General manager Ben Cherington said recently that the Red Sox have been content to "kind of let the market come to us a little bit," and that remains an apt description of how the team is approaching both the possibility of trades and free agents for starters. The team has taken a patient approach to much of the offseason, and all indications are that the Sox will continue to do so in the coming days and weeks, with one team source saying on Wednesday afternoon that the Sox are "not close on anything" on either the trade or free agent fronts as they look to fortify their rotation.
The Sox have been connected to numerous pitchers on both the trade and free agent fronts, and will continue to be. The team is committed to exploring every opportunity that exists on the market to see if there is a potential match of supply and demand for what the Sox seek and what they are willing to offer, either in salary to a free agent or in prospects whom they would offer in a trade.
For instance, the team inquired with the Padres about what it would take to land right-hander Mat Latos, a pitcher with top-of-the-rotation stuff who has performed as one of the best pitchers in the game in the last two years. However, it quickly became apparent that San Diego's needs did not match up with what the Sox were willing to offer, and that the Reds -- who ended up trading Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal, Edinson Volquez and Brad Boxberger for the 24-year-old -- were willing to pay a steeper price for the starter.
The Sox lacked the upper-level prospects to match the Reds' offer (Alonso is major league ready as a starting first baseman; Grandal, regarded as one of the better catching prospects in the game, and right-hander Boxberger reached Triple-A last year; Volquez has been pitching in the big leagues for a few years). And, in all likelihood, the Sox could not match the motivation of the Reds to make such a deal.
That dynamic may continue to play out going forward. Yes, the Sox finished last year with a 4.20 team ERA than ranked ninth among the 14 teams in the American League. And yes, the team's starters had a 4.49 ERA (also ninth in the AL) and pitched just 940 innings (13th in the AL), with the team's lack of depth having been exposed to dramatic effect in September.
Even so, the Sox feel that they are operating from a position of some security with their rotation given that they are fronted by Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. With that front three, the team was content to stay out of the bidding for the top pitchers on the open market this winter (C.J. Wilson, Mark Buehrle, Yu Darvish) and, while the team is willing to explore trades for starters, it may be less motivated to complete a deal for someone who would represent a fourth or fifth starter than another team might be to acquire someone who would address more of a front-of-the-rotation need.
To wit: The Nationals are reportedly pursuing left-hander Gio Gonzalez of the A's as someone who could assume the role of the ace of a pitching staff. The Sox' need for starters to round out their rotation might give them less urgency to make a deal, particularly at a time when the prospect pool in the upper levels of their minor league system has thinned out.
"I think every team has their line of demarcation, their point of pain that they won’t go past. We know where ours is," said the team source. "Whether that line is above or below another team’s, I don’t know."
The team's offense somewhat mitigates the need to pursue the high-end starters on the market. The Sox would like to add strike throwers who can work deep into games and thus minimize the strain on the bullpen from their back-end starters. (Given that preference, it is worth noting that Gonzalez led the AL by allowing 91 walks in 2011, and he finished second in the category with 92 free passes in 2010. Still, he managed to log over 200 innings in both years.)
All things being equal, of course, the team would like to add the best arm available. That said, it may not be necessary to shoot for someone who is viewed as having dominant stuff. The Sox led the majors in runs per game in 2011 even in a year when they received little offensive contribution from left field (where Carl Crawford struggled) and right field (where J.D. Drew made little impact before Josh Reddick took the job from him). They don't necessarily need someone to throw shutouts in order to win.
That reality has created some market flexibility for the Sox. They can wait to see if the right pitcher becomes available at a palatable cost. They need someone who can contribute to the rotation rather than someone who can carry it. That belief, in turn, has allowed the Sox to sit back and wait, with one agent noting recently with some amazement that the Red Sox (and, for that matter, the Yankees) have spent almost nothing thus far in free agency, with the team's two signings to date -- utility infielder Nick Punto and catcher Kelly Shoppach -- having cost less than $3 million.
Still, the team's approach of waiting for a market adjustment seems somewhat more likely to work for free agents than trades. Unless a team has a need to move a pitcher -- whether because they have concerns that he will lose value as the season progresses due to either injury or underperformance, or because they have payroll constraints that force the shedding of a salary or immediate needs for the 2012 season that can be addressed only through a trade -- it can hold onto a potential trade candidate and deal him later in the year, at a time when teams in the middle of a pennant race might be willing to pay a premium for him.
With the free agent market, on the other hand, players who remain unsigned into January will often adjust their targeted deal in order to try to find a fit before teams spend to their payroll limits. Indeed, several of the best free agent signings by the Sox of the last decade have come in January or later. Among them:
-- Alfredo Aceves signed a one-year, $650,000 deal on Feb. 8, 2011
-- Adrian Beltre signed a one-year, $9 million deal on Jan. 7, 2010
-- Bill Mueller signed a two-year, $4.5 million deal that became official on Jan. 14, 2003
-- Most memorably, the Sox signed David Ortiz to a one-year, $1.25 million deal on Jan. 22, 2003
The Sox have also had some January contracts that did not pay off, including the one-year, $5.5 million deal with John Smoltz from 2009 and a one-year, $4 million deal with Joel Pineiro in 2007. But those have typically featured little risk.
That history gives the Sox something of a comfort level as they proceed in the offseason. The team is examining all kinds of options for its rotation -- perceived frontline starters on the trade market like Gio Gonzalez, the most attractive remaining free agent options (particularly those who are inclined to take short-term deals such as Hiroki Kuroda and Roy Oswalt, both of whom are looking for one-year deals), players with lower profiles who would be perceived as depth options, and virtually everything in between.
Similarly, the team doesn't feel like this is the offseason in which it needs to address its rotation for the long term. Beckett and Lester are under team control through 2013. Buchholz can be retained through 2017. John Lackey is expected to be ready to start again by 2013; it is possible that he could be in position to be better following Tommy John surgery than he was during the 2010-11 seasons.
If someone else in the Sox' organization takes a step forward -- whether a converted starter such as Daniel Bard or Aceves, a pitcher such as Felix Doubront or even a prospect who could get fast-tracked such as Anthony Ranaudo -- then the Sox rotation could (emphasis on could) be in good shape beyond the coming season. Of course, it is also possible that the opposite could happen, and that by the end of 2012 the team could face a somewhat more pressing need for starters.
That future has yet to be determined. As such, the Sox know only that they face a shorter-term need to bolster their pitching staff for 2012. While they can explore trade candidates who would be good fits beyond next season, they don't face a need to do so this winter. That, too, contributes to the team's flexible approach to the available starters on the market.
Ultimately, the Sox believe that they can take an opportunistic approach to the task of building their pitching staff. Instead of being backed into a corner, the team feels that it has a number of potential avenues to round out its rotation, even as 2012 creeps closer into view.