NASHVILLE — The Red Sox have filled a few holes in their offense during the Winter Meetings, which end Thursday, but there will be no more important job than trying to improve their pitching.
The teams that have put together solid if not superstar-laden lineups — such as the San Francisco Giants, who have won two World Series in the last three years — have extraordinary pitching to carry such a lineup.
Right now, the Red Sox don’t have such a pitching staff.
Jon Lester pitched 205⅓ innings in 2012 (with only nine wins), followed by Clay Buchholz’s 189⅓ (11 wins) and Felix Doubront’s 161 (also 11 wins). The best WHIP of the three was Buchholz’s 1.326 which was about average for the league.
The Sox may have to make a trade or a free agent signing.
The pitching market has developed slowly. Joe Blanton went to the Angels Wednesday. Dan Haren previously went to the Nationals for one year at $13 million, and the mediocre Jeremy Guthrie signed a three-year, $25 million deal with the Royals.
“We wondered if once one of the guys went off, if it would speed up,” said Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington. “It seems like it may be moving a little bit.”
Asked whether the Sox would get a starter by trade or free agency, Cherington said, “I don’t know. We’re not close enough to anything to handicap it. We’re definitely talking about both options.”
The big player on the market, Zack Greinke, soon could sign with the Dodgers at silly money. It doesn’t appear the Red Sox are in the running for him.
After that, things fall off. But super agent Scott Boras believes his guy, Kyle Lohse, is among the elite pitchers.
“I think for all the starters, those guys who fill No. 1 roles, it’s pretty aggressive,” Boras said of the market. “A lot of teams that we’ve met with the last three days are telling me they need a starter.
“I think everyone is waiting for the cascade of that market to unfold. And once it does, I think you’ll see a lot of things happen more rapidly.
Boras believes “the cascade” would be touched off by a Greinke signing, and then Lohse will go, too. The Red Sox certainly have weighed in on Lohse, who went 16-3 with the Cardinals last season.
“I think when you represent a player in his 30s and there are players in the market in their late 20s, you understand that some teams, at inception, prefer the younger player, but they’ve let you know that if they can’t get into that market, they’ll certainly be looking into a player in his early 30s,” Boras said.
“To have the market complete, you certainly want to hear from everybody you think is a candidate. So patience often proves the wise path to get an understanding of what the market is.”
The Red Sox want to stick to higher annual-average value contracts as long as they can reduce the number of years. Whether they can pull off with pitchers what they’ve been able to accomplish with positional players remains to be seen.
Other free agent candidates could be Edwin Jackson and Ryan Dempster. There are less-effective pitchers the Sox could pursue, such as Shawn Marcum. They made an offer to Haren but backed off because of his medical history.
Despite Cherington’s declaration that, “It’s not our intent to trade Jacoby Ellsbury,” of course he would. The Sox would like to dangle Ellsbury or catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia in a deal for a front-line pitcher such as Texas’s Derek Holland, or Philadelphia’s Cliff Lee or Vance Worley. The Indians have former Red Sox righty Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez, who could be had for a package of younger players.
The White Sox are hesitant to trade veteran Gavin Floyd, but they could if the Red Sox send a cheaper starter back. But it may not be worth trading Franklin Morales, who throws 96 miles per hour, for a pitcher who has more starting experience but isn’t at the top of the food chain.
The Red Sox could wait on Cubs righty Matt Garza as he recuperates from an elbow injury (he should be ready for spring training). Or if the Angels signed Lohse, would they make C.J. Wilson available?
The Angels have had to piece things together after they nontendered Ervin Santana and may lose Greinke in free agency. They traded for the Braves’ Tommy Hanson and signed Blanton. That’s not anything that could make up for the loss of Greinke.
With the Angels opting for Blanton, will they be in on Lohse?
The Red Sox appear to be somewhat interested in Anibal Sanchez, their former farmhand who was sent to the Marlins in the Mike Lowell-Josh Beckett deal in November 2005. Sanchez had some injury-filled seasons, but he has begun to turn his career around. He already has five five-year offers on the table. One of them may be from Boston.
Beyond the starting pitcher market, don’t be shocked to see the Red Sox involved with a major reliever.
Rafael Soriano? Why not?
The Sox can’t be completely sold on Andrew Bailey as their closer. John Farrell loves Junichi Tazawa’s potential, but Soriano (another Boras client, who opted out of the last season of his deal with the Yankees) is tempting.
“The closer market is one that feeds off the starter market,” Boras said. “There are clubs who may not get done what they want to get done with their rotation. They’ll do more to strengthen their bullpen.
“As time spins it out, teams have to evaluate. And it’s a little easier in this market because we’re seeing mid-level players make $13 million a year. The value of a closer has been historically more valuable than mid-level players.”
The Red Sox have the pieces in place for a good bullpen, but their starting rotation needs major improvement, and that’s the toughest part of this major renovation.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.