As a pitcher back in my playing days, it was depressing at points to see the Red Sox staff go to work this year. Not since the great Eric Gagne have we seen some of the levels of pitching displayed by our guys in 2015. In some ways we were prepared for this, as offensive firepower was viewed much more highly than pitching depth last winter.
As you’ll recall, the Red Sox picked up Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson, and Wade Miley as potential starters during the last offseason. At the time, Red Sox Nation was happy with these moves, but I think any pitcher would’ve been welcomed with open arms after Jon Lester‘s departure. Hopes were so high; in fact, that early in the season there was much debate about which of our pitchers could be the Cy Young winner. However, soon into the season (right about when Porcello gave up his 1,000th home run of the year) it became glaringly obvious that our starting pitchers were overmatched. Early call up stints from studs Eduardo Rodriguez, Henry Owens, and Brian Johnson were exciting, but the performance from our day one starters was less than inspiring.
Now, to help us step back from the edge of the Tobin Bridge, there is reason to be very optimistic about our pitching future. Dave Dombrowski, paired with a seemingly endless budget, is not afraid to pull the trigger on trades, nor do big name teams scare him when it comes to landing a free agent. Luckily for him, as Wilmer Flores fanned at the last pitch of the World Series a whole group of outstanding pitchers became free agents. There are four starters I think the Sox should consider targeting this offseason. Let’s get to it.
2015 Salary: $19,750,000 (DET/TOR)
2015 Stats: 18-7 W/L, 2.45 ERA, 220.1 IP, 225 K
Analysis: Price had a hell of a season in 2015. Easily at his best since his 2012 Cy Young performance, Price did a great job of shooting his stock up in a crucial contract year. He is at the peak of his powers, and I would be extremely happy if he wore the red and white next year. He was a staple of many top ten lists, including: ERA (1st), K’s (4th) H/9 (7.7, 8th), BB/9 (1.9, 6th), and WAR (5.8, 9th). Price is both a strikeout machine and a ground-ball inducer; a reputation that would pair well with the Sox’ skill in the catcher and middle infielder positions. He also has a lot of skill in the abstract department, mainly his intense ferocity and will to win. He is one of the dying breed of players that simply wants to dominate the opponent, and would prefer to throw the final pitch over a reliever. People will take shots at his poor postseason performance, but I think there’s more to him than his records show. It seems that the Cubs and Sox will both be pushing for him, but Price coming Boston seems like a match made in heaven. He has a great relationship with Dombrowski and is well known by Boston fans from his years with the Rays.
Unfortunately, with every great contract year comes a heavy price tag, and Price will be no exception. We could see Price reach for Lester-type money, 150,000,000 over six or seven years is very realistic. Either way Price is worth it, and everyone knows. Look for a tight race to land this highly touted free agent, hopefully with Dombrowski leading the charge.
2015 Salary: $10,000,000 (CIN/KC)
2015 Stats: 11-13 W/L, 3.44 ERA, 212 IP, 176 K
Analysis: Cueto had himself a very busy year. He had an outstanding first half with Cincinnati, posting a 2.62 ERA in 19 starts before being traded in July to Kansas City. His second half wavered slightly, but his arsenal of pitches led by his fastball was still electric, and blew batters away. He was in the upper echelon of pitchers in some of his stats, doing a great job of striking out opponents and minimizing walks. He is similar to Price in the sense that he hasn’t been superb in the postseason, but his sample size is small and there’s no reason to believe he has Clayton Kershaw syndrome. He is also similar to Price in that they’re both gamers. Cueto has thrown 12 complete games to date, which is 23rd amongst active players.
Cueto has been healthy for the majority of his career, and seems like a safe investment for a team in the long run. He will undoubtedly reach for high prices during the offseason, but I don’t think it would be in any range that the Sox couldn’t afford. I believe Cueto would make a stable first or second man in our rotation, and he seems like a great clubhouse personality. Growing up an hour away from David Ortiz’ hometown, I’m sure he would gel with the big personalities on the team.
2015 Salary: $9,775,000 (CIN/SF)
2015 Stats: 11-10 W/L, 3.70 ERA, 192 IP, 119 K
Analysis: Maybe a little unknown to Red Sox fans, Leake is a solid pitcher who has played most of his time in Cincinnati. Putting up his best numbers in 2013, (14-7, 3.37 ERA, 192 IP) Leake is a solid middle of the rotation pitcher, who has shown flashes of being a potential ace. He is known for employing a “pitch-to-contact” style, meaning that while you won’t get a lot of strikeouts from him, you can expect a lot of ground balls leading to putouts. To help demonstrate this point, Leake’s best strikeout year was in 2014 when he recorded a strikeout only 18.2% of the time. In contrast, his 53.8% groundball rate in 2014 was a career high and ranked 12th among qualified starters.
His stats, like his fastball, may not blow you away, but keep these points in mind: pitching in Cincinnati is never fun; it’s a home-run friendly ballpark and Leake’s ERA can attest to this. Here are some stats compiled by SB Nation earlier this year to show the split difference of home/away: 4.31/3.43 ERA, .303/.277 BABIP, and his wOBP is .335/.310. It is clear that Leake pitches much better away from the Great American Ballpark. Aside from his skill, another incentive to pursue Leake is his free agent price tag. Only making around $10 million in 2015, there’s little reason to think he would be asking for much more, possibly even less with his dip in performance following his mid-season trade to the Giants. I believe Leake would be a good fit in a middle of rotation role with the Sox.
2015 Salary: $4,750,000 (BAL)
2015 Stats: 11-8 W/L, 3.34 ERA, 191.1 IP, 153 K
Analysis: Since his MLB debut 2012, Chen has been a very solid and consistent pitcher. Although he has only pitched a handful of seasons, he put up career bests in 2015, with an impressive WAR with a 3.8 (9th amongst pitchers) and an ERA of 3.34 (7th) in the competitive American League. These stats show that he can compete with the big boys, and more than hold his own against tough hitters. Known for painting edges and putting umpires on the spot, FanGraphs lists his two-seam fastball as fourth best in all of baseball; this paired with a good off speed pitch can prove to be deadly. It’s true that Chen won’t blow anyone away with dazzling velocity or unhittable junk, but he’s consistent, and that’s something that the Sox pitching staff desperately needs. Knowing that every five days you’re going to get a battle from a guy who won’t implode six batters in (hi Buchholz!) takes a lot of pressure off the rest of the team, specifically the relievers. Chen, who has averaged 176 IP in his first four years, will do just that.
Red Sox Nation will know Chen from his time in Baltimore and would welcome him for a decent price. He’ll earn some more cash for his commendable year, but won’t make Price money. Chen would be a great pick for a smaller dollar amount, and would work well in the middle of the Sox rotation.