Commentary

Taking stock of starters market

The Red Sox can afford to bolster their rotation, so let's look at who's available

Updated: October 12, 2012, 11:14 AM ET
By Jeremy Lundblad | ESPNBoston.com

Between trades and impending free agency, the Boston Red Sox enjoy about $110 million coming off the books. With only $45 million currently devoted to 2013 salaries, they could be big players in the free-agent market.

That payroll figure will certainly rise after arbitration cases (Jacoby Ellsbury, Andrew Bailey, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, among others) and the anticipated re-signing of David Ortiz (not to mention Cody Ross).

In an otherwise unremarkable free-agent market, Boston can find several intriguing options to fill the rotation spot vacated by Josh Beckett.

Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Felix Doubront figure to be joined by John Lackey to fill four spots.

Relative status quo may sound unappealing given that the 2012 rotation finished with the highest ERA in club history (5.19). However, any immediate solution for the Red Sox will require Lester and Lackey to bounce back, and Buchholz and Doubront to continue to develop.

Franklin Morales, Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster could compete for that final opening. But the Sox have money to spend, so that trio is better-suited to be rotation depth. Having backup options like these prevents seasons where Aaron Cook makes 18 starts.

So will the Red Sox make a free-agency splash with a starter? The answer to that question could answer whether the August trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers was merely a salary dump or represented a philosophical shift within the organization.

Is Ben Cherington gun-shy after the team was burned by ill-advised long-term deals?

The Red Sox have plenty of money to spend on Zack Greinke, the clear prize of the starting pitching market. But the new approach may be to throw big money into short-term contracts.

Here's a look at Boston's options to fill the open rotation spot.

The Ace: Zack Greinke

It's not often that a Cy Young Award winner reaches free agency this young. In fact, Greinke, who is 28 and won the award in 2009, will be the fifth-youngest free agent with it on his resume.

While he might not approach the $161 million handed to CC Sabathia under similar circumstances, Greinke could command nine figures.

Long-term deals to Beckett and Lackey taught Boston a lesson: starters on the wrong side of 30 aren't great investments. But at 28, Greinke might be a different story.

Greinke struggled with anxiety early in his career with the Royals, before winning the Cy Young in 2009. Greinke, whom the Brewers traded to the Angels earlier this season, is perceived as preferring to avoid the limelight, so Boston might not be his preferred destination. However, there's little doubt of his pedigree.

Since 2009, only four pitchers have more strikeouts: Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Tim Lincecum and Justin Verlander.

In that span, only Dan Haren, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee have a better strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Not bad company.

After 2012, it's unrealistic to call Jon Lester an ace. Greinke could be the answer. Especially considering how he finished the season for an Angels team that was battling for a playoff spot. In his final eight starts, Grienke was 5-0 with a 2.04 ERA and a .204 batting average against.

Big Names Coming Off Big Contracts: Dan Haren, Jake Peavy

In the next tier, you have the aging aces -- Dan Haren and Jake Peavy -- coming off massive contracts.

Both Peavy ($22 million) and Haren ($15.5 million) have hefty club options for 2013. Of the two, Haren's is more likely to be picked up thanks to a $3.5 million buyout. On the open market, both figure to garner significant, yet wary, interest.

Given Boston's financial flexibility, either could be prime candidates for short-term, high-cost contracts.

Haren just turned 32, but his arm has experienced a lot of use. Since 2004, only three pitchers have thrown more pitches. Haren was once dominant against righties (.219 Opp. BA in 2009), but they've hit .320 against him in 2012. Don't read too much into his 12-13 record, as he received the eighth-worst run support in the AL.

Peavy, 31, is coming off his most effective -- and more importantly, healthiest -- season since 2008. The only AL pitchers with better strikeout-to-walk ratios were Sabathia, Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez. Yet, Peavy averaged just over 106 innings in the previous three seasons, making his long-term health a legitimate concern.

Bound to be Overpaid: Anibal Sanchez, Edwin Jackson

Next, there are the solid starters -- Anibal Sanchez and Edwin Jackson -- who are about to paid like aces.

After playing on seven teams in the past eight years, Jackson is finally ready to settle down after a solid season for the Washington Nationals. Sanchez comes off his third straight sub-4.00 ERA season.

Both will be 29 next season, so their youth in an otherwise aging free-agent market likely ensures long-term deals. That makes them unlikely fits for the Red Sox.

Short-Term Solutions: Kyle Lohse, Ryan Dempster, Hiroki Kuroda

Among impending free-agent starters, three of the four lowest in 2012 ERA are 35 or older: Kyle Lohse, Ryan Dempster and Hiroki Kuroda.

Any could be a low-risk, short-term option for a Red Sox team able to throw big sums of money into the market.

Lohse finished seventh in the majors in ERA, but 46th in expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP). That's a strong sign that he's in for a rude awakening in 2013. At 35, it would be a surprise if he's up for a return trip to the AL.

Dempster might be the most realistic option if Boston is looking for a one-year rental. But his 5.09 ERA in 12 starts with the Texas Rangers certainly hurt his value. Also consider that he went 9-2 with a 1.98 ERA against teams with losing records, compared to 3-6 with a 4.65 ERA against those .500 or better. That doesn't sound like a recipe for success in the AL East.

For the second straight year, Kuroda is probably the best option for the Red Sox. With the possible exception of Peavy, he had the best season of any free agent. Boston is in the unique position of having a significant spending advantage over the cost-cutting Yankees.

Could the Red Sox blow Kuroda away with an offer? At 37, he's likely considering contenders only. Does Boston even qualify?

Injury Risks: Brandon McCarthy, Shaun Marcum

If healthy, Brandon McCarthy and Shaun Marcum would be among the elite of this free-agent class. But neither can seem to avoid injury.

Elbow injuries have sent Marcum to the DL four times in his career, including for two months in 2012 and the entire 2009 season. Still just 30, he's a risk for anything beyond a one-year deal. But Marcum's effectiveness might entice a team to give more.

McCarthy, 29, has been on the disabled list eight times in the past five years, and that doesn't include the frightening September incident in which a line drive struck him in the head. Shoulder issues continue to plague McCarthy, but his breakout 2011 season proves that he could be worth a gamble.

Talented, Yet Shaky: Gavin Floyd, Francisco Liriano, Ervin Santana

Gavin Floyd and Francisco Liriano were once top-10 prospects. Ervin Santana seemed destined for stardom. None of the three has translated talent into consistency.

Since his breakout 17-8 season in 2008, Floyd has been consistently average, going 44-48 with a 4.24 ERA. Santana took a step back in 2012, allowing 39 home runs and posting a 5.16 ERA. The bigger red flag may be his 4.95 career ERA away from home. Both pitchers have team options for 2013 that could keep them off the market.

Liriano continues to alternate between dominance and wildness. Two consecutive mediocre seasons have seriously diminished his market value. But still only 28, he's the same age as Clay Buchholz. Few possess his upside, but Liriano's control only seems to be getting worse.

Best of the Rest

Joe Blanton, Jeremy Guthrie, Hisashi Iwakuma, Carlos Villanueva, Carlos Zambrano

Potential Trade Targets

Matt Garza, Josh Johnson, Justin Masterson, Paul Maholm, Ricky Nolasco

Jeremy Lundblad

ESPN Stats and Information

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