likely be stretched out as a starter in spring training while the Sox decide what to do with him.
That said, he was 1-1 with a 5.14 ERA in his four starts. It’s too small a sample from which to draw a conclusion. More significantly, the Sox would face the daunting task of replacing his outstanding bullpen work if they did move him to the rotation.
It is in that respect that Doubront represents a significant member of the pitching staff. In theory, his responsibilities could expand and contract like an accordion, much as Aceves’ did. If so, then Aceves would represent an obvious candidate for the rotation based on his strong work in long relief (and other forms of bullpen work), albeit one who no more than 122 innings in any of the last three years. (He did log a total of roughly 170 innings in 2008.)
The other pitcher whose viability for the rotation could be explored is Daniel Bard. He has been largely dominant as a reliever in his three big league seasons with a 2.88 ERA and more than a strikeout an inning, mostly while facing the meat of opposing teams’ lineups.
Bard did, of course, have a horrific September that left him with numbers that were less impressive than his ’10 statistics, most notably with an ERA that elevated from 1.93 to 3.33. However, his ERA may have been deceiving, since virtually every other stat revealed progress in 2011.
His WHIP (1.044 to 0.959), homers per nine innings (0.7 to 0.6) and walks per nine innings (3.6 to 3.0) all went down. His strikeouts per nine innings (9.2 to 9.1) and batting average against (.176 to .179) both were nearly identical to his 2010 numbers. In other words, while September offered a bad final impression, he was essentially the same pitcher in 2011 that he was in 2010, when he was hailed as a closer in the making.
And he may still be that. In particular, if Jonathan Papelbon departs as a free agent and the Sox find that the closer market isn’t to their liking, Bard could still end up with game-ending duties.
However, the ability to feature a solid but seldom-used changeup, in addition to his high-90s fastball and his swing-and-miss slider, gives him the weapons of a starter. Whether those weapons would translate to success in that role remains to be seen. After a disastrous first pro season in which he forged a 7.08 ERA as a starter (the same as the Sox’ ERA in September!), Bard moved to the bullpen, thrived and the Sox -- though tempted to move him back to the rotation at times to see whether he could succeed there -- were worried about sacrificing the gains he made out of the bullpen.
And so, Bard has remained in the bullpen. Depending on how the rest of their offseason shapes up, the team could experiment with Bard in the rotation for next year, though given that he has never thrown as many as 80 innings in a pro season, his workload would have to be managed significantly.
Like Aceves, there is an element of the unknown with the idea of Bard as a starter. But given his high ceiling, there is also intrigue.
Early indications are that the trade market for starters will feature few impact names. Unlike recent winters, which saw impact pitchers like Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Zack Greinke change teams, this offseason is expected to feature less premium talent on the move.
Indeed, according to multiple industry sources, the number and quality of available starters is expected to be so limited that those clubs that are in position to part with a potential rotation member are expected to ask for a prospect ransom that may be out of proportion with the value of the pitchers.
Nonetheless, given the limited market of quality free agent starters and the fact that the Sox will likely want to limit expensive, long-term commitments to arms, the most practical way to acquire an impact upgrade to the rotation (aside from a gamble on the conversion of someone like Bard) is likely through the trade market.
Based on conversations with multiple major league executives, the following starters are viewed as likely candidates to be available in trade conversations:
Gavin Floyd – With the White Sox likely looking to take a step back in hopes of positioning themselves to compete for the long term, the team might be willing to move starters who are young, talented and affordable. Floyd, a Red Sox killer (6-0, 3.47 in eight games against Boston), is one such arm.
His contract makes him appealing, given that he is owed $7.5 million in 2012 with a $9 million team option for 2013 – an eminently reasonable salary for a pitcher who has logged at least 185 innings in each of the last four years, a span in which he is 50-45 with a 4.08 ERA, 7.0 strikeouts and 2.7 walks per nine innings. Though his 4.37 ERA in 2011 was his worst in those four seasons, his 1.162 WHIP was the best of his career.
John Danks – The same sources expect that the White Sox might also make the 26-year-old Danks available. The left-hander remains under team control for two more seasons, and will be in line for a raise from the $6 million salary he earned in 2011.
Like Floyd, the left-handed Danks had his worst ERA (4.33, along with an 8-12 record) of the last four years in 2011. Of course, that could be related in no small part to a horrific White Sox defense that ranked second to last in the majors in defensive efficiency (the conversion rate of balls in play into outs).
Over the last four years, Danks is 48-43 with a 3.77 ERA, 7.0 strikeouts and 2.8 walks per nine innings. In 2011, he punched out 7.1 batters per nine innings while walking a career-low 2.4 per nine.
Jeremy Guthrie – The late-blooming Orioles right-hander posted initially unimpressive marks of a 9-17 record (the most losses in the AL) with a 4.33 ERA. However, like Danks and Floyd, could see far better numbers if not for the fact that he’s been pitching in front of an atrocious defensive team.
He has logged at least 200 innings in each of the last three years, and at least 175 in each of five seasons since joining the Orioles rotation in 2007. His 5.5 strikeouts per nine innings are modest, and his 2.9 walks per nine last year represented his highest mark as a starter. But he has spent his career pitching in the AL East, so he wouldn’t be intimidated by the challenge of moving within the division.
That said, because he currently pitches for a divisional rival, even if the Sox wanted to acquire him, they are unlikely to find common ground for a deal. In the past -- including this summer, when the O’s wanted an extra pound of flesh should they deal relievers Koji Uehara or Mike Gonzalez to the Sox -- Baltimore has only been willing to deal with the Sox at premium rates (a common practice for intradivision trades).
Guthrie is under team control for one more season before reaching free agency, having made $5.75 million in 2011.
Wandy Rodriguez – Rodriguez was widely available this summer, yet no one was interested in taking on the remaining guaranteed two years and $23 million on the left-hander’s contract that also includes a $13 million option and $2.5 million buyout for 2014.
Nonetheless, he has four straight seasons of sub-4.00 ERAs while pitching for a woeful Astros team, and for his career, he’s struck out 7.7 batters per nine innings while walking 3.2.
However, his strikeout rate has gone down in three straight seasons, and given that he will turn 33 in January and that he would be moving from a pitiful NL Central to the AL East, the remainder of his contract represents a not-insignificant risk, something that the Sox likely be leery of assuming given the commitments to their current starters.
Reds -- The Reds have something of a rotation surplus, particularly now that they are planning to have flame-throwing Aroldis Chapman prepare for life as a starter in 2012. While Cincinnati would probably love to move Bronson Arroyo, who is 34 and owed $23.5 million over the next two years, it’s unlikely they’d find many takers for their longtime rotation anchor, given that he allowed 46 homers last year en route to a 5.07 ERA. And so, perhaps, they could make available some of their starters whose raw talents have not yielded results, such as 25-year-old Homer Bailey (9-7, 4.43 in 2011) or 27-year-old Edinson Volquez (5-7, 5.71), the latter of whom has not regained his dominant potential since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2009.
Rays -- With the emergence of stud prospect Matt Moore, the Rays have six front-of-the-rotation starting candidates, with Moore joining a line that already includes David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis. Any of those pitchers would be appealing to the Sox, but it would be all but impossible for the Rays and Sox to consummate a trade given that they are direct competitors.