When the Red Sox ultimately get around to fixing their on-field problems, the obvious focus should be on the pitching staff. And what the Red Sox need there, more than anything else, can be summed up in one word.
As the baton gets passed from Theo Epstein to Ben Cherington, let us all acknowledge that the Red Sox' greatest fears were realized on the field this season as much they were in their dysfunctional clubhouse. The Red Sox entered 2011 with a shortage of pitching depth in their organization, a problem that only magnified the clubhouse antics of a starting rotation that should have been among the best in baseball.
Even before the fried chicken and beer, after all, there was reason to worry. Among last year's projected rotation of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Red Sox had a disturbing number of starters - specifically, four - who came with questions about their durability.Beckett? He has pitched 180 or more innings in consecutive seasons only once in his career, that coming in 2006-07. Lackey? In three of the last four seasons, amid persistent concern about his elbow, he has pitched 176 innings or fewer. Meanwhile, linguine-thin righthander Clay Buchholz predictably broke down (spinal stress fractures) and Daisuke Matsuzaka's elbow finally popped after a career in which he demonstrated that he, too, is at best a 175-inning pitcher.
Through it all, the Red Sox got little or no help from their player development system, which does not seem positioned to help much in 2012, either.
For a team that has designs of playing in October, 175 innings should be a floor, not a ceiling.
On the field, what the Red Sox need more than anything else now is innings - lots of 'em - though acquiring them is admittedly a tricky task. Short of someone like Mark Buehrle, the free-agent market is seemingly devoid of a true innings guy with a long history of being able to take the ball, at least when considering the level of performance necessary to succeed in the American League East. (Sorry, Javier Vazquez fans.) That makes someone like Buehrle an obvious target, though luring him away from Chicago may be impossible.
For sure, C.J. Wilson is appealing. But with all the mistakes the Red Sox have made on the free-agent market, is now the time to overpay again for the best pitcher on the market? Didn't think so.
Remember, too, that the Red Sox are likely to be subtracting pieces here, whether they be Beckett, Lackey or both. Even if Daniel Bard, Alfredo Aceves or both move into the starting rotation, the durability issues remain. (Bard currently seems to fatigue at 70 innings, let alone 170; Aceves has a history of injury.) What all this means is that the Red Sox need to aggressively explore the trade market for front-line pitching, something that may require them to part with any number of valuable assets depending on the return.
Yes, Beckett should be able to get them something. But if the Sox can get something valuable in return - and we're talking a true front-of-the-rotation starter - then they must also consider moving Jacoby Ellsbury, who might very well be the most valuable player of the American League.
With all due respect to Ellsbury fans, do the math. Ellsbury is eligible for free agency in 2013 and, given his agent (Scott Boras) and history with the Red Sox' medical staff, seems destined to depart following the 2013 season. His trade value will never be higher than it is right now. If the Sox can get something substantial for him - and that is a very big qualifier - they must explore it now to benefit both the short-term and the long.
Let's make this clear: if the Sox can address their pitching needs and keep Ellsbury, making them a championship contender for the next two seasons, then keep him. But given the money the Sox have tied up in Carl Crawford ($142 million total from 2011-2017) and Adrian Gonzalez ($160 million total from 2011-2017), another blockbuster contract seems unlikely. The Red Sox owe it to themselves to look into dealing Ellsbury now because there may not be another chance.
What if the Sox can get Felix Hernandez from the Seattle Mariners for Ellsbury (an Oregon native) and, say, Buchholz or Daniel Bard? What if Beckett could then be dealt for a starting outfielder? Given the Sox' decision involving Mike Cameron two winters ago, the team clearly has reservations about Ellsbury's ability to play center field, anyway. So long as Dustin Pedroia, Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis remain in the middle of the Boston lineup, the Red Sox have some offense to deal.
Again, do not misunderstand. Nobody is saying the Red Sox should blow up a roster that looked like a dream team at the beginning of the year. But major changes must be explored. If the price is right, Aramis Ramirez might be a viable short-term solution at third base (a la Adrian Beltre) that would allow the Sox to employ Youkilis as a designated hitter and backup corner infielder, helping to prevent some of the wear and tear on Youkilis. (David Ortiz could then get his wish of playing in New York.) Starting in 2012, Hanley Ramirez's contract escalates to $15 million in Florida; is he available? What about Matt Kemp, who is due to hit free agency at the end of 2012? Andre Ethier? Shane Victorino or B.J. Upton? The Red Sox need to look at all of it.
And they need to be willing to pull the trigger.
During the watch of Epstein, at least, the Sox were unafraid to think big. So long as John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino are still at the core of the decision-making, that is not likely to change. The last time the Red Sox failed so spectacularly was in 2003, which happens to be the last time the Sox fired a manager. That winter, Epstein had deals in place that would have brought Alex Rodriguez (from Texas) and Magglio Ordonez (from the Chicago White Sox) to Boston for Manny Ramirez (to Texas) and Nomar Garciaparra (to Chicago). The deals blew up only when the players union objected to a restructuring of Rodriguez' contract.
Whether the Sox would consider such bold moves now is open to debate, but they have chips to deal. Beckett, Ellsbury and even Ryan Lavarnway have some value. If a shortstop is coming back, Jose Iglesias could go, too. But regardless of what the Red Sox do with their lineup - and they have lots of options there - the one absolute certainty is that they must get one or two starting pitchers who can come as close as possible to guaranteeing them 32 starts.
In so many ways, after all, the starting pitchers of the Red Sox in 2011 were just so darned unreliable.
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