BOSTON -- Two years ago, pitching-needy contenders made July trades for David Price, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel and Jake Peavy. Last season, Price, Johnny Cueto, Cole Hamels, Scott Kazmir, Mike Leake and J.A. Happ were dealt before July 31.
"People know there's a limited starting pitching market," said Boston Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski. "There's a lot of clubs looking for starting pitching, and there's not a lot of starting pitchers out there."
The Red Sox are as desperate as any team. Even after right-hander Rick Porcello allowed one run in seven strong innings Saturday in a 4-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays, Boston's rotation had a 4.80 ERA, 10th in the American League. And although Price (4.64 ERA in 18 starts) hasn't come close to pitching up to the standards of a $217 million ace, the real problem exists in the Nos. 4-5 starter spots, where a half-dozen pitchers have combined for a 7.22 ERA.
Over the past two days, Dombrowski has moved quickly and decisively to address other needs, trading surplus minor leaguers for versatile righty-hitting infielder Aaron Hill on Thursday and submarining reliever Brad Ziegler in the wee hours of Saturday morning. But finding help for the starting rotation won't be nearly as easy.
The Red Sox could chase Julio Teheran, a 25-year-old right-hander who is having an All-Star-worthy season for the Atlanta Braves (2.72 ERA, 105 strikeouts in 112⅔ innings) and is under contract for $26.3 million through 2019. But the Braves are believed to be seeking a small ransom comparable to the haul they received from the Arizona Diamondbacks in the offseason trade for right-hander Shelby Miller. Start with either of the Red Sox's twin top prospects -- second baseman Yoan Moncada and outfielder Andrew Benintendi -- and you get the idea.
Another possibility is 36-year-old lefty Rich Hill, who has a 2.25 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 76 innings for the Oakland Athletics. The Red Sox know him well. A native of nearby Milton, Massachusetts, Hill revived his career late last season in Boston after being encouraged by Sox pitching guru Brian Bannister to throw his signature curveball more frequently and to increase the spin on his fastball. But even though Hill's contract expires after the season, prying him from Oakland likely will mean parting with a touted prospect.
The San Diego Padres will want a considerable return for 27-year-old right-hander Drew Pomeranz, who has a 2.47 ERA and 115 strikeouts in 102 innings and is under club control through 2018. And it's doubtful the Rays would trade within the American League East. That leaves the Red Sox to consider a market filled with mostly back-of-the-rotation types, including the Minnesota Twins' Ervin Santana and the Philadelphia Phillies' Jeremy Hellickson.
No wonder Dombrowski is holding out hope that recently demoted lefty Eduardo Rodriguez irons out issues with his delivery, rediscovers his slider and returns from Triple-A in time to be a reliable option for the stretch run.
Last winter, Dombrowski often noted the prohibitive cost to acquire pitching through a trade. Three weeks before the trade deadline, "it hasn't come down a whole lot," he said Saturday.
"The names we don't want to trade always seem to start the conversation," Dombrowski said. "It's a common thread of the same names that seem to be coming up. But they have come up in every conversation we have, and then you try to get realistic and move from there.
"You can get starting pitching. I assure you I can pick up the phone and get a starting pitcher. But is it a starting pitcher that helps you? That's sort of the key there."
There is another potential solution. The Red Sox could bolster their pitching staff from back to front by continuing to add to their bullpen.
Initially, Ziegler will help fill in for closer Craig Kimbrel, who is having surgery Monday to repair torn cartilage in his left knee. But when Kimbrel returns, likely before the beginning of September, Ziegler will move to a setup role with 41-year-old Koji Uehara, tired-armed Junichi Tazawa and emerging Matt Barnes and Heath Hembree.
Could a strong bullpen help compensate for a shaky rotation?
"It could be," Dombrowski said. "There's different ways you can go about it. We don't really need a No. 1 starter. We'd love to have a No. 1 starter. We've got our three guys (Price, knuckleballer Steven Wright and Porcello) that have been pitching very consistently. If we can get an effective six innings, seven innings to get to our bullpen, that would be great."
Sounds easy enough, right?
In this market, not necessarily.