Thursday, July 30, 2015

Hamels To Rangers Means Red Sox Faced With Solving Pitching Problems Through Free Agency

There are several reasons why the Red Sox are on their way to a third last place finish in the A.L. East in the last four years.

Offensive struggles, poor defense, mental mistakes, and suspect managing have all contributed to their 44-58 record, which puts them 14-games behind the Yankees in the division.  Overall, the Red Sox are the third worst team in baseball and the worst in the entire American League.

The team's biggest problem has been their starting pitching.  Their starters have posted a 4.91 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP through 102 games.  That is a recipe for disaster and explains the team's dismal year more than any other factor.

The blame for the pitching issues is squarely on the shoulders of general manager Ben Cherington.

At last year's trade deadline he committed two blunders that started this problem.  First, he dealt Jon Lester to Oakland instead of holding on to him and using the last two months of the season to negotiate a long-term contract extension.  The Red Sox were in the running for Lester over the winter but lost out in a bidding war with the Cubs.  The second mistake was dealing John Lackey to the Cardinals for Allen Craig and Joe Kelly. Craig and Kelly have been disasters with the Red Sox while Lackey should have been a leader on the pitching staff.

This winter, Cherington's decision to swap Yoenis Cespedes - the outfielder the team received from Oakland in the Lester deal - to Detroit for Rick Porcello and then the team gave Porcello a 4-year/$82-million contract extension that kicks in for the 2016 season.  Through 20 starts with the Red Sox, Porcello is 5-11 with a 5.81 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, and has allowed 20 home runs.

Wade Miley was also traded for this winter.  While he has been better than Porcello, he has not been great posting an 8-9 record with a 4.65 ERA and 1.42 WHIP.  Justin Masterson was the final addition in free agency and he has been a complete disaster, going 3-4 with a 5.63 ERA and 1.55 WHIP in 15 appearances spread out between starts and relief appearances.

The lone bright spot - and it's a stretch to even consider this a bright spot - was Clay Buchholz.  Buchholz started slow then heated up in June before an elbow injury got him on the disabled list before the All-Star Game.  For the season, which might be over for him, Buchholz is 7-7 with a 3.26 ERA and 1.21 WHIP.

After failing to build a championship pitching staff for 2014, it's tough to trust Cherington - if he remains as GM - will be able to do so for 2015.

Today's news that Cole Hamels was dealt by the Phillies to the Rangers will make his job even tougher. Hamels was considered a target by the Red Sox because he could lead the rotation and is under contract through 2019.  In the end, it didn't look like the Red Sox ever really had a chance to land Hamels, and it's a move their likely to regret not making.

This puts the team's starting pitching hopes for 2016 on bounce back years for Porcello and Miley, good health for Buchholz, and free agency or trades.

The free agent market will have some appealing names - David Price and Johnny Cueto top the list of potential free agent starting pitchers - but the Red Sox have struggled in recent years to find the right matches in free agency and, as the Lester negotiations proved, they have been hesitant to invest big money into pitchers who are already 30-years-old.  Price will turn 30 at the end of August and Cueto will hit that milestone in February.

The trade market will shape up in the winter but as their failure to land Hamels shows, the Red Sox are reluctant to use their top talents as trade chips.  If they go after a pitcher like Sonny Gray of Oakland - who won't turn 26 until November and is not eligible for free agency until 2020 - that policy will have to change. Good, young starting pitching is expensive and the Red Sox have to be willing to use their farm system to get what they need.

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