The Red Sox’ work with their lineup and position playing core isn’t done, but it’s not far from it. Starting pitching is another story.
The market for rotation help has been slower to develop this offseason than its positional counterpart. To date, there have been a few players to move on relatively brief deals, whether Dan Haren to the Nationals on a one-year, $13 million deal, or Joe Blanton going to the Angels for two years and $15 million.
But with 2009 Cy Young winner Zach Greinke still on the free agent market, there’s a giant domino that has yet to topple. When he does move, there is likely to be a trickle-down effect, and it’s when that occurs that the trade market finally proves ready to accelerate. And that is when the Sox’ offseason will truly get interesting.
To date, the team already has had its fair share of surprises. The early addition of catcher David Ross on a two-year deal came out of nowhere, as the Sox added to a position where many expected them to be set. The agreement with right-hander Koji Uehara -- possessor of the greatest career strikeout-to-walk ratio (8-to-1) in major league history (min. 100 innings) -- to a one-year deal also came as a bolt from the blue.
Still, given the team’s resources and financial flexibility, and the value that both players can add to the roster, those moves were relative no-brainers. Even the team’s signings of Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino to twin three-year, $39 million deals was relatively straightforward, given that both players addressed key needs and came without a cost in prospects or draft picks but instead just money -- something that the Sox have in bountiful supply -- while also having only limited risk given the ages of both players and the relative consistency of both players’ careers.
But when it comes to starting pitching, things may get a bit more complicated. The team isn’t engaged on Greinke. Free agent Anibal Sanchez would represent an excellent fit given his age (28), performance (196 innings per year over the last three years, 3.70 ERA, 8.1 strikeouts per nine, 2.8 walks per nine), but as the fallback free agent option behind Greinke, there’s a good chance he’ll get more than four years -- thus taking him to a point where the Sox are unlikely to remain comfortable staying in the bidding.
The team remains engaged on Ryan Dempster, who delivered consistent performance in the Cubs rotation over the last five years, though the 35-year-old is looking for a three-year deal while using Haren’s $13 million a year as a baseline. A starter such as Brandon McCarthy is on the market, a 29-year-old who delivered tremendous performance (3.29 ERA, 6.3 strikeouts per nine, 1.6 walks per nine) in Oakland over the last two years but who has never made as many as 25 starts in a season. There’s Edwin Jackson, Shaun Marcum, Jair Jurrjens as an upside play …
Most of those options come with risk, however. The length of term on pitchers becomes problematic when dealing with free agency, and by the time they reach free agency, most pitchers represent considerable risks in terms of either health or performance inconsistency.
And so, when staring at that market reality, the Sox may end up facing a choice. To trade or not?
A year ago, once C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle were peeled off the top of the free agent market, the trade market stirred, with Gio Gonzalez, Mat Latos and Michael Pineda all getting dealt as young, controllable starters. The cost for each was considerable. Gonzalez and Latos netted four-prospect hauls. Pineda required the Yankees to part with a player who was viewed as one of the preeminent hitting prospects in the game (Jesus Montero).
This year, while the names that might float into the trade market have remained fairly well guarded (aside from the potential that the White Sox might consider dealing Gavin Floyd; the Rays -- an unlikely partner for the Sox -- are contemplating offers for some of their outstanding stable of pitchers, most notably James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson; the Mets are listening on R.A. Dickey and, to a lesser degree, Jon Niese), it’s clear that there will be an active swap meet for starters. The Sox seem eager for that to take shape.
“The pitching side of things still hasn’t really emerged. From a trade perspective, those things are always really complicated, because you need other participants whereas in free agency, you don’t need another participant. You just need a wallet,” Red Sox assistant GM Mike Hazen said on WEEI’s Red Sox Hot Stove Show on Thursday. “Even on the free agent side of things, the pitchers haven’t really seemed to move that much yet. I don’t know if teams are waiting for the big fish to fall before they get in. ... We’ll see how that all comes together as we move forward.”
Certainly, the Sox seem poised to engage on a number of potential trade targets. The team is unlikely to move either Xander Bogaerts or Jackie Bradley Jr., given that both would be extremely difficult to replace. In the case of Bogaerts, players with the ceilings of superstars who are at the infancy of their careers (thus costing money) are simply too valuable to trade, since they permit a team not only to have a player with tremendous impact, but also to have the financial freedom to make major signings. Bradley represents the Sox’ future in center field starting next year.
But while the team’s unwillingness to deal those two players might take it out of some conversations (for instance, according to one major league source, the Mets wouldn’t consider dealing Dickey to the Sox without the inclusion of either Bradley or Bogaerts), the team still has some organizational strengths to create the potential for a bold move for a starter. The variety of chips that the Sox feature is diverse.
The team has three well-regarded pitching prospects in right-handers Matt Barnes, Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster. Those right-handers have the sort of high-ceiling arms to get a conversation started. A bit below them, there are other potential big league starters like Brandon Workman and Drake Britton and Henry Owens who would fit different kinds of profiles in building a prospect package for a potential deal.
Similarly, the team has catching depth that could make either Ryan Lavarnway or Jarrod Saltalamacchia expendable. The signing of Shane Victorino, at least in theory, could allow the Sox to turn Jacoby Ellsbury into a chip (the Sox, according to a source familiar with their thinking, will only listen to offers on him that allow them to make considerable upgrades to their big league rotation).
Even beyond Ellsbury and Bradley, the team has other outfielders who would represent viable chips. Bryce Brentz, a corner outfielder with big power potential who will open next year in Triple-A, has prospect value. So, to lesser degrees, do players like Brandon Jacobs (coming off a down year, in part due to injury, but with a compelling combination of power and speed) and Keury De La Cruz (after a breakthrough 20-20 season in A-ball in 2012), and Daniel Nava and Ryan Kalish.
The move to land Uehara could allow the team to consider moves involving other areas of the bullpen, whether with the trio of left-handers (Franklin Morales, Andrew Miller, Craig Breslow) or, more likely, right-handers such as Alfredo Aceves (whose value was, of course, diminished by his issues with the team), Andrew Bailey or, if the team swallowed hard, Junichi Tazawa, whose trade value might never be higher than after his outrageous performance at the end of 2012.
If the Sox want to get a young, controllable starter with less wear on his arm than the free agent pool features, they have some inventory from which to deal. If there are teams that need starting pitching prospects, they can talk. Catchers? Check. Relievers? Sure. A center fielder who was once an AL MVP runner-up? The team will listen. Minor league outfielders with intriguing ceilings? OK.
The team’s early signings this offseason have given it more flexibility to consider trades involving catchers, outfielders and relievers. The summer blockbuster with the Dodgers gave the team greater flexibility to consider trading frontline pitching prospects. The net result is that the team should be positioned where it can get involved in the trade market for starters once it forms.
“Certainly [the team’s accumulation of depth at some positions] opens up avenues in the future because you’re dealing from positions of strength and not just positions of weakness,” said Hazen.
However, the team’s potential ability to make a deal doesn’t mean that it will be inclined to pull the trigger. As much as the Sox have accumulated depth for a trade, they’re also mindful that they need to have depth to withstand injuries (2012 offered a compelling reminder of that notion). Moreover, after having made so many moves this offseason to upgrade the 2013 team without diminishing the building blocks of the 2014 team and beyond, the team is reluctant to damage its future foundation.
“We just stay engaged in all of those things, and as the market moves and it presents itself, you have a choice. You have your choice to get in or get out,” said Hazen. “We believe heavily, strongly, that that wave of players that’s coming up over the next two or three years, starting next year and moving into the next two and three years is the core of this team moving forward.
“That’s an area of surplus that can also be looked at as an area of depth. … Your depth consists of the guys that may be in his 30s at the major league level, if he gets hurt, you’re relying on the guys playing at Pawtucket to come and infuse talent onto the roster that may help get you into the playoffs,” he added. “We’re in a position in certain areas. Nothing is imminent on any front right now. We’ll see how those sorts of things emerge.”