What form might a Red Sox pitching rotation upgrade take this winter?
The team is making no secret of its intention to improve its starting pitching, for obvious reasons. The cumulative 5.34 ERA forged by the Sox rotation in the compressed 60-game season ranked 25th in the majors and made contention virtually impossible in 2020. Of the 16 teams that made the playoffs, just one (Atlanta) ranked worse than 18th.
It seems hard to imagine the team being worse, and it’s not hard to see some level of improvement with the expected returns of Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodríguez. Sale, almost nine months removed from Tommy John surgery, is long-tossing with plans to start throwing off a mound in January. His impact, even if he returns to the team around June, could be a considerable upgrade.
“The recovery is going great,” said B.B. Abbott, Sale’s agent. “If anything, they’ll be holding him back. From a work ethic standpoint, he’s not going to fall off at all. He’s going to be in a good place physically. … I think on the other side, he’s going to look like the old Chris Sale. I don’t anticipate anything different from him.”
A rotation of Rodríguez, Sale, Nate Eovaldi, and perhaps either Nick Pivetta or Tanner Houck — along with Bryan Mata and Connor Seabold as potential midyear reinforcements — would look markedly different from the one that condemned the Sox in 2020. Yet every member would come with considerable question marks, helping to explain why the team is likely to target at least two additional starters this winter.
So who remains available? Even after five free-agent starters — righties Charlie Morton (Atlanta) and Chris Flexen (Mariners), and lefties Mike Minor (Royals), Drew Smyly (Atlanta), and Robbie Ray (Blue Jays) — signed guaranteed major-league deals (all for one or two years), and potential free agents Marcus Stroman (Mets) and Kevin Gausman (Giants) accepted qualifying offers to return to their 2020 teams, a number of solid candidates remain in play.
To this point, there appears little chance the Sox will chase the premier free-agent starter on the market, Trevor Bauer. Beyond that, the team is taking a fairly open-minded approach, with a likely hope of adding one pitcher with mid-rotation (or better) ability and another who would come as more of a back-of-the-rotation option.
The Sox, confirming a report from Boston Sports Journal’s Sean McAdam, are expected to pursue 31-year-old righthander Tomoyuki Sugano, who was posted this week by the Yomiuri Giants. Sugano has been one of the elite pitchers in Japan in his eight-year career, with a career 2.34 ERA and 8.0 strikeouts and 1.8 walks per nine innings.
The two-time winner of the Sawamura Award as Japan’s best pitcher, 14-2 with a 1.97 ERA in 2020, is viewed as a No. 3 or 4 starter expected to garner a two- or three-year deal. (The posting process includes a fee paid by whomever signs him to the Giants, equal to a percentage of Sugano’s earnings — 20 percent of the first $25 million, 17.5 percent of the next $25 million, and 15 percent of anything beyond that.)
Beyond Sugano, according to major league sources, the Sox have interest in a few starters with excellent track records coming off injury: Righthanders Corey Kluber and Jake Odorizzi, and lefthander Rich Hill.
Kluber was arguably the most dominant starter in the AL from 2014–18, winning two Cy Young Awards with Cleveland. But he missed most of 2019 and, following a trade to the Rangers last year, pitched just one inning before a season-ending muscle tear in his right shoulder.
Kluber — who lives in the Boston suburbs in the offseason — is splitting his offseason between Florida and Massachusetts while working out with Eric Cressey. According to Abbott (who is also Kluber’s agent), the 34-year-old is scheduled to throw his first light bullpen session next week, with plans to throw a full bullpen session by roughly the end of the month.
While clubs are being invited to those bullpen sessions, Kluber could hold a workout for clubs in mid-January if he hasn’t signed by then. If he’s throwing well in those sessions, many teams will be interested — likely on an incentive-laden, one-year deal.
Hill, from Milton, also lives in the Boston area. The lefty logged 38⅔ innings in eight starts with the Twins last year, forging a 3.03 ERA, albeit with a downtick in his strikeout rate (19.9 percent) and an increase in his walks (10.9 percent). That said, the performance was consistent with what Hill’s done the last five years. His innings have been limited to roughly 110 and 20 starts from 2016-19, but he’s been excellent when on the mound, with a 3.01 ERA and 28 percent strikeout rate.
According to major league sources, the Sox have expressed interest in Hill, and that interest has been reciprocated. Like Kluber, the 40-year-old could boost the Sox’ rotation potential considerably, even with few guarantees about the frequency with which he could contribute.
Odorizzi, 30, was limited to four starts and 13⅔ innings with the Twins in 2020 due to a chest contusion and a blister. But he was an All-Star in 2019, going 15-7 with a 3.51 ERA and 27.1 percent strikeout rate in 30 starts, and he’s viewed as a decent bet to return his usual durability (30 starts and 165 innings per year from 2014-19) and performance given that his injuries didn’t involve his shoulder or elbow.
While exploring such possibilities for a mid-rotation upgrade, the Sox may look additionally to add to the back of their rotation, perhaps with free agents J.A. Happ (a 38-year-old coming off a 3.47 ERA in nine starts, but a declining strikeout rate with the Yankees) or former All-Star José Quintana (looking to bounce back from a lat strain that limited him to 10 innings with the Cubs).
Multiple sources characterize a pursuit of lefthander Jon Lester as unlikely given his struggles (5.16 ERA) and declining strikeout rate (6.2 per nine innings) in 2020.
All the same, it appears the Sox are continuing their broad-based exploration of the market. No deal to add a starter is seen as imminent, but the Sox do appear committed to building the sort of starting pitching volume in 2021 that they so desperately lacked in 2020.