Leave It To The Kids

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Everyone has their addictions. For some it is the hankering for a cup of coffee, for others it may be the lottery, but for me, it’s baseball prospects. I have collected memorabilia and baseball cards for my whole life; the idea just piqued my interest at a young age and has never gone away. Cards are what began my prospect “addiction”, and here’s how: Just like the in stock market where someone with little money has to look for the possibility of large growth in a newer, cheaper stock because proven stocks are too pricey, I discovered that while I love Ken Griffey Jr. and Pedro Martinez, it would be too expensive for me to buy their best cards. This is where prospects entered my life. I saw that while every prospect might not pan out, somewhere in the vast ocean of the minor leagues there is the next Griffey Jr. The MLB, NFL and NBA drafts are like three extra Christmases to me, a whole new crop of talent to pick apart and in my attempt to find that needle in the haystack.

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And So It Begins…

Hanley Ramirez celebrates his second homer of the day, this one a grand slam, as the Red Sox cruised to a 8-0 opening day victory over the Phillies.

The revamped Sox offense was out in full force on opening day. Five home runs, including a grand slam from old friend Hanley Ramirez, propelled the Sox to their first win of the 2015 season. Relive opening day with a few emails between Greg and I as we get our hopes up and try to contain our excitement after a convincing win in Philadelphia to start another season full of unknowns.

Pat Morey: It appears Farrell abandoned his work the count approach in that first inning. Hard to argue with the results.

Greg Habeeb: Agreed. The guys were being aggressive from the get go, and it paid off in the short term with a home run.

Really great to see DP go yard right away. If he’s healthy and motivated, there’s no reason for him not to return to his usual .300 hitting ways.

PM: And the team needs that Pedey, not the get hot for two weeks at a time Pedey. There’s a lot of big bats in the middle of the lineup, but they need help from the top and bottom if this offense is going to work. If Pedey is locked in with Papi, Hanley, Panda, and Napoli behind him, look out.

Also, I hate opening the season in the NL. This offense has been hyped up, and I want to see it at its full capacity on opening day. Be better, MLB.

GH: I know i thought that was bizarre. Interleague sucks in general, so I’m definitely not a huge fan of that whole situation.

Speaking of guys who need to get healthy, there goes the Flyin’ Hawaiian walking and stealing bases like it’s 2013. He could be an X-factor this year.

PM: They really missed him last season in the outfield and in the lineup. Gold glove caliber defense and a terror on the basepath. The battle for right field between him and Castillo could get really interesting, though, if he doesn’t find that 2013 form. That outfield is getting crowded awfully fast.

Speaking of the outfield, right on cue is MOOOOOOKIE!!

GH: MOOKIEEEE!!! How awesome is it that he earned his spot in the lineup by absolutely raking this spring? I’m all in on Betts. If you told me he was going to hit .350/.420/.500 this year i would believe you in a heartbeat.

PM: I’ll always hold a little grudge with Mookie since he probably gave Jackie Bradley Jr. his final push out the door, but man is it exciting to have a superstar prospect look so great. Should we just give him MVP now or…?

GH: Maybe we should wait another game or two.

Meanwhile it’s the fifth inning and we have now hit 4 home runs after Pedey and Hanley “The Incredible Hulk” Ramirez just went yard.

It’s really encouraging to see guys get good swings on a top tier pitcher so early in the season. If everyone can stay healthy, the Sox are going to rake this year, theres no doubt about that.

PM:PEDEY EATS FASTBALLS FOR BREAKFAST

Also, I love how Clay is attacking the strike zone. He was virtually unhittable a couple years back when he could throw strikes and force batters to swing at that ridiculous curve.

GH: It’s encouraging to see him not stink up the joint (at least so far), but just remember it’s against a Phillies team that might not win 60 games.

PM: It’s baby steps with Buchholz. Pitching well against a sucky team is a good start. He couldn’t have done this last year.

Regardless of whatever happens with our questionable rotation, I find it hard to think this offense won’t be a juggernaut. There’s power and on base guys everywhere you look. They should fill up some ludicrous box scores this year.

GH: It’s also encouraging that Buchholz is locating and has movement on all of his pitches. That is important no matter who you’re facing.

Hamels is done after 5 innings. Victorino is leading off against righty Garcia, and he hasn’t flipped around to bat left handed. I guess he’s ditching the switch hitting thing after all.

PM: Victorino can bat with his eyes closed for all I care as long as he keeps getting on base like this.

I would’ve liked to see a little hit and run there with Victorino on first and X up to bat with Hannigan and Buchholz on deck. Do you think they wanted X to swing away or they don’t trust him to make contact?

GH: I’m sure it had more to do with it being early in the season and winning the game than anything else. I feel like you want to let guys get their swings in early on in the season. There will be plenty of time for situational baseball in the coming months.

Buchholz finally ran into trouble here in the bottom of the seventh, but he worked his way out of it. Again, the 2015 Phillies aren’t exactly the ’98 Yankees, but it’s still good to see Clay executing pitches in tough spots.

PM: Totally agree. It was nice to see him pitch out of that jam, especially with a 3 pitch strikeout to end it. Like you said, it’s tough to get too excited given the subpar competition. But after a season and a half of seeing those same jams turn into 5 run innings faster than a coked up Ricky Henderson, it’s nice to see him put his pitches when he needs to.

GH: In other news, Mets-Nats is on ESPN right now. Watching Bartolo Colon pretend to hit is the highest of high comedy.

PM: Bartolo Colon is now and forever will be my spirit animal.Uh oh, now it’s time for the bullpen. I guess Tazawa is a more than serviceable first option, but after him and a breaking-down Uehara, yikes.

GH: Yeah, when Robbie Ross Jr. is an 8th inning option you probably have issues out there.

I still can’t believe that the Red Sox didn’t trade Uehara at last summer’s deadline. It’s a non-move that looks even worse now considering his injury status coming out of spring training.

Did the front office really expect a 40 year old reliever with a history of injuries would be a reliable option all season long?

PM: Keeping Uehara befuddled me. Not only could they have grabbed an asset, but they probably would’ve worked harder in the offseason to get a backup, also. Now close games will be in the precarious hands of Edward Mujica

If he’s healthy, I trust Uehara. But that’s a HUGE if.

GH: Hey look! Allen Craig with a single up the middle! He lives!

(By the way, I’ve said this already but Napoli’s weird mullet/flow thing he’s growing on the top of his head looks and will continue to look absolutely ridiculous)
PM:Craig lives! He’s a sneaky good fit on this team as a utility guy who can play first and outfield. At worst he’ll give you what Nava did these past few years, but with much more upside. If he disappears again or struggles, Nava is right behind him anyway.
GH: GRAND SALAMI!
PM: HULK SMASH!!!
With a broken bat, nonetheless. I guess all of his gains in the gym this offseason weren’t just for show. I think he’ll be happy to have the green monster for 81 games once again.
I certainly don’t want to overreact to one game, which everyone will be doing today, but it feels like these guys are really locked in this year.
GH: 162-0 HERE WE COME!
But in all seriousness, you can’t ask for a better start to the season than that. I know the Phillies are a crap team, but there aren”t a lot of bad things to say about 8-0 win to start the year. Hopefully this is a sign of more things to come this season and not just an above average team crushing a terrible one.
Anything else you want to add to wrap up Opening Day?
PM: I’m just happy to have baseball back. Every spring we get our hopes up and get excited over what this team could be. We’ve been lucky over the past decade, but there’s also been a lot of disappointment. I honestly think this season could go either direction. Win or lose, though, after today, it’s clear this team won’t be boring. And that’s a good start.
GH: I agree. Last thing: Thoughts on Porcello’s extension?
PM:I guess they liked what they saw in spring training. That’s a rather hefty price tag for an above average pitcher yet to really establish himself as a legitimate top of the rotation guy, especially one who hasn’t even thrown a single pitch yet in the regular season. I think he has plenty of potential, but with a contract like that, we’re gonna need a lot more than just potential from him.
Porcello’s shiny new deal also begs the question, where was this money in the Lester negotiations last spring? Seems like a deal Lester would’ve gone for back then. I have to think there were larger Lester concerns in the Sox front office than just his asking price, because they certainly didn’t shy away from throwing out big bucks on a pitcher with a far less proven track record.
GH: I agree that it was a strange move to make in the wake of the Lester debacle that took place this past winter. But at the end of the day Porcello is almost exactly five years younger than Lester. By the time his contract is up, he’ll be entering his age 31 season, which is the same season Lester is entering this year. It’s a lot of dough to be sure, but that’s the going rate for relatively young, effective pitchers these days.
If the Sox really are that averse to offering pitchers over 30 long term deals, it makes sense to lock up Porcello now. He’s only 26 years old after all, and his ERA has gone down in each of the past five seasons. If you assume that the Red Sox are better defensively than Detroit has been over the last half of a decade, you can expect Porcello to pitch more in line with his FIP (3.70 over the last 3 seasons) than he had before he had better luck in last year’s breakout campaign. In Lester’s last three full seasons with the Red Sox (2011-2013), his average FIP was 3.84.
I’m not saying that Porcello is better than Lester, I’m only saying that the extension makes sense, especially if the front office feels that Porcello still has room to grow and improve.
PM: Well put, and hard to argue now that you broke out the advanced metrics. I think this just about wraps it up. Always a pleasure, my friend. One down, 161 to go.

What To Watch For: Fort Myers Edition

After a long snowy winter, spring is in the air. Pitchers and catchers went through their first official workouts on Saturday, and players of all positions have been participating in baseball activities as spring training gets underway. With all of the stuff that went down this offseason, all eyes are on the Red Sox in Fort Myers. There are plenty of storylines around the team this time of year. Here are some things that Sox fans should be paying attention to and/or keeping in mind as baseball season starts to get rolling:

Welcome To Boston Kung Fu Panda!

If you had the under on the “Over/Under 6.5 days before someone somewhere freaked out about Pablo Sandoval’s weight”, congratulations, you win! Sandoval showed up to camp looking less than slim, prompting a mini media firestorm (and thinkpieces about his diet) in which everyone was forced to decide whether the Panda was actually fat or if he always just happens to look like that. Sandoval responded to his critics in a not-so-jovial way, meaning that it took less than a week for our new third baseman to be at odds with the notoriously needling local media. Personally, I think it’s no big deal, but if Sandoval did indeed blow up in the offseason (honestly, it’s tough to tell if he actually gained much weight. It’s not like he was a skinny guy to begin with) and he struggles out of the gate, I can promise you that things will get ugly between him and the Boston reporters. It will be interesting to see how Sandoval looks once the actual games begin. He’s not necessarily the most athletic looking guy, but he’s known for his deceptively quick feet and soft hands at the hot corner. If Sandoval isn’t in shape, it should be apparent early. Again, it’s only spring training and he has a month and a half to get himself to where he needs to be physically.

Whatever The Heck is Going On with the Outfield

We knew that the outfield was going to be, for lack of a better term, a clusterf*** coming into the season. As of right now, the Sox have eight players competing for what is realistically only five spots between Rusney Castillo, Hanley Ramirez, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Daniel Nava, Allen Craig, Shane Victorino, and Brock Holt. Ramirez and Castillo seem to be locks to start the season out there coming into spring training, though the former is learning a new position and the latter has only had the smallest of sample sizes to work from as far as Major League experience goes. John Farrell tried to bring more clarity to the situation by naming Victorino the starting right fielder assuming he’s healthy in a move I wasn’t happy about, though that only managed to raise more questions about the status of Mookie Betts. I understand the choice on a basic level: Victorino was an integral part of 2013’s championship team and if he’s healthy enough to replicate his performance that season he is an excellent player to have in the everyday lineup both at the plate in the field. Farrell is showing loyalty to a veteran player who helped him win a World Series. But on the other hand Victorino missed all but 30 games last season with back issues, and even though he was “healthy” in 2013 he still only missed 40 games. 2013 was one of the best seasons (and luckiest, as he batted a tough to sustain .321 average on balls in play) of Victorino’s career, and at age 34 and coming off of back surgery, I seriously doubt that he will be able to be that player again.

As someone who is firmly planted on #TeamMookie, this news is concerning if only because of the potential looming Cole Hamels trade which the Red Sox may or may not make. Betts was excellent in his limited time last season, slashing .291/.368/.444 in 211 plate appearances at age 21. As one of the few recent Red Sox prospects that have actually produced at the major league level, it pains me to think about a world where he’s shipped off to Philadelphia and proceeds to be awesome for the next 12 years. While I don’t think it would have been prudent to have given him the starting job right away either, I was hoping that there would have been a positional battle this spring where Victorino and Betts would have had to win the job based on merit rather than seniority. It’s early to tell, but hopefully there is a meaningful spot for Betts on the Opening Day roster where he can contribute to the team. That leaves (likely) two more spots for 5 other players. Holt, Betts, and Craig provide positional versatility, Nava is a switch hitter and specifically crushes right-handed pitching, and while Bradley Jr. has yet to prove he has even the smallest semblance of an offensive game, he does things like this on a regular basis. It’s going to be a tough call for Farrell, and it will be interesting to see who makes the cut out there.

Henry Owens Watch 2k15

Top Red Sox pitching prospect Henry Owens was invited to spring training for the second straight year, meaning that if you follow the team you should probably take note of how he does. There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding the 22-year-old, who dominated Double A Portland before a more up and down stint at Triple A Pawtucket. Owens is the best hope for the Red Sox to develop a star pitcher from within, something they have really struggled to do in recent years. Clay Buchholz is the only homegrown pitcher in the starting rotation and while he hasn’t been as reliable as, say, recently departed Jon Lester, he’s still had some moments when healthy. Owens doesn’t project to have the same upside as Buchholz did coming up through the system, but at 6-6  205 lbs he does have the frame of a workhorse. His fastball usually sits around the low 90’s and though it isn’t an elite-level pitch Owens has benefited from increasing command. Over three levels between 2013 and 2014, Owens has seen his BB/9 drop from 4.56 in 20 starts at High A Salem at the beginning of 2013 to 2.84 in last season’s small Pawtucket sample size. Back in October Fangraphs’ Marc Hulet projected Owens as a #3 starter with potential for better if his command and secondary pitches continue to improve.That may not set the world on fire, but it would be  a victory for a Red Sox farm system looking to end a developmental drought of starting pitching.

The Chase for Yoan Moncada

Having already traded for (and subsequently trading away) Yoenis Cespedes and signing Castillo late last summer, the Red Sox are looking to dip into the Cuban talent pipeline once again with their pursuit of 19-year-old second base phenom Yoan Moncada. CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported late last night that the three lead candidates are the Red Sox, Yankees, and the suddenly profligate Padres, with the bidding supposedly moving north of $20 million. Moncada is highly rated by scouts due largely in part to his youth and upside. In two seasons (101 games) in the Cuban National Series, Moncada has posted a slash line of .277/.388/.380 in 367 plate appearances to go along with 21 steals despite being nearly 11 years younger than his competition. While Moncada likely wouldn’t really factor into this season’s plans and isn’t even necessarily going to be part of the team, this is absolutely a situation worth watching given that Dustin Pedroia and Pablo Sandoval are locked up for the next half decade, Xander Bogaerts is still highly regarded by the front office and manning shortstop, and Betts is already waiting in the wings in that 2B/OF spot that Moncada would likely fit into. Still, the Red Sox have never been afraid to make a splash in the international market as we learned with the Daisuke Matsuzaka and Castillo signings, so even though Moncada might not be a perfect match that the Sox have gotten this deep into the negotiating process shows that they are willing to create room for him. Regardless, this is something Sox fans should be keeping an eye on, especially if the Yankees decide to unload a pile of cash and bring Moncada to the AL East.

EDIT: MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez tweeted out a half hour after I posted this that the Red Sox and Moncada have agreed to terms in the $30 million range. Huge investment for the Sox and one that throws Mookie Betts’ future with the team into greater uncertainty. I don’t have much to add to what I wrote here other than that it will be interesting to see where he fits into the team’s plans and that the signing gives even more depth to an already impressive farm system. This move could be a game changer.

Spring training is a time for wild speculation, shameless optimism, and is a sign that warmer weather is around the corner. There will likely be a lot more narratives that emerge over the next month plus and it’s important not to overreact to anything. That said, keep an eye on these situations for the rest of the spring. They could be telling for how the rest of the season (and in the case of Owens and Moncada, future seasons) will play out.

Hot Stove Shuffle

While things may have cooled down at the moment, the Red Sox certainly have had a busy offseason so far, busy enough at least to prompt an email chain between Greg and Pat. Here’s what we had to say about the Sox winter so far:

Greg: STUFF HAPPENED. Also, let me be the first to welcome you to the blog!

Pat: I KNOW (and thank you).  Well, sort of. I was working full time last semester, and apparently checking Twitter and doing research on baseball-reference is frowned upon in the corporate world. Wanna fill me in on the latest Sox moves?

Greg: Ah, the joys of Co-op, Anyways you’ve only missed a few major moves, and by a few I mean three. The Red Sox shored up their pitching staff by first shipping Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster off to Arizona for starter Wade Miley (a move I really liked) in mid-December before turning around around the next day and finally trading Yoenis Cespedes along with Alex Wilson and minor league right hander Gabe Speier for Rick Porcello (a move I REALLY liked). Oh and they picked up Justin Masterson by inking him to a one year, incentive laden deal. It was a busy few days to say the least.

Pat: Nooooooo Rubby! Loved that guy, thought he was going to be mini-Pedro. Solid pickups, though, so maybe it was worth it.
I was really worried about the rotation -never mind the bullpen, which is too frightening to think about- going into this offseason, especially after the losing out on Lester. But those moves were a huge step forward. Porcello can be dominant at times, Miley is a workhorse, and Masterson has had some sneaky good stretches over the past couple years.
Though the moves last month helped, I still don’t think the rotation is where it needs to be. You can’t win in October with just a solid rotation. You need at least one, preferably two, elite blue-chip starters on your staff. Is Clay Buchholz really going to be our elite guy? Can Porcello take a big leap? I doubt it. If only there was an ace lefty on the market who loved Boston, was loved by Boston, and publicly said he’d love to be here…

Greg: We’d offer him the same amount that we offered Josh Beckett four years ago!I agree that the bullpen could use some work. Koji looked tired at the end of last season and as he hits 40 he isn’t getting any younger or more effective. Tazawa is still here, but Breslow is gone (though he never recovered from his World Series meltdown anyway), Miller is gone, even Wilson gave some solid innings out of the ‘pen. I guess it’s going to be Burke Badenhop time! Get excited!

Seriously though, while Miley and Porcello  aren’t #1 starters, their peripheral stats indicate they could have success in Boston. Both guys are sinkerball, grounder inducing types who pitch to contact. Both were in the top 25 among qualifying starters last season for groundball to flyball ratio, with Miley (16) posting a 1.99 mark and Porcello (T-25) posting a 1.80 mark.
Although Miley’s ERA went up nearly a full run from 2013 to 2014, he duplicated his 3.98 FIP, meaning he might have just had some poor luck. He also posted a career best in K/9. Hell, Fangraphs pointed out that his stats since 2012 aren’t that far off from Jeff Samardzija. If nothing else, he’s a solid #3 starter who’s ability to keep the ball on the ground is going to be useful with Hanley Ramirez patrolling left field.
As for Porcello, he’s coming off a career year and is only 25, so needless to say I’m pretty psyched about that. But you’re right, unless Clay Buchholz decides to A) pitch 200 innings this year (if you believe that I have several bridges to sell you) and B) look like the guy from the first few months of 2013 and not whatever the heck that was that took the mound last season, the Sox seem like they might be a pitcher short.

Pat: No matter what happens with Buchholz, I still am pretty content with the current state of the rotation. For as long as I can remember, depth and consistency have been the Sox’ biggest issues when it comes to their starting five. This was more evident than ever last year. The Sox had nine pitchers start ten or more games. Now, trading away 3/5 of their starting rotation certainly had a lot to do with that, but the lack of reliable arms was frightening. Of those nine pitchers, all but Lester and Lackey had an ERA well above 4.00. Four of them had an ERA over 5.00. Yikes.

To put that putrid pitching into perspective, their AL East counterparts featured rotations such as the Orioles (six starters with over ten starts, only one with an ERA over 4.00), the Rays (six starters over ten starts, only three with an ERA above 4.00), and the Blue Jays (five starters over ten games, only two with an ERA above 4.00). The Yanks similarly had nine pitchers with 10 or more starts, but when looking at their top 7 pitchers in regards to amount of starts, only two had an ERA over 4.00, and three of them had a sub-3.00 mark. You just can’t compete in a division with that type of pitching when you’re counting on guys like Allen Webster and Brandon Workman to be pillars of your rotation.

Barring any injuries, they now have a solid core of pitchers with proven track records to build around. Yes, they are in desperate need of an ace, but at least we won’t have to flip to NESN at 7:00 each night without having the slightest clue whose turn it is to give up 4 runs and 7 hits in 5 innings. They still have some work to do, but there are plenty of big names available on the free agent/trade market (see: Hamels, Cole or Shields, James “Big Game”). Even if they strike out in free agency, the Sox have a surplus of offense to trade away this offseason or sometime before the trade deadline. With a stable of both young and veteran position players, the Sox should have a few viable options to find their head of the rotation and shore up their pitching staff.
Greg: I’m glad you brought up the Orioles, because that’s a rotation that I actually point to with regards to the way this Red Sox staff could potentially perform next season. Who was the “ace” of that staff last season? Chris Tillman? Wei Yin-Chen? Bud Norris? Kevin Gausman was great in his 20 starts, but he didn’t exactly carry the staff. Generally speaking,Orioles starters outperformed their peripherals by a wide margin, and that solid performance coupled with an offense that led the American League in runs scored despite injuries to Machado and Wieters and a no show year from Chris Davis was enough to push them to the ALCS.

I know I might be being a little bit pessimistic here, but even with the acquisitions of Ramirez and Sandoval I’m worried about the offensive side of things. Ortiz is pushing 40, Pedroia’s OPS has been steadily declining since 2011, Ramirez has struggled to stay healthy (and isn’t exactly the best guy to have around in the clubhouse),  Castillo is a huge question mark…it feels like a lot is riding on Mookie Betts to improve on what we saw from him last year (which, granted, was impressive) and Xander Bogaerts to improve on a disappointing rookie season.

Pat: The Sox offense has A LOT of variables, but plenty of upside. Given Ortiz’s age, the only hitter we can safely say for sure will produce is newly acquired Sandoval. Even if Papi does what he usually does, that leaves 7 big question marks in their lineup. Not great.
Good news is, though, just like the rotation, the Sox have plenty of options in their lineup. Just take the outfield for example. Hanley, Castillo, Craig, Nava, Betts, Bradley Jr., Victorino. That’s six, SIX, major league capable players. The veterans have injury issues and the young guys are unproven, but that’s a really solid mix of veteran and young talent that I’m hopeful Farrell can figure out how to use. I’m thinking the opening day lineup will be Hanley-Castillo-Victorino, but given age and performance, I think all 3 positions are up for grabs throughout the year.
I’ll let you tackle the infield and catchers, but one quick word about Pedroia. I’m terrified. He looked straight up below average last year, and the sad thing is, it doesn’t appear to be an anomaly. As you pointed out, he’s been trending steadily in that direction. If this was Mike Napoli, I’d say whatever, replace him with Nava or someone and we’ll be fine. But this is our de facto captain and the heart and soul of our club. Our Jeter. With Betts waiting in the wings and not much room for him in the outfield, how much time does Pedey have left? Does he make through this season as an everyday starter? I honestly don’t know.

Greg: I’d be shocked if Pedroia isn’t the starting second baseman by season’s end as long as he’s not injured. I think what Betts gives the Sox is flexibility, because he can not only play the outfield (and I believe he should start over Victorino, who’s coming off back surgery), but he can also sub in for Pedey when the latter is feeling banged up, which is especially useful considering Pedroia’s tendency to play through injuries whether doing so is actually helping the team or not.

Other than that, the infield will likely look similar to last year except for third where Sandoval’s slightly above average production and solid glove will be a massive upgrade over what the Sox got from that position last year. Holtmania is looking like an odd man out, Bogaerts will hopefully be manning shortstop full time after being inexplicably usurped by Stephen Drew in the middle of last season, and Middlebrooks has been exiled to San Diego for veteran catcher Ryan Hanigan (playing the David Ross role this year) after another lost season at the plate.
Losing Middlebrooks for nothing hurts, not only because of the potential he flashed in 2012 before suffering a wrist injury or because of the constant butting heads with Red Sox coaching, but because now this means we lost Jenny Dell for nothing.

Pat: At this point, all we can do is speculate how this team is going to piece together. Are guys like Pedroia and Ortiz going to start REALLY showing their age? Can young studs Mookie and Xander take a leap forward? Can you compete in October with just a “solid” rotation? Or are the Sox still looking to land an ace? Who knows.

We’ll obviously tackle these questions and much more as the offseason progresses, but for now, I think it’s safe to say we’re a lot better off than we were in September after a disastrous title defense. I’m excited to see where this team can go. We certainly have the major league talent and minor league trade bait to field a legit contender. And if the baseball gods conspire against us once again, at least it can’t be as bad as last year, right? Right?
Greg: Right. And even with Scherzer off the market as of yesterday, there are still a plethora of pitching options to be had, either on Scherzer’s new team or elsewhere. Like you said, the pieces are in place for a solid foundation, and if nothing else it’s good to see that the team is at least being proactive this offseason. We’ll have to wait and see, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s one more move to come before pitchers and catchers report.

So…Now What?

After a long wait, it’s official: John Lester is signing with the Chicago Cubs for the hefty price tag of $155 million spread out over six seasons (with a vesting option for a seventh year). He is not coming back to the Red Sox after all, not for the six year, $135 million final offer Boston made, which was $20 million less than the Cubs’ offer and $33 million less than San Francisco’s Godfather offer of 7/$168 mil. If you believe what the baseball community has been saying all along, and there’s no reason not to, this signing will finally open the flood gates on the starting pitching market and allow several more moves to be made.

Lester’s decision leaves the Sox with a starting rotation that, as of today, consists of Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly, Rubby De La Rosa, and then two of the wildly underwhelming trio of Anthony Ranaudo, Allen Webster  and Brandon Workman. To be totally honest, I could replace everything in that previous sentence with the exception of the first five words with “in a tough spot”, because that’s precisely where the Red Sox stand right now with regards to their starting pitching. While they have addressed their flaccid lineup from last season with the acquisitions of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval about two weeks and a half weeks ago, Boston’s rotation leaves much to be desired.

Before we get into what comes next for the Sox, it’s important to clarify that they brought this problem on themselves. All that Boston’s brass had to do was approach Lester with a reasonable offer in the spring, and all of this could have been avoided. Instead, Lester was offered the same amount of money that J.D. Drew signed for almost eight years ago. As Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports pointed out, had the Red Sox made relatively market competitive offer, there’s a good chance he would have re-signed. But they didn’t, he didn’t, and that’s how you get left with Clay Buchholz and his 5.34 ERA as your de facto ace.

Losing out on Lester means the Red Sox are losing out on a homegrown talent who spent eight and a half of his nine seasons with the club and was a part of two World Series championship teams. Sentimentalism aside, statically Lester is one of the best left-handers  in the game, a horse who has averaged 32 starts and 207 innings per season since 2008.

Lester enjoyed his best season in 2014, setting career bests in innings pitched, ERA, ERA+ (which adjusts for park factors), and strikeout to walk ratio. 2015 will be his age 31 season, meaning that the Cubs will have signed him through at least his age 37 season.

Assuming Lester can stay healthy (and he’s shown no reason why he can’t), this should be a solid deal for the Cubs, even though there will likely be a drop off in performance in the back half of the contract.

If nothing else, the Red Sox can take solace knowing that last season was the first season in which either Lester’s FIP or ERA was under 3.00. While Lester is a very good pitcher with terrific postseason performances who has been relatively consistent over the course of his career, last season stands out in some ways compared to past seasons. Whether Lester’s pinpoint control last season was the result of his maturation as a player and mastering of the cut fastball (a project that had been a few years in the making) or just an outlier only time will tell.

Regardless, there is no question that the Red Sox will sorely miss Lester’s steady hand in the rotation unless they can find a suitable replacement (or two). Fortunately, there are a few options for the club in both free agency and the trade market.

The most obvious candidate to fill the void left by Lester is Max Scherzer. The free agent right hander blossomed over the last couple seasons in Detroit, winning the 2013 Cy Young. Scherzer followed up his award-winning campaign with another excellent season in 2014, with a stat line that approached his career numbers from the previous year. While he would certainly be a welcome addition to a beleaguered group of starters, he also carries a much heavier price tag despite being only half a year younger than Lester. If the Red Sox weren’t willing to go over $135 million for the known commodity that Lester represented, it’s highly unlikely that they will be willing to pony up another $70 million for Scherzer.

A step down from Scherzer would be James Shields. The 32 year-old right hander will be entering his age 33 season in 2015, though he, like Lester, has proven to be both a workhorse and a highly effective pitcher. Since 2007 Shields has averaged 223 IP per season, and hasn’t thrown less than 203 innings in a season over that span. Mileage may be a concern here, though the Sox may be forced to bite the bullet and take that chance because, well, just look at the names I listed in the second paragraph of this column. Shields was reportedly going to sign soon after Lester’s decision was made, so we’ll have an answer as to whether the Red Sox are interested in the guy who beat them in Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS fairly soon.

After those two pitchers, the market becomes a lot more muddled. It is likely that the Red Sox will try to make moves on a reclamation project/low-end starter to try to fill out their rotation (aka the Edinson Volquez All-Stars). Boston has already reached out to this class of free agents, offering former member Justin Masterson (who they dealt away in 2009 as part of a year and a half Victor Martinez rental) a multi-year deal. Masterson struggled mightily last season, posting 5.88 ERA between the Indians and Cardinals while walking 4.8 batters per nine innings. Despite the sky-high ERA, Masterson’s FIP was only 4.50. While that’s not exactly a great number either, the fact that it is a good deal lower than his ERA points to some bad luck to go along with diminished control. The stats back this theory up: Cleveland was third to last in the AL in defensive efficiency and dead last in the AL in defensive runs saved. Masterson still struggled in St. Louis, one of the better defensive teams, but ultimately one could conceive of a scenario where Masterson returns to the effective pitcher he was in 2013.

Then of course, there’s trades. With Yoenis Cespedes both expendable and presenting the most value of the Red Sox outfielders, he has found himself at the center of a great deal of rumors ranging from the Mets (who weren’t interested after all) to the Reds (maybe interested?) to a Cespedes/De La Rosa to the Tigers for Rick Porcello (which, while floated out there, has been considered “not hot” by the Boston Herald’s Michael Silverman) to a Cespedes/Ian Kennedy swap with the Padres. Kennedy would be an interesting pickup; he won 21 games in 2011 with Arizona and last year benefited from the friendly confines of the spacious Petco Park while posting a career best 9.27 K/9. Jeff Samardzija was another attractive avenue, though the A’s already decided to partner up with some different Sox. The biggest potential trade would involve bringing the Phillies Cole Hamels to Boston, though that reportedly would require the Red Sox selling the farm. Hamels would be an ideal candidate to replace Lester as a bona fide left handed ace with playoff seasoning coming off another excellent campaign and with four years of team control at a reasonable rate. It is unlikely, however, that the Red Sox would be willing to budge on their stance of refusing to trade either Mookie Betts or Xander Bogaerts, making Hamels, like Scherzer, a pipe dream.

Regardless of the path the Red Sox do take, one thing is painfully clear: that lowballing Lester last spring was a dubious move at best, and one that will almost certainly come back to haunt them if they are unable to find a quality arm or two to help fill out their starting rotation. The options are out there, it will be up to Ben Cherington to take advantage.