The Definitive Ranking of Every 21st Century Red Sox Team, Part 2

In case you missed Thurday’s Part 1, click here.

On Thursday we covered teams 15 through 6, now it’s time for the moment I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for…the top five Red Sox teams of the 21st Century

Tier 4: One Win Away

5. 2008

How they finished: 95-67, 2nd in the AL East, lost in ALCS to TB in 7
Team MVP: Dustin Pedroia
Team LVP: Mike Lowell’s Hip
AKA: “I Can’t Believe We Just Lost to Tampa”

Easily the most effective of Boston’s three 21st century title defenses, though they were plagued by injuries and in season roster turmoil. Manny Ramirez, after half a decade of occasionally sulking and being in off and on trade talks was finally dealt after things spiraled out of control in a mid-July series against the Angels when Ramirez refused to run out ground balls and was generally too much for anyone to deal with. The Red Sox ended up with Jason Bay, and while Ramirez went on a Bondsian (in more ways than one) tear once arriving in Los Angeles, in retrospect the Sox probably got, like, 85 cents on the dollar for their oft-disgruntled star. Bay played well in his 49 games with the team, posting .293/.370/.527 splits and simply not being Manny out in left. The lineup was also buoyed by MVP Dustin Pedroia, who led the AL in hits, runs, and doubles while finishing second to Joe Mauer for the league batting title as well as Maybe-Should-Have-Been-The-MVP Kevin Youkilis, who clubbed 29 HR and posted a 144 OPS+. Injuries to David Ortiz, Mike Lowell, and JD Drew (who actually carried the team offensively with a monster 1.309 OPS in the month of June) limited the team come playoff time, and while the Sox went out and acquired Mark Kotsay and used Jed Lowrie and Sean Casey extensively to cover the damages, the result wasn’t quite the same. Josh Beckett, after a 20-win 2007, showed up to spring training looking less than fit, and struggled with injuries as well.

This was the last season in a six year stretch where the Red Sox were one of the toughest outs in postseason baseball, coming back to win from down 0-2 in the 2003 ALDS, 0-3 in the 2004 ALCS, 1-3 in the 2007 ALCS, and forcing a Game 7 in the 2008 ALCS after falling in a 3-1 hole. Trailing by 7 runs in Game 5, the Sox mounted an incredible comeback capped off by an RBI single by Drew. This time, the series comeback fizzled in Game 7, where the lack of Mike Lowell and over-reliance on mediocre replacements caused the offense to sputter at the worst possible moment. Despite that disappointment at the Trop, the 2008 Sox were solid across the board, and one of the better defensive teams of the century. They were good, but they didn’t quite have as much talent as the team just ahead of them in the rankings.

4. 2003

How they finished: 95-67, 2nd in the AL East, lost in ALCS to NYY in 7
Team MVP: 
The entire lineup.Seriously.
Team LVP: Grady Little
AKA: Either “Cowboy Up!” if you like to look at the glass half full, or “Rock Bottom” if you’re a Red Sox fan old enough to remember what it was like before 2004

The 2003 Red Sox are far and away the most potent offensive team on this list. This was Boston’s modern day Murderer’s Row, a team that could score, and score, and score, and were perfectly happy trying to win every game 9-7. They posted an absurd team ISO of .202, hit a Red Sox record 238 home runs, and averaged (that’s right, averaged) 5.93 runs per game. This was the year Theo Epstein took over as GM, and he laid the groundwork for future championships by bringing in guys like Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller, and of course David Ortiz. The result: a lineup that was so-so the prior year transformed into the most prolific hitting team team since the turn of the century. Check out the most common batting order from that season (OPS+ in parentheses):
1. Johnny Damon (94)
2. Todd Walker (95)
3. Nomar Garciaparra (121)
4. Manny Ramirez (160)
5. David Ortiz (144)
6. Kevin Millar (110)
7. Trot Nixon (149)
8. Bill Mueller (140)
9. Jason Varitek (120)
Those numbers are insane. 7 of the 9 regulars were at least 10% higher than league average, and the only two that failed to reach an OPS+ of 100 (Damon and Walker) were still just above league average. Pitching-wise they were less impressive with a middling starting rotation featuring a Pedro Martinez who was lights out for the first six innings or 100 pitches, but could not be trusted past that point (as the Grady Little would find out in October), Derek Lowe and Tim Wakefield, and anchored in the loosest sense of the word by John Burkett, Casey Fossum, and midseason acquisition Jeff Suppan, who promptly posted a 5.57 ERA for the remainder of the season. The bullpen went with the now infamous “closer by committee” strategy, which worked out not so well. The ‘pen was 28th in the MLB in ERA and was one of the reasons why Pedro was left in on that fateful October night.

But what was most impressive about this team was that they were, for all intents in purposes, the one that started it all. Though they lost in heartbreaking fashion to Yankees and Aaron Effing Boone, they instilled a never say die attitude with their comeback against the A’s in the ALDS and forcing a Game 7 against the Yankees in the ALCS after falling behind 3 games to 2. They were incredibly talented, and the massive failure that was October 16th, 2003 set the stage for everything that happened the next season.

Tier 5: The Champs

3. 2013

How they finished: 97-65, 1st in the AL East, won WS over STL in 6
Team MVP: The Beards/Team Chemistry
Team LVP: Joel Hanrahan
AKA: The Impossible Dream Redux”

Following 2012’s disaster, the Red Sox decided to do a complete 180. Gone were some of the big money stars that were the face of 2011’s collapse and 2012’s implosion. In their place were bargain buys like Mike Napoli, Koji Uehara Shane Victorino, and Jonny Gomes. The team won a couple of games, then won some more, then kept winning, and kept winning, and before anyone really knew what was going on the Red Sox had cruised to a first place finish in the AL East. The team knocked off the Rays, outfoxed the Tigers. and ripped off three straight wins to close out the Cardinals to win the World Series. That’s the simple version of the story at least. This team was a team that nobody saw coming and caught everyone by surprise. David Ortiz was a monster all season long, and when it came time for the postseason, he did what Big Papi does best, saving the season when it seemed like all hope was lost. At the end of the day this was a team that combined both elements of 2004’s quirky characters and 2007’s cold efficiency.

What was most intriguing about this team was not necessarily that they won, but how they did it. They have the third highest wRC+ of any Red Sox team this century, and they were able to do that not through a barrage of 3 run homers like Sox teams past, but with speed and doubles. Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino combined at the top of the order to wreak havoc on the bases, and the rest of the team, while not necessarily spectacular basestealers, were heady runners. The result was a BsR (baserunning rating) of 11.3, fifth in the majors that year and the best of any Red Sox team, not just of the 21st century, but ever. Combined with a lineup that ground pitchers to a pulp thanks to guys like Napoli and Daniel Nava who averaged 637 pitches per at bat (a rough guess on my part), this Sox squad was difficult to deal with. Everything went right for the Sox this season, and while Jon Lester was the only pitcher to top 200 innings, the rest of the staff chipped in just enough high quality innings to get by, especially Clay Buchholz, who started the season 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA before getting injured in June and not returning until September, and Koji Uehara, who was about as automatic as it got after rescuing the closer role from the Andrew Bailey/Joel Hanrahan crap sandwich in June. While I may have ranked them third among the championship teams, it’s important to indicate that this team was every bit as good as the either two.

2. 2007

How they finished: 96-66, 1st in the AL East, won WS over COL in 4
Team MVP: Josh Beckett
Team LVP: Eric Gagne
AKA: “So Much For Another 86 Years”

While the 2004 and 2013 teams caught everyone by surprise, the 2007 championship almost never felt in doubt. The 2007 Red Sox have the highest Pythagorean W-L of any other Red Sox team in these rankings at 101-61. As I pointed out in the 2013 section, the 2007 team was a highly efficient machine, especially with regards to their pitching staff. Josh Beckett had his best season as a member of the Sox, posting a 3.08 FIP while finishing second in the AL Cy Young chase to CC Sabathia. Beckett was a superhuman in the playoffs as well, winning all four of his starts with an ERA of 1.20. Curt Schilling nearly threw a no hitter in June until he famously shook off Jason Varitek and promptly allowed a hit with two outs in the ninth. Daisuke Matsuzaka led the team in IP, even though his up and down season proved indicative of what was to come the rest of his career. The Red Sox staff as a whole was excellent, finishing with the best team ERA in the AL despite finishing in the middle of the pack defensively. Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon were automatic in the 8th and 9th innings, leading the bullpen to the second best ERA in the majors despite deadline acquisition Eric Gagne’s attempts to completely undermine the entire season.

While the pitching was indeed excellent, the lineup was a force as well. Sure, the whole Julio Lugo thing didn’t quite work out and the bench was weak enough that Bobby Kielty was considered a huge get during the post-trade deadline waiver period, but World Series MVP Mike Lowell had a career year at the plate, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia were an excellent 1-2 tandem at the top of the lineup, and David Ortiz set career highs in BA (.332) and OPS (1.066). 2007 was the final season of a four year run for Big Papi where he terrorized major league pitching. Ortiz averaged 44 HR, 135 RBI, and 42 doubles a season over that stretch, while posting a line of .304/.408/.616 and an OPS+ of 159. Ellsbury made his major league debut late in June, and provided a late season boost thanks to his offensive dynamism, even jacking Coco Crisp’s spot in the starting lineup by Game 6 of the ALCS. In the postseason the Red Sox handled the Angels and the Rockies in the ALDS and World Series, respectively. Though they ran into some trouble with the Indians in the ALCS, falling behind 3 games to 1, they rallied back with three straight wins, outscoring the Indians 30-5 in Games 5-7 and capped off with a sneaky legendary catch by Crisp to clinch the pennant. And yet, though this team was certainly great, they never felt quite as good as the hands down best team on this list.

1. 2004

How they finished: 98-64, 2nd in the AL East, won WS over STL in 4
Team MVPEveryone
Team LVP: No one. Seriously. I can’t think of anyone.
AKA: “The Curse Reversed”

As if there was going to be any other Red Sox team in the top spot. I mean, forget the last 15 years, this is the best Red Sox team of all time. It isn’t particularly close. Forget their on field performance for a minute. This team had to overcome 86 years of tortured franchise history and a rabid fanbase desperate for a championship. They avenged last season’s heartbreak to their arch nemesis in the sweetest way possible. They, unlike so many previous incarnations of the Red Sox before them, actually finished the job. And they did all of this while being the most likable group of guys to ever put on a Red Sox uniform thanks to things like “Why not us?” and Nelson and everything Kevin Millar said and did during the ALCS. To quote SNL’s Stephon, this team had everything.

As I mentioned earlier, this team could not have happened without everything that happened in 2003. Epstein sought to solve all of that team’s problems in the following offseason. The Sox needed a second top flight pitcher to go with a declining Pedro Martinez? Enter Curt Schilling. Last year’s bullpen by committee was an utter failure? Let’s go get Keith Foulke. Our infield defense was a disaster? Out with Todd Walker, in with Pokey Reese (and yes I linked that catch because it never gets any love even though Derek Jeter made the same catch look 1,000 times more difficult in that same game and was deified for it even though he didn’t have to range as far). And yet even with the changes, the Red Sox were only 52-44 on July 24th. That night, the Red Sox beat the Yankees 11-10 in extras in “The A-Rod Game“. Suddenly the team had a spark. On July 31st, Epstein made waves yet again with the blockbuster trade that sent away a sulky Nomar in exchange for Orlando Cabrera, Doug Mientkiewicz and Dave Roberts. From that moment on, the ’04 Sox played like a completely different team, going 21-7 in August and 42-18 overall down the stretch. Unlike so many teams before them, the Red Sox got better as the season went on instead of wilting, a trend that continued into the postseason with the greatest comeback in baseball history against the rival Yankees in the ALCS. The Sox ripped off 8 straight wins after falling behind 3-0 to  New York, with heroics from seemingly every player on the roster from Ortiz, Ramirez, and Schilling to Roberts (obviously), Mark Bellhorn and Curtis Leskanic. That’s why there’s no singular MVP with this team. Everyone played a tremendous part.

Statistically, this team has an excellent argument for the top spot as well. They had an offense that produced only slightly below that of 2003’s historic lineup, and a pitching staff and defense (especially once the Nomar trade went down) that was much improved from the prior season. The only real weakness on this team was on the basepaths,  They were second in the AL in team FIP, and with Foulke anchoring the ‘pen they jumped from 28th in reliever ERA in 2003 to 11th. These subtle improvements bumped the team from a very good team to a championship caliber one. The 2004 team was more talented than 2013’s team, and had far more character than in 2007. When it’s all said and done, they are not only the most important Red Sox team of the 21st century, they are also the best.

Advertisements

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.