The argument has been made — well and compellingly, in many cases — that the 2015 Red Sox will be just fine opening the season without a genuine No. 1 starter. I can’t go so far as to commit to buying the argument, what with that recollection of Matt Clement starting Game 1 of a playoff series a decade ago.
I still believe the Red Sox require an ace, if not for the Opening Day festivities then certainly by the July 31 trading deadline as the presumed contenders prepare for the final one-third of the regular season and beyond.
Those three newish championship banners wouldn’t be adorning Fenway without the don’t-worry-I’ve-got-this big-game performances by Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, and Jon Lester, aces who came up aces in the biggest moments.
So while we talk ourselves into believing that Rick Porcello could emerge as that guy — he’s ascending, and I like his acquisition, but I’m not sure he ever fronts a championship rotation — we wait for circumstances to change and presumed demands to fall. C’mon, Amaro. Allen Craig for Cole Hamels is totally fair.
Actually, one of those circumstances may have changed this past weekend, when the Nationals signed Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million deal. The first instinct when the news of the deal broke — and kudos to Nats GM Mike Rizzo for pulling it off semi-stealthily — was to marvel at the Nationals rotation.
The idea of a single team with multiple aces — even quasi-aces — is one of great appeal and envy, especially when your team is still searching for one. The Nats rotation, which features Scherzer, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister, is so deep that Tanner Roark, who won 15 games with a 2.85 ERA last season, would seem the odd quasi-ace out.
This crew isn’t worthy of comparison to the ’90s Braves just yet given that John Smoltz, either the No. 2 or No. 3 starter depending upon how you feel about Tom Glavine, just cruised into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. But it is right there with the 2011 Phillies of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt and, uh, Vince Worley.
It’s such an embarrassment of riches that you can’t help but wonder if Rizzo intends to swap one of the big arms for quality elsewhere. Theoretically, Scherzer’s signing could be a precursor to trading Zimmermann, a free agent after this season. But there is an even more intriguing potential target on the Washington roster.
What if the Nationals make Stephen Strasburg available?
From what I’ve seen, there’s been no indication from the Washington media that this is a consideration. But there is percolating speculation in some national media circles that the Nats and Strasburg would not mind a parting of the ways:
— John Perrotto (@JPerrotto) January 19, 2015
I suspect we’ll find out very soon if there is any merit to this. But this much we do know: Ben Cherington should have been trying to find out about Strasburg’s availability the precise millisecond the Scherzer-to-Washington news broke.
When I plunked down to write this piece, I intended to note that Scherzer is everything Strasburg was hyped to be — an overpowering righthander with stuff so electrifying that he’s virtually unhittable at his best. And that is true. But there’s a further truth: Strasburg actually has become everything he was hyped to be. It’s just that early expectations were so high that we barely took notice when they were fulfilled.
Perhaps those among us who are still fixated on win totals as the measure of a pitcher would disagree, since Strasburg won just 14 games last year and never more than 15 in any season. But that should never obscure just how effective — hell, excellent — he has been.
Last year, he led the National League in strikeouts (242) and Ks per nine (10.1) while surpassing the 200-inning threshold for the first time. He also was durable, leading the league with 34 starts. While there are some serious red flags on his list of top comps — Mark Prior being No. 1 — that’s hardly a reason to be scared off.
At 26 and more than three years removed from Tommy John surgery, he’s already great and getting greater. Considering he makes just $7.4 million this season, the first of the final two years of his contract, he could bring an enormous haul of talent in return.
Rizzo has the right to ask for the world, the stars, and maybe even a stray space station or two for Strasburg. Hell, it’s his duty to do so; he’s dealing from strength, not necessity. You have to figure that means any discussions with the Red Sox would begin with Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts. While I’m curious what the Red Sox’ long-term vision really is with Bogaerts — they’re collecting groundball pitchers despite having a subpar defensive shortstop — he should remain untouchable.
I feel the same way about Betts. I know, we overrate our prospects and Strasburg is an established ace and blah blah blah. I saw enough from Betts at Hadlock and Fenway last year to believe he can be an exciting and extremely effective leadoff man for the Red Sox for the next half-dozen years, minimum.
This is where you remind me that we always have to be cautious about overpraising young players. I know, we just have to look back to last year with Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. for a cautionary tale regarding depending on youth. But some kids you believe in, without a doubt or a concern. Betts is in that rare company.
If the possibility arises in which the Nationals requested him in a deal for Strasburg, it would be tempting for a moment. But such a suggestion would have to be rejected, and the same applies to any potential deal for Zimmermann. The appeal of having Betts in Boston for six years is greater than that of getting Strasburg for two, and chances are the Nats would want much, much more in return anyway.
The Red Sox do need an ace, and Strasburg meets all of the qualifications. But he’s a Scott Boras client, and unless he falls in love with Boston — an organization that at the very least won’t piss him off by shutting him down before the playoffs — he’ll be hitting free agency just as Betts is hitting his stride.
It’s an intriguing idea, fun as idle speculation in a cold January. But ultimately, I’d rather envy the Nationals’ collection of aces than watch the Red Sox trade the future to acquire one.