Ben Cherington met with reporters several times last week during the general managers meetings in Phoenix. As he fielded questions about rebuilding a team that finished last, Cherington invariably came back to the same theme:
“Starting pitching is something we have to address,” Cherington said. “I’ve been saying that for a while now.”
Since July, actually. That was when the Red Sox traded Felix Doubront, John Lackey, Jon Lester, and Jake Peavy. Getting rid of four-fifths of the Opening Day rotation was a radical move, but the Red Sox were emboldened by the depth of their farm system and payroll flexibility.
Nearly four months have passed, and the rotation remains an unfinished project. There are roles for righthanders Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly but beyond that, vacancies abound.
If the Red Sox are to contend in 2015, those pitchers should be worthy of the top two slots in the rotation. Buchholz, while talented, has yet to prove he merits being more than a No. 3.
It’s reasonable to believe the Red Sox will fill one slot in their rotation with a free agent, another via trade, and the third with one of their young starters.
“I think we can do both. There will be trades that make sense to us and there will be free agent deals that make sense to us,” Cherington said. “We don’t know yet which ones those are.
“Given the need to add to the rotation, which I’ve been clear on, we need to look at every possible way to do that.”
The prime free agent candidate is Lester, the team’s ace before he was traded to Oakland for outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.
The Red Sox have chosen an unusual path with Lester, one of the most accomplished pitchers in franchise history. Lester was willing — perhaps even eager — to sign an extension during spring training. But the team’s offer of four years and $70 million was dramatically below his value.
Talks broke off once the season started and the sides never connected. That led to the trade.
Now the Red Sox are interested in signing the lefthander as a free agent. The price almost surely will be more than what they could have landed him for in spring training.
Lester, who finished fourth in American League Cy Young voting, has said that he is open to returning to Boston. But the Red Sox face widespread competition for his services. Eight teams have interest in Lester, including the Cubs. That number could rise as other pitching options come off the market.
Lester’s agents, Sam and Seth Levinson, said last week they wanted to arrange a meeting with the Red Sox owners to discuss their level of commitment to Lester.
Principal owner John Henry, who also owns the Globe, has not commented on Lester.
If Lester signs with another team, the free agent market becomes more treacherous. Max Scherzer, who along with Lester is the best starter available, is represented by Scott Boras and would not come cheaply.
James Shields, who turns 33 in December, is coming off a solid season for the Kansas City Royals. Despite his age, the market is such that he could command a four-year contract.
Brandon McCarthy represents a solid midrotation choice if he elects to leave the Yankees. Ervin Santana and Francisco Liriano are second-tier types probably better suited for the National League.
The trade market starts with Cole Hamels of the Phillies, a pitcher who almost mirrors Lester’s accomplishments and experience. They were even born 11 days apart.
Hamels has at least $96 million remaining on his contract and Philadelphia GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is a difficult trade partner who will expect top prospects for his ace.
The Reds are contemplating making some (or perhaps all) of their starters available. The Padres could deal a starter to improve their lineup.
The Red Sox have a surplus of outfielders along with a deep class of prospects. They have the organizational depth to make a significant trade and still leave the farm system functional.
The final slot in the rotation is likely to be the subject of competition in spring training, with as many as 10 candidates seeking the job.
Righthanders Rubby De La Rosa, Anthony Ranaudo, Allen Webster, Brandon Workman, and Steven Wright all made starts in the majors last season.
De La Rosa (4-8 with a 4.43 earned run average in 19 games, 18 of them starts) has the most experience. A late-season slump (0-4, 7.16 ERA in his final seven starts) raised questions about his durability.
Workman, a favorite of manager John Farrell, was 1-9 with a 5.36 ERA in 15 starts. He may be returned to the bullpen, where he was impressive in 2013.
Webster possesses an enviable selection of pitches but also a 6.25 ERA in 19 major league appearances, 18 of them starts. His consistency and focus remains a question.
Ranaudo was the International League Pitcher of the Year but had mixed results in the majors, posting a 4.81 ERA in seven starts. Wright, a knuckleballer, could take on a catch-all role in the bullpen.
Righthander Matt Barnes, perhaps tellingly, was used five times in relief when he was called up in September.
The Red Sox are still learning about Edwin Escobar, a lefthander obtained from the Giants in the Peavy trade.
Three lefthanders — Henry Owens, Brian Johnson, and Eduardo Rodriguez — rank among the best prospects in the organization. Owens is the most advanced of the group, but could use more seasoning in Triple A.
Trades could reduce that pitching surplus. But the Red Sox have enviable depth and should be able to find an acceptable starter from within.
Rotation at a glance
PRIMARY 2014 STARTERS: RHP Clay Buchholz, LHP Jon Lester (traded), RHP John Lackey (traded), RHP Jake Peavy (traded), RHP Rubby De La Rosa, RHP Brandon Workman, RHP Allen Webster, RHP Joe Kelly, LHP Felix Doubront (traded).
EXPECTED 2015 STARTERS: TBA, TBA, Buchholz, Kelly, TBA.
MAJOR LEAGUE DEPTH: RHP Matt Barnes, LHP Edwin Escobar, RHP Anthony Ranaudo, RHP Steven Wright, Webster, Workman, De La Rosa.
PROSPECTS ON THE WAY: LHP Henry Owens, LHP Brian Johnson, LHP Eduardo Rodriguez.