Jon Lester was Plan A for Red Sox, and Plan A chose to rekindle his relationship with Theo Epstein in Chicago. So what was Plan B? With a number of interesting arms but no true ace, the Red Sox took a different approach to building a rotation in 2015 by counting on a continuing shift in the state of offense in baseball. Here’s a look at the starting pitching options.
After watching him pitch 915 innings and 149 big league starts, we’re still unsure who Clay Buchholz is. In 2007, he was the toast of baseball when he threw a no-hitter in just his second major league start. But he struggled mightily in 2008, with a 6.75 ERA in 76 innings while spending time back in the minors that continued the following year. He finished strong after returning to the Red Sox down the stretch in 2009, and contributed to the playoff run. He broke out in 2010, winning 17 games, made the All-Star team and was second among American League pitchers in WAR.
But he’s mostly struggled since, with injuries, illness, and inconsistencies contributing to below-average production. For a brief time in 2013, he was an All-Star again, busting out of the gate to a 9–0 start before being sidelined with a neck injury for three months. But last year, he was nothing short of his terrible 2008 self, with a 5.34 ERA in a pitching-rich environment. This is a make-or-break year for Buchholz. He’s got the upside of an ace and the floor of an innings-eating mediocrity—or he could be injured again. The Red Sox hold a $13 million option for his 2016 season, and depending which Clay shows up, picking it up could be a no-brainer one way or the other.
Listed second because he’s actually the Red Sox’s second longest-tenured starter behind Buchholz, Joe Kelly came over from the St. Louis Cardinals at the deadline last year with Allen Craig in exchange for John Lackey. His average fastball velocity—94.7 mph—has been lot higher than most starters, and his sinker has gotten raves. He leans heavily on it, and despite that fastball that’s touched 100 mph, he’ll probably never have a high strikeout rate without a move to the bullpen. Entering his age 27 season, Kelly has not shown he can pitch more than 124 innings in the major leagues yet, nor do we know if his secondary offerings can support his fastball and slider enough to be a starter.
But Kelly is dirt-cheap this year at a $603,000 salary, and the Red Sox will have control of his arbitration years. That alone is enough value in return for Lackey’s last 10 starts, but how much Kelly will make is up to him. If he starts his full share of games in 2015 and is even average, he’ll be an appealing and relatively modest extension candidate. The Sox should probably be pleased if his upside is his fellow groundball starting pitcher teammate Justin Masterson.
Born in Kingston Jamaica, Justin Masterson is a 6’6” RHP and a second-round pick for the Red Sox in 2006. He showed a lot of potential in his first 160 innings in Boston, but the temptation of Victor Martinez’s bat for the 2009 playoff run was too strong, and Masterson was shipped to Cleveland. From 2010–13, was a model of innings-eating consistency—never throwing less than 180 innings but varying between above-average, average, and kind of crappy. He’s also been an All-Star, and has led the league in games started, shutouts, and hit-by-pitches.
But 2014 was a lost year for Masterson, who wasn’t his usual innings-eating self. He pitched ineffectually, spent time on the DL with a knee injury, and was traded to St. Louis to join John Lackey in the rotation. The Red Sox signed him on an old-fashioned make-good one-year deal for $9.5 million, and if nothing else, a return to form should stabilize the rotation.
Frederick Alfred Porcello was one of the better No. 5 pitchers in recent memory, the last workhorse in a stable that included Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, and David Price. Traded to the Red Sox for outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, Porcello is probably the ace of the Red Sox rotation. He enters the 2015 season barely 26 years old, but he’s thrown at least 160 innings in the big leagues every year since he was 20, and has been a consistent—if a bit underwhelming—three-win pitcher.
The Red Sox’s infield defense will be busy in 2015, and Porcello heads their portfolio of ground ball and sinker pitchers. He may not be the ace that Scott Boras promised when Porcello was the No. 1 high school pitcher in the country, but he’s the closest to a sure thing the rotation has. And this may be his only season in Boston; he’ll likely get a commitment more than the $12.5 million he’s getting this year.
Wade Miley almost immediately agreed to sell his arbitration years to the Red Sox for three years, $19.25 million after being traded from the Diamondbacks this offseason. He’s been developing a workhorse reputation of his own, putting in at least 194 innings of work in each of the last few years. He’s also struck out a lot of batters for a left-handed pitcher—the National Leaguers who had more are aces named Kershaw, Bumgarner, and Hamels.
But that may be where the comparison to staff aces end for Miley, and we see a lot of overlap in the four pitchers the Red Sox have acquired since last year’s deadline. At their upsides, Miley, Kelly, Masterson, and Porcello are all 200 innings of at least league-average pitching that the Red Sox are counting on to hold their own in a pitching-rich, offensive-poor environment.
Starting Pitching Depth in the Minors and Bullpen
Henry Owens was the 36th overall pick in 2011 and is one of the top 50 prospects in baseball. He will begin the season in Triple-A Pawtucket and hopefully pick up the blazing path he left off. Eduardo Rodriguez came from Baltimore at the deadline last year in the Andrew Miller trade, and former Red Sox GM Dan Duquette recently admitted that the trade was “painful.” Rodriguez dominated in Double-A Portland in six starts after the trade, and between them and Edwin Escobar (acquired from the Giants for Jake Peavy), the Red Sox have one of the most intriguing—if not best—collections of left-handed pitching prospects in baseball.
But depth is a weak spot, and there is no clear sixth starter. Starting pitching depth like Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, and Anthony Ranuado have been traded. Brandon Workman started 15 games for Boston in 2014, but he fared about as well as Buchholz did and will likely pitch out of the bullpen. Free agent signee Alexi Ogando has experience as a successful starter in Texas, and could provide Julian Taverez-esque depth as a swingman. Former first-rounder Matt Barnes is still being stretched out, and fellow former first-rounder Brian Johnson hasn’t mastered Pawtucket yet.
The real fun story to watch, though, is 30-year-old knuckleballer Steven Wright, who chipped in 21 very productive innings in the majors last year. Although he’ll never be Tim Wakefield, he’s already more successful than other Red Sox knuckballing projects (where have you gone, Charlie Zink?), and the Red Sox should never stop trying to find one.
The Offense and How it Affects the Pitching
The Red Sox lineup is legitimately formidable in today’s climate. David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, and Hanley Ramirez are still stars. Early reports tell us new center fielder Rusney Castillo is probably a star, too, and Pablo Sandoval is somehow regressing somewhat gracefully enough to the mean.
But what’s really telling is how much the Sox value shortstop Xander Bogaerts, probable right fielder Mookie Betts, and future catcher Blake Swihart during a time when we’re seeing fewer home runs being hit. Even Swihart was off the table in trade talks for Phillies ace Cole Hamels, and after signing Cuban phenom Yoan Moncada, the Red Sox are hoarding young offensive talent. By hopefully slugging opposing teams into submission and relying on the proven predictability of a rotation that won’t give up a lot of home runs in Fenway Park, the Red Sox have every intention of contending in 2015, even if there’s almost nothing set in stone for the rotation in 2016.
The Future and the Now
Wade Miley has a guaranteed salary for three years, Joe Kelly is under team control, and Clay Buchholz has an option that may not get picked up. Rick Porcello and Justin Masterson will be free agents if not extended before season’s end, leaving only two slots filled for 2016. Next year’s free agency class will have aces like Johnny Cueto, David Price, and possibly Zack Greinke—and won’t cost any precious young offensive talent. Worm-killing workhorses may be but a one-year plan, and with only $78 million committed to 2016, the Red Sox can flex their financial muscle on a so-called true ace next winter.
The 2015 Red Sox rotation may lack the identity of a Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, or Jon Lester, and you could be forgiven for being unexcited. But if the offense is as advertised, cromulent starting pitching should be enough to get to the playoffs.