Expect Sox to trade their abundance of pitching

Expect Sox to trade their abundance of pitching
November 27, 2013, 1:00 pm
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So far, Ben Cherington has said all the right things about the Red Sox' surplus of starting pitching.
     
"Relative to past years, we think it's an area of strength and depth," Cherington said shortly after the Sox won the World Series last month. "We could certainly envision a scenario where every one that's currently under contract in is Fort Myers. In fact, at this point, that's what I would expect."
     
Of course, that's what Cherington might be expected to say.
     
For one thing, it would be bad form to advertise that the Sox are, indeed, willing to move a starter. Signaling an eagerness -- or even willingness -- to move pitching would mark the Red Sox as desperate and depress the value of their inventory, to say nothing of the anxiety it would set off among some of the veteran members of the rotation.
     
For another, there is incentive to hold on to what the Sox have. The oldest cliche in baseball -- You can never have too much pithcing! -- is a truism.
     
The Red Sox were lucky during the 2013 season that every starter but one in the team's original rotation made at least 27 starts. Only Clay Buchholz, who missed just over three months with a shoulder ailment, missed out.
     
The Sox aren't likely to be that fortunate again, given that, by April, four of the six projected starters will be 30 or older and two will be 35 or older.
     
At the same time, it's hard to see how the Red Sox proceed with six established starting pitchers. None can be stashed at Triple A and as well as Felix Doubront performed out of the bullpen in the post-season, it would be a waste to limit his innings over the course of a full season.
     
Moreover, while the free agent pitching market has yet to fully form this off-season, there are already signs that the cost for starters is beginning to sky-rocket.
     
Already, Jason Vargas -- at best, a middle-of-the-rotation arm -- has signed a four-year, $32 million deal with Kansas City. Vargas has a career record of 53-58 with a 4.30 ERA
     
Dan Haren (10-14, 4.67 in 2013) signed a one-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers for $10 million, while Tim Hudson, who missed the final 10 weeks of the season after suffering a gruesome ankle injury, signed a two-year deal for $23 million with the San Francisco Giants. Earlier this off-season, the Giants re-signed Tim Lincecum to a two-year $35 million deal.
     
Of those four pitchers, only one - Hudson -- had an ERA under 4.00 in 2013, and Hudson barely came under that level at 3.97. At 38, coming off a major injury, Hudson represents a significant risk.
     
Eventually, some of the bigger names on the free agent market - including Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and Matt Garza, with each expected to exceed the $8-$12 million average annual value (AAV) of the pitchers who have already signed.
     
That puts the Red Sox in prime position to sit back and await the offers that are sure come their way as other teams are either priced out of the free agent market or miss out on the free agents for whom they bid.
     
One A.L. talent evaluator was asked recently if he expected the Sox to deal off a veteran pitcher this winter. Despite the Red Sox' public pronouncements to the contrary, the evaluator, without hesitation, answered: "Yes."
     
It's hard to argue with that assessment.
     
Assume that the Sox consider Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and probably Felix Doubront off the market. Lester is the team's ace, Buchholz, though not durable, still has the highest ceiling on the staff and Doubront, at 26 and lefthanded, is too valuable a piece to move.
     
That leaves three righthanded veterans: John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Ryan Dempster.
     
All three are under control at (relatively) reasonable money. Dempster has a year remaining at $13 million. Lackey has one year remaining at $15.25 million, but under the terms of the deal he signed with the Red Sox after 2009, Lackey is obligated to pitch in 2015 for the major league minimum salary (just over $500,000). That means, a team dealing for Lackey would get him for two years at less than $16 million.
     
Finally, Peavy has $14 million salary due him in 2014 and a $15 million vesting option for 2015.
     
All three offer interested teams short-term control and significant track records of success. For those unwilling to commit the four- and five-year deals Garza, Jimenez and Santana are likely to land, Lackey, Dempster and Peavy are attractive and affordable alternatives.
     
And while they won't come cheaply, they won't require a team to forfeit its first (or second) pick in next June's draft, as Santana and and Jimenez will.
     
So, why would the Red Sox move a veteran starter? Much of the answer lies in 2015.
     
At the end of 2014, two Red Sox veterans -- Lester and Dempster -- will be eligible for free agency. By 2015, Lackey, and Peavy will likewise headed to free agency.
     
At some point soon, the Sox will need to begin integrating their younger starters into the rotation. Moving Lackey or Dempster or Peavy would open a possible spot for Brandon Workman or Anthony Ranaudo or Allen Webster.
     
(Beyond those three, the Sox also have Henry Owens and Matt Barnes waiting in the wings, though neither has pitched above Double A and probably won't be ready for the big leagues until 2015).
     
If the Sox don't make a deal, the prospects would need an injury or two (or poor performances) from one or more of the established starters to start assimilating into the major league rotation.
     
The Red Sox "can't wait until 2015 to find out about those guys," said one A.L. executive. "That's too risky."
     
So which of the three is most likely to be moved?
     
Several major league sources say it's unlikely that Lackey will be dealt, because of the regard in which he's held within the clubhouse. Despite his involvement in the "chicken and beer" scandal in 2011, the veteran is viewed as a leader and is admired by fellow veterans and younger pitchers alike for his work ethic and his penchant for mentoring younger pitchers.
     
It would be difficult for the Sox to deal off the pitcher who was the pitcher of record when the team clinched a playoff spot and the World Series championship.
     
Dempster, with a year remaining, would have some value. But Dempster will turn 37 in early May, and with $13 million due him in 2014, it's possible the Sox would have to take back some of the remaining money in order to get something of value.
     
Finally, there's Peavy, who at 32, is the youngest of the three, and with a $14.5 AAV over two seasons, would have significant value.
     
Should the Sox rule out moving Lackey, Peavy would seem to be the pitcher who could bring the most -- especially were he to be moved to a National League team.