ICYMI, I previewed the American League in Part I here. On to the NL!
The Red Sox are an organization with tons variance heading into the offseason. They have a huge budget, terrific prospect depth, and a new front office that will likely be looking to make changes. President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski and company will have a lot of important decisions to make as they look for ways to improve their roster in both the immediate and distant future. While forward thinking will be mandatory in the front office’s quest to return the team to the postseason in 2016 and beyond, it will be also key to look back on baseball’s most recent postseason to help guide their hands going forward. Here are five lessons the Red Sox can take away from 2015’s playoff participants:
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.