FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Clay Buchholz knew somebody had to go. And he knew it could be him.
It was the first week of December, and the Boston Red Sox had just landed the ace they so badly craved. But the $217 million addition of David Price gave them six veteran starters for five spots, and they still had needs at other positions.
Buchholz tried not to think about it. He kept up with his offseason workouts, played golf with friends and spent time with his wife and two daughters at their home in Texas. But after being drafted by the Red Sox in 2005, coming up through the farm system, winning two World Series rings and ranking as the team's third-longest-tenured player behind David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, it isn't easy to ignore the possibility of having to start over somewhere else.
Although the Sox picked up Buchholz's $13 million option one month earlier, that hardly meant they couldn't trade him. So, he texted frequently with his agent, John Courtright, and even spoke on the phone with fellow starter Wade Miley, who had been mentioned in trade rumors to the Seattle Mariners.
"The fact that I'm sitting here today, that's a blessing," said Buchholz, who started a minor-league game Saturday at the Red Sox's player-development complex. "This is the only place that I know. I'm obviously glad to be back here."
In acquiring setup reliever Carson Smith and depth lefty Roenis Elias from the Mariners, the Red Sox elected to part with Miley, a perfectly average left-hander who nevertheless logs 200 or so innings per season, and keep Buchholz, who has all the talent of a No. 1 starter but is more fragile than a Kewpie doll.
It was a calculated gamble, choosing the more talented pitcher over the more reliable one. And stop us if you've heard this before: More than any of the other starters, including Price, Buchholz represents the difference between the Sox having one of the best rotations in the American League and one of the worst.
With nine days until the season opener at Progressive Field in Cleveland, several rival talent evaluators have wondered if Boston's rotation is good enough behind Price. Rick Porcello is coming off the worst season of his career; Joe Kelly is still learning to harness his electric stuff and make the transition from thrower to pitcher; young lefty Eduardo Rodriguez will begin the season on the disabled list after being slowed by a knee injury.
It was no surprise, then, that a report surfaced this week suggesting the Sox inquired about San Diego Padres starter James Shields. But they had little interest in the veteran right-hander when he was a free agent last winter because they believed his extreme fly-ball tendencies make him a poor fit for Fenway Park, and there's little evidence to suggest they have changed their opinion.
And the Sox need not be desperate as long as Buchholz is on the mound. He had the second-best ERA in the American League in 2010 (2.33), a 1.74 ERA in 108-1/3 innings in 2013 and a 3.26 ERA in 18 starts last season before straining his shoulder in July. Since 2010, he has a 3.61 ERA, 10th-best among AL pitchers who have thrown a minimum of 800 innings and comparable to both Shields (3.53) and erstwhile Red Sox ace Jon Lester (3.54).
"When Buchholz is healthy," Price said, "he's one of the better pitchers in baseball."
Yes, but that's the problem. Buchholz has missed at least three weeks, often longer, in each of the past six seasons. If it's June or early July, he must be on the disabled list, a status he has occupied before the All-Star break every year since 2010. He has never thrown 200 innings, and in two of the past three seasons, he barely made it past 100.
Due to that checkered medical history and the fact Miley is owed nearly half as much money over the next two years ($6.17 million this season, $8.92 million next), Buchholz likely would have yielded a lesser return even though he's the better pitcher. Based on advanced metrics, they are at least similarly valued. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Buchholz was worth 2.6 wins above a replacement pitcher last season compared to Miley's 2.5, a testament to a 4.46 ERA spread over 200 innings being nearly as worthwhile as a 3.26 mark over 113.
But the Red Sox already had a collection of No. 3 and 4 starters. What they really needed was someone to slot in behind Price. Shortly after the completion of the Miley trade, Buchholz got reassurance from the team, via Courtright, that he wasn't going anywhere. So, he returns to play out a contract that includes one more team option worth $13.5 million next year.
"I'm here, and that's all I think about or not think about because next year can't help me this year," Buchholz said. "That's sort of where I'm at with it."
Buchholz also doesn't have to worry about starting Opening Day or being viewed as a kind of illegitimate No. 1 starter. Those farcical "He's the Ace" T-shirts that he gave each member of the rotation last year? Nowhere to be found, probably collecting mothballs in a closet somewhere.
"That topic of conversation hasn't even been brought up this year just because of one guy," Buchholz said, gesturing to Price's locker. "Not having to talk about it is probably the best thing that's happened for the simple fact that, yeah, we have our No. 1 and then everybody falls where they may after that."
For now, at least, Buchholz falls into the No. 2 spot. As long as he stays on the mound, the Red Sox probably won't need to bother with a team like the Padres about a pitcher like Shields. As always, though, the question is how long Buchholz will be able do that. Boston's season might hang in the balance.
"If I make my starts on the day that my name is called, that will basically take care of all the numbers talk and innings and whatever you want to talk about from there," Buchholz said. "I feel like we already have a good club without me, but if I'm out there and I'm healthy and I'm throwing the ball well, I know that makes this team that much better."