It's by no means a slam dunk that the Red Sox will add an ace to place on the top of their reconstructed starting rotation. At least, not any time soon.
Free agent James Shields, who turns 33 on Saturday, is an obvious match, but the Red Sox are not alone among his potential suitors, and if another club [Giants, Rangers] gives the 33-year-old right-hander five years, it's hard to see Boston following.
Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels would be a coup, but the asking price remains very high, and the Sox are committed to keeping Mookie Betts and Blake Swihart. The Dodgers, should they elect to do so, could offer the Phillies a package of prospects that would trump a Sox offer.
Reds right-hander Johnny Cueto would be a great fit, but Cincinnati already traded Mat Latos and envisions competing in 2015 with Cueto at the top of the rotation. Cueto is a year away from free agency, but he looks more like a candidate to be moved at the July trading deadline.
The Nationals are listening on Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister, two top pitchers a year away from free agency, but like the Reds, they may keep both in an attempt to win next season and would review their options in July.
Free agent Max Scherzer looms as the winter's biggest pitching prize, and while the Sox will closely monitor how his market develops, if eight years and $200 million remain the operative numbers, the Sox will be out.
In the absence of a big move, the Sox could try to acquire another young arm with big-league experience, like Miami's Nathan Eovaldi, a 24-year-old right-hander who is a hard thrower (95.7 mph was his average velocity in 2014) and had a much better fielding independent percentage (3.37 FIP) than ERA (4.37), which may be a function of a high batting average on balls in play (.326). The Marlins are looking for a first baseman and a bat to hit behind Giancarlo Stanton, and they could have some interest in Allen Craig.
There are still two months before the start of spring training, but at the moment, it's hard to make the case that the Sox have a better rotation than the one with which they planned to open the 2014 season, a highly seasoned group anchored by Lester and John Lackey, fortified by Jake Peavy and Ryan Dempster, with genuine star power in Clay Buchholz and filled out by an emerging Felix Doubront. On paper, that group figured more than capable of launching a defense of the World Series title claimed the previous October.
But the disintegration came quickly. Dempster dropped out at the start of spring training, eventually replaced by another veteran (Chris Capuano) who was released in June. Buchholz was a mess and put on the disabled list for his own protection at the end of May. Lester was terrific and Lackey was solid, but Doubront washed out early, bounced from the rotation after just nine starts, while Peavy lost 10 straight decisions, giving up five or more runs in one-third of his 21 starts while pitching just well enough to lose in the others.
The strength at the top of the Sox rotation was offset by the disaster at the bottom, and by the trading deadline, the Sox made the decision that change was essential. Few rotations have ever undergone a more extreme makeover. Dempster retired. Lester, Lackey, Peavy and Doubront were traded. Just last week, Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa, who had been given their chance to claim a rotation spot in the season's final months, were traded, too.
In their place, GM Ben Cherington has a group of five starters all 30 years old or younger, mostly strike-throwers and ground ball pitchers and innings-eaters. Justin Masterson signed a one-year deal, and Rick Porcello is a year away from free agency. The Sox have Joe Kelly under control for four years and Wade Miley for three years. They have control over Buchholz for three years, too, if they elect to exercise the options they hold for 2016 and 2017.
Baseballprospectus.com noted that over the past three seasons, just 17 pitchers have thrown more innings than Miley's 599. Porcello has averaged 179 innings per season in his six seasons, while Masterson, even with last year's knee injury, averaged 183 over five.
They traded away young arms in Webster and De La Rosa, but still have strength in numbers in Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo and Brandon Workman from the right side, Henry Owens, Eduardo Rodriguez and Brian Johnson from the left. None of them are viewed as true top-of-the-rotation material, but in the end that will be dictated by performance, and the Sox are confident that at least a couple from that group will emerge as dependable big-league starters.
How to assess the newcomers? Porcello would appear to have the highest ceiling. A former No. 1 draft pick in 2007, the right-hander has been in the big leagues since he was 20 and had a breakthrough season in 2014, his first with 200-plus innings and one with a career-best 3.43 ERA and a career-high 15 wins. Pitching for a strong Detroit team, Porcello has won 13 or more games four times, and his 2014 record would have been even more impressive if he hadn't faltered in September, when he went 0-4 with a 6.20 ERA in five starts.
Entering September, the sinkerball-pitching Porcello had a 15-9 record and 3.05 ERA, an ERA which tucked him right between the highly regarded Sonny Gray of the Athletics and Yu Darvish of the Rangers with a month to go. The Sox were not put off by his September performance, though he failed to get out of the fourth inning in three of his starts. In their view, fatigue may have been a factor, but they also noted two of his starts were very good and poor defense didn't help in the others.
Last season, the Orioles won 96 games and the AL East without the presence of a so-called ace. What they did have was six starters all 30 or under, five of whom posted ERAs between 3.34 and 3.65. All five pitchers in Boston's projected rotation have had seasons in which they had ERAs that fell in that range or lower.
Questions, of course, abound. Masterson has to show he can regain the form that made him an All-Star in Cleveland before injuries wrecked his mechanics last season. Kelly has yet to show what he can do over a full season. Miley is coming from the National League. Folks have given up trying to figure out what Buchholz will bring. Porcello, who has been on a staff with Cy Young Award winners Justin Verlander and Scherzer, as well as no-hit throwing Anibal Sanchez, has yet to be asked to carry a staff.
But there is depth here, and quality. Add an ace, and there would be no question that the Sox have enough pitching to compete. The question is how far can they go if they don't.