Red Sox can't wait for aces in free agency

Red Sox can't wait for aces in free agency
February 10, 2013, 8:47 pm
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If it hasn't already, the news that the Seattle Mariners had agreed with pitcher Felix Hernandez on a contract extension last week worth 175 million should make two important points.

One: Thanks to revenue sharing and the general health of the game, almost any team can afford the occasional mega-deal for a
player it covets.

Two: The days of waiting for an ace to hit free agency are essentially over. Big market teams accustomed to poaching All-Star starting pitchers who have outgrown their small- and medium-market teams had better change their approach.

The latter, of course, is a teachable moment for the Red Sox. Some fans were counting the days until Hernandez -- or Justin Verlander or Clayton Kershaw -- were eligible for free agency, believing that all the Red Sox (or the Yankees) had to do was unholster their checkbook and pick their choice of ace.

But the days of the game's best pitchers taking their talents to market are essentially over. When teams are faced with the prospect of losing a true No. 1 starter, they generally do what they must to retain such a valuable commodity.

In the last few years, Jered Weaver stayed with the Angels, Matt Cain got extended by the Giants and CC Sabathia remained with the Yankees. And is there any doubt that, sometime between now and the end of 2014, the Tigers and Dodgers will pay what they must to keep, respectively, Verlander and Kershaw?

Said one baseball executive: "When you have one of those guys, you have to do whatever it takes to keep them when the time comes."

In truth, this might not be as problematic for the Red Sox as it seems. Having been repeatedly burned on eight- and nine-figure free agent deals -- Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, John Lackey, etc -- to the point where they were driven to unload three big contracts last August, the Sox are naturally wary of such gambles.

That's especially true of the quality of pitchers who do reach free agency, who typically qualify as overpriced innings eaters (think: Mark Buehrle or Edwin Jackson) but often fail to be worth the investment made in them.

All of which will force the Red Sox to get creative in their search for the next starting pitcher to lead the team back to championship status. It's worth noting that, since the mid-1980s, of the four best Red Sox starters (Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling and Beckett), none was a free agent and only one (Clemens) was drafted and developed by the Sox.

Among the organization's top pitching prospects in the system, Matt Barnes is probably the closest to impacting the big league staff, and even he, having not pitched above high Single A, is probably a year and a half -- at minimum -- away from getting to Boston.

Henry Owens and Anthony Renaudo have similar developmental steps to take.

So, with Jon Lester -- signed through 2013 with an options for 2014 in place -- two years away from free agency himself, where do the Red Sox find their next ace?

They could use some of their top positional player prospects in a deal for an established front-line starter as they did in the deal for Beckett after 2005, or the way the Yankees did with Michael Pineda after 2011.

Or, they could use their first-round pick this June on a top-of-the rotation starter. With the No. 8 overall pick, the Sox will be selecting higher in the first round than they have since 1993, when they chose Trot Nixon.

But both paths have drawbacks and risks. To obtain a true elite young starter, the Sox would probably have to sacrifice shortstop Xander Bogaerts -- and possibly more. The Sox envision Bogaerts being a franchise player, around which they can build for the next decade. Dealing him for an ace would be an enormous risk and could potentially leave the shortstop position as the perennial black hole it's been since 2004.

And, if the Sox use their first-round pick to select a can't-miss starting pitcher, that means they wouldn't be able to select a power bat, the likes of which aren't usually available after the first dozen or so selections in the draft.

Every Red Sox World Series team of the last 46 years has been fronted by a true No. 1 starter, from Jim Lonborg in 1967 to Luis Tiant in 1975 to Clemens in 1986, to Schilling and Martinez in 2004 and Beckett in 2007.

Finding the next one will not be easy or cheap, and, as the Red Sox now know, it almost certainly won't come via free agency.