McAdam: Red Sox committed to current rotation

McAdam: Red Sox committed to current rotation
April 11, 2011, 2:40 am
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By SeanMcAdam
CSNNE.com

Even before they locked up Clay Buchholz to a four-year, 30 million deal, the Red Sox already had three other starters -- Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Jon Lester -- secured to guaranteed deals through 2013.

If you take into account an option year on Lester, the Sox now have 80 percent of their starting rotation signed through the end of the 2014 season. (Daisuke Matsuzaka, their fifth starter, is signed through the end of 2012.)

In other words, the Red Sox have cost certainty.

What they don't have, of course, is performance certainty.

In theory, it's good to have this much starting pitching secured into the future. As general manager Theo Epstein noted Sunday, venturing into the free-agent pitching market can be an expensive proposition.

By definition, bidding for free agent starters is a gamble. Teams invariably pay for past performance, and because pitchers are far more susceptible to injury and declining performance, the risk is that much greater.

Barry Zito, anyone? Or Mike Hampton?

It's one thing to have their rotation locked down, allowing the Sox to project salaries and have a sense of what their roster will look like three and four years into the future.

And with both Lester and Buchholz in their mid-to-late 20s, there's less of a chance that either will underperform because of age or injury.

Beckett and Lackey, however, are different stories.

Lackey was a disappointment in the first year of his five-year, 82.5 million dollar deal, and has been an outright disaster through his first two starts of this season. Beckett's four-year, 68 million extension -- which didn't kick in until this season -- has the potential to be a bad investment, especially given Beckett's poor 2010.

Already, it could be said that the Sox moved prematurely in extending Beckett last April -- especially with the benefit of hindsight. After all, Beckett has not enjoyed a truly good season, from start to finish, since 2007 (though Sunday night's performance against the Yankees, a team that had scored 15 runs in the first two games of the series, certainly gives hope that the Sox will get their money's worth out of him this year).

Argue if you will that his sub-par 2008 was the result of a strained back in spring training, which prohibited him from his normal spring preparation. But that only reinforces the point that pitching can be notoriously unpredictable.

As for Lackey, the Sox undoubtedly overpaid for a pitcher who had won more than 14 games just once before signing with Boston. But because he was the lone front-line starter on the market that winter, supply and demand drove his price skyward. To date, he hasn't begun to return the Sox' investment.

In theory, Buchholz, at 26, represents less of a risk. Other than some random, short-term physical setbacks (a hamstring pull running the bases in San Francisco last June), he's been durable.

The Sox are hoping that his 2010 season -- in which he posted the second-lowest ERA among qualifiers in the American League -- represents his potential, with room still to grow.

The fact remains, however, that Buchholz's track record is mostly limited to last season. If that ends up being his career outlier, the Sox just spent a lot of money on an unsure thing.

Just because they have a lot of money committed doesn't mean they have zero flexibility. The club has eaten money on bad deals before. They wisely cut their losses on Edgar Renteria after just one year, and did the same with Julio Lugo after 2 12 unproductive seasons.

But those contracts were a relative pittance compared to some of the salaries given out to the starters.

Consider: In 2013, the Sox will be nearly 53 million to four starting pitchers, or an average of more than 13 million per starter.

That's reasonable money for a big-market team -- assuming the starters are pitching as the Sox forecast. If, on the other hand, the starters are ineffective, they become a financial albatross.

Sure, the Sox could deal off unproductive arms and assume much of the costs. But that merely rids them of the roster spot and not the financial obligation. They might be gone, but from an accounting standpoint, they won't be forgotten.

One of the benefits of having the resources and revenues the Sox have is the ability to make bold moves like the Red Sox have made here. But there's no escaping this fact: The only thing harder than affording quality pitching is attempting to project how it will perform in the future.

Sean McAdam can be reached at smcadam@comcastsportsnet.com.Follow Sean on Twitter at http:twitter.comsean_mcadam