The Red Sox believed they had an overabundance of starting pitchers going into the 2006 season.
The acquisition of Josh Beckett from the Marlins set up a rotation that also included Curt Schilling, David Wells, Tim Wakefield, and Matt Clement. A young lefthander named Jon Lester was on the way, too.
As spring training started to wind down, the Sox traded an extra starter, 29-year-old righthander Bronson Arroyo, to the Cincinnati Reds for Wily Mo Pena, a linebacker-sized 24-year-old outfielder with great power but a fleeting grasp of the strike zone.
Then-general manager Theo Epstein boasted that Pena had “silly power” and was a “physical freak” capable of playing center field. Arroyo was seen as superfluous despite starting 32 games the previous season for a team that won 95 games.
The well-intentioned move failed miserably. Pena was traded to the Nationals in 2007. He hit .271 for the Sox but had only 16 home runs over 432 at-bats while striking out 148 times. He played 140 major league games after leaving Boston and has been out of organized baseball since 2011.
Arroyo has won 105 games over eight seasons with the Reds, posting a 4.05 earned run average and starting an average of 33 games a season. He has earned a reputation for being one of the most reliable pitchers in a game and shows no sign of fading at 36.
The 2006 Red Sox finished in third place as their rotation proved shaky. Clement started only 12 games because of injury and Wells eight. A team with too many starters resorted to journeymen and B-level prospects to make 30 starts over the course of the season. Arroyo, who never wanted to be traded in the first place, started 35 games for the Reds.
Now the Red Sox are presented with a similar puzzle. With spring training seven weeks away, they have six starting pitchers with a group of prospects gaining notice in Triple A. General manager Ben Cherington, one of Epstein’s chief assistants in 2006, said the lesson of the Arroyo deal is one that is not forgotten, even though the trade made sense at the time.
“These things tend to work themselves out,” Cherington said during the Winter Meetings. “It’s hard to say we have too much pitching because you can’t predict what will happen once we get to spring training.”
In Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Felix Doubront, the Red Sox have three starters who have come through the organization and played key roles on championship teams. Lester was 15-8 with a 3.75 ERA last season before a dominant postseason in which he went 4-1 with a 1.56 ERA over five starts.
Lester is going into the final year of his contract and Cherington has indicated extension talks are on the team’s agenda.
Buchholz is signed though 2015 with options for 2016 and ’17. The deal is an advantageous one for the Sox. But Buchholz has averaged only 20 starts the last three seasons because of injuries. Buchholz was 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA over 12 starts last season before a sore neck and shoulder kept him out three months.
Doubront was 11-6 with a 4.32 ERA last season before being shifted into the bullpen for the postseason. The 26-year-old lefthander has started to realize his potential and was told by the team to report early to spring training to ensure he is in good condition.
The primary trade candidates are John Lackey, Jake Peavy, and Ryan Dempster.
Lackey, 35, made 29 starts and had a 3.52 ERA last season after missing the entire 2012 season recovering from elbow surgery. Lackey had a 2.77 ERA in 26 postseason innings and was the winner in the clinching game of the World Series, allowing one run over 6⅔ innings.
Lackey has one year and $15.25 million remaining on his deal. But the Red Sox hold a 2015 option at the league minimum as a result of the elbow surgery, making Lackey a great value now that he is healthy.
Peavy started 10 games for the Sox after being acquired from the White Sox. He pitched adequately in the regular season but poorly in the postseason, giving up 10 earned runs over 12⅔ innings in three starts. Peavy has one year and $14.5 million left on his deal.
Dempster has one year and $13.25 million remaining. He gave the Sox 29 starts and 171⅓ innings, but was 8-9 with 4.57 ERA.
Trading Dempster, Lackey, or Peavy would free payroll that would allow the Red Sox to make another move — such as re-signing shortstop Stephen Drew — while remaining under baseball’s luxury cap payroll threshold of $189 million.
“We’d be comfortable going into spring training with all of them,” Cherington said.
The Red Sox also have righthander Brandon Workman, who started three games filling in for Buchholz before going to the bullpen and proving worthy of pitching the eighth inning of Game 6 of the World Series. Workman was a starter in the minors and the former second-round pick could return to that role in time.
Former first-round picks Matt Barnes (2011) and Anthony Ranaudo (2010) ended last season with Triple A Pawtucket. Lefthander Henry Owens figures to start the season with Double A Portland after going 11-6 with a 2.67 ERA in 26 starts last year, but he is moving quickly through the system.
Lefthander Drake Britton went from Portland to the majors last season, pitching 18 games in relief. He may profile best in relief but still could be developed as a starter in Triple A.
The Red Sox also have righthanders Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster, the prospects acquired from the Dodgers in 2012. They did not pitch as expected in 2013, working through inconsistencies in Pawtucket and pitching poorly when given a shot in the majors.
Add it up and the Red Sox are stocked with starters in the majors and highest levels of the minors. The question is how best to handle that “problem” without giving away talent for another bust such as Pena.