If Red Sox are Going to Contend in 2015, It’s Imperative to Acquire a No. 1 Starter

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Playing nine innings while wondering whether Jon Lester’s contract means Cole Hamels is now a bargain …

1. Let’s be honest about this: The only reason anyone — Ben Cherington included — might dare suggest the Red Sox can contend in the 2015 season without a true ace is because … well, they don’t have a true ace. Maybe they could enter the season without an obvious No. 1 starter, then acquire one before or at the trade deadline if they are in contention. But that seems a dangerous approach if they really are intent on pursuing that fourth championship in a dozen years. The Orioles succeeded with a marginal rotation led by quasi-ace Chris Tillman last year, but that was a fluke, and besides, I’m not sure John Farrell is capable of manipulating the bullpen as deftly as Buck Showalter did in Baltimore last year. The Sox have done a nice job adding quality to the pitching staff. But there’s still work to be done. They still need to find the pitcher to front the rotation. And I suspect, despite suggestions that they can win with what they have, that they know that.

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2. Of the established, potentially available pitchers who would fit the ace billing, and with contract status and cost in players/prospects taken out of the equation, I’d rate my top three in this order. 1) Johnny Cueto. 2) Jordan Zimmermann. 3) Cole Hamels. Cueto, charismatic and in possession of electric stuff, would be a blast to watch every fifth day. But of course we can’t remove those variables out of the equation, and with all of them considered, I still think Hamels is the most logical acquisition because he’s signed for the next four years at a minimum. Zimmermann would fit the bill, but it would be tough to see Mookie Betts go for any pitcher with one year left on his deal, and you have to figure he’s the player the Nats would target. I still think they can get something done for Hamels without parting with Betts or Xander Bogaerts.

3. Porcello is entering his seventh major-league season. And he’s 109 days younger than Will Middlebrooks, who wore the prospect tag at least into the 2014 season. I’m not sure what that means, but I think it bodes well for the acquisition. Porcello both accomplished relative to his age and ascending. I bet he ends up being a heck of No. 2 starter. I like the price, too. Yoenis Cespedes was fun, and his kind of power is a scarcer skill in baseball nowadays, but he also had some serious flaws (on-base ability, defense beyond his throwing arm) that I suspect would have become more frustrating the longer he was around.

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4. I’m in prove-it-to-me mode with Wade Miley. He’s essentially been a league-average innings-eater during his three full seasons with the Diamondbacks, but he’s been trending the wrong way in WHIP, ERA+, H/9 and BB/9, and I’m skeptical of how a guy who had a 4.34 ERA while pitching in the NL West is going to translate to the American League. One positive sign: his K/9 last season was an excellent 8.2, and a strikeout and a half better than his previous best.

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5. The Red Sox’ pursuit and acquisition of groundball pitchers — supposedly to take advantage of the south-shifting strike zone in recent years — is fascinating, and you have to appreciate the depth of their data and the attempt to gain some advantage from it. But one aspect of this confounds me: Xander Bogaerts might be an average defensive shortstop some day. Maybe he’ll even be better than that. But as of last season, he’s lacking in range and polish, and his presence at the position doesn’t mesh with a groundball-oriented staff. I’m not suggesting he should move, and I hope to hell he’s not traded. But the thought of him at shortstop with this staff is giving me flashbacks to the days when Bob Stanley could only watch in frustration as a six-hopper found its way between Spike Owen and Marty Barrett and into center field.

6. I don’t get the theory, which I’ve heard in a couple of different spots since Jon Lester chose the Cubs, that he was never coming back here once the Red sox made the lowball offer in spring training. Lester has acknowledged that the midsummer trade to the A’s made it much easier to contemplate a baseball future spent somewhere other than Boston. But it’s also apparent, I believe, that if the Red Sox had matched the Cubs’ offer, Lester absolutely would have returned and that there was very little if any lingering resentment regarding the initial offer. The reality is that the Cubs’ offer blew away the Red Sox’ offer on a couple of different levels. To me, the surprise is that it took him so long to make up his mind when one offer was clearly so superior to the other.

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7. Red Sox management read the tea leaves correctly — or at least became aware of the Twitter #smearcampaign hashtag — and seemed to recognize that any on- or off-the-record criticism of Lester on his way out the door would only reflect poorly on the organization. Since the beer-and-chicken embarrassment, Lester conducted himself with class and dignity, and he deserved to depart in the same manner. My only beef with Larry Lucchino’s comments on Lester and the state of the Red Sox rotation came when he offered the aside that Clay Buchholz could be a No. 1 starter. He had a 5.34 ERA last year, and even when he excels, such as in the first half of ’13, he often reverts back to an injury-plagued enigma. No one is buying that anymore.

8. I suspect I’m in the minority on this around here, but I like the Jed Lowrie signing for the Astros even at the three-year, $23 million rate. He’s a subpar defensive shortstop and perceived as an anti-Ripken in terms of durability, but he can rake (62 extra-base hits in 2013) when healthy. And he hasn’t been that brittle in recent seasons, missing a total of 34 games the last two years.

9. As for today’s Completely Random Baseball Card:

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Not sure which came as a bigger surprise: That Jon Lester is older now (he turns 31 on January 7) than Eck was when the Red Sox traded him to the Cubs in 1984 (he was 29). Or that the latter is 60 years old now.

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