The best news of Spring Training is that Clay Bucholz and Justin Masterson came out throwing hard and throwing strikes. Both pitchers finished with battered arms in the 2013; both are looking for a big comeback year. Both threw with authority in their first starts against Major League hitting.
Because they are known quantities in Boston, Clay and Justin have expectations riding on them. They have good hard stuff and have been dominant on their good days. They are also known for injuries that could derail all this. No one can say if that vulnerability is behind them yet.
But Clay and Justin could be the one-two punch that could silence the talk of aces. We could see 35 wins from the pair of them, if their arms hold up. They could thrive on 6-7 innings per start and leave it to Ogando, Tazawa, Mujica and Uhehara to cancel the remaining pretenders. This is all you can ask of starters today, and these two are up to the requirement.
This is not to say that Rick Porcello and Wade Miley are corned beef, but we know pretty much what they will bring: lots of ground balls and some of them for hits. Will they dominate, shut down the offensive powerhouses? Maybe not, but they will keep you in the game.
The arms we know will shut down the heaviest offense belong to Clay and Justin. As long as those arms are in play, the Red Sox will win in 2015.
Asked in an interview last night if he would have taken an offer from the Red Sox of $120 million last spring, Jon Lester said,”Probably yes.” He refused to blame the Red Sox for low-balling him and said his feelings were not hurt by the offer. But that’s Lester, a guy with class.
I will always blame the Red Sox for low-balling Jon Lester last spring. I understand that he eventually signed for money the Sox could not or would not spend, but the opportunity to sign him in the spring of 2014 was squandered by an organization that would have taken advantage of the “hometown discount” Lester was expected to give. They wanted him for the lowest possible price.
Of course Lester went on to have one of his best seasons and raised his market value, but heck, he had just pitched them to a World Series championship. What more incentive did the Red Sox need? This was a simple case of the undervaluing the best pitcher they had, and coming out looking like skinflints.
It remains to be seen if Lester can warrant the big money the Cubs paid him this past week, but all indicators are that he will. He is probably not yet at his peak as a pitcher and could easily turn his first twenty-game winning season under Joe Maddon, who knows how to groom pitchers.
Not only did the Red Sox lose Lester, but they cemented their reputation for not paying the market value on top-flight pitchers. They will not acquire a pitching ace this year, except by trade. If they did acquire Cole Hamels or Johnny Cueto through a trade, they will either pay them large salaries in the future or lose them the same way they lost Lester. This will always leave a gap at the top of their rotation.
The party line in Boston is that the ace “will emerge” from the pack of good pitching prospects they acquired this fall. This is a rationalization of convenience. They won’t pay for an established pitcher, so they wish they will make an ace out of the better-than-average pitching they have acquired. The only aces the Red Sox have developed out of their own organization are Roger Clemens and Jon Lester, and we know what happened to them.
If the Red Sox are going to contend this year they will need an ace, a pitcher who costs them more than a five-digit salary. They will either face this reality or have an average year and make the wild card only by good fortune.
Jon Lester will have a great year. If he brings the Cubs to a wild card finish, the Red Sox can weep for what they might have had. I know I will.
If the Red Sox set their sites on an established ace like Cole Hamels or Johnny Cueto, they are not without resources to make a deal. In fact, by signing Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, they have created a logjam of talent that has nowhere to play. Some future stars with no place to go:
- Garin Cecchini
- Jackie Bradley
- Daniel Nava
- Anthony Renaudo
- Brandon Workman
In addition, they have expendables at first base and in their rotation, if it comes to bringing in an ace.
- Mike Napoli
- Allen Craig
- Clay Bucholz
- Joe Kelly
Pick two from the first list and one from the second list and add a minor league prospect (not named Swihart) and you have a pretty sweet deal. I would hate to lose Bucholz, one of my favorite pitchers on the Red Sox, but he is now a work-in-progress and a gamble the Red Sox could avoid.
The players on the first list deserve to be in the Majors next year, but could be left off the 40-man roster in the Spring. They could get their break with a National League team next year, if the Red Sox made a deal. It would be good for them and great for the parent club.
Those who argue that the ace will emerge from the rotation are denying the history of this club. The best pitching staffs in Beantown have been led by the likes of Clemens, Martinez, Schilling, and Beckett. They put the team in contention with the aces of competing staffs. Baltimore had Chris Tillman to shut down the Red Sox. The Sox had Lester to stay competitive until the late innings. Now Lester is a memory. The Red Sox need to replace him.
Ben Cherrington still has some chips on the table he could afford to play. He just has to make the first move toward the right club. How about Cecchini, Bradley, Kelly and Eduardo Rodriguez for Cole Hamels? Empty the stockpile, Ben!
“No … the Red Sox need a true No. 1 starter at the top of the rotation. Without one, I don’t like their chances in 2015.” So say 57% in yesterday’s ESPN poll.
Ben Cherrington sounds like he believes the pitching staff he’s assembled is the real deal. Maybe he has prophetic vision the rest of us lack, but a staff without a stopper is a staff that can plunge into depression at intervals of the long season. There is no one in the proposed rotation that can step in to stop a slump.
A year ago I was arguing Clay Bucholz was the stopper, even with Lester in the rotation. Now I feel less confident. No one knows what Bucholz will bring in the spring–Cy Young apparent or a half-vast command of his pitches. No one can say he will live up to the promise of 2012, when, for a few months, he was the best pitcher in baseball.
It is not enough to hope for an ace to emerge from the pack, as Justin Masterson suggested yesterday. Masterson, himself, could assume that role, but so much depends on his health and getting his control back. Another wild card. The Red Sox have rolled the dice on their pitching staff before and come up empty.
We don’t want to rely on “maybe-his-sinker-will-sink” stuff. It’s clear the Red Sox are interested in the low-ball pitcher who throws strikes. We love them on their good days. On the days when the ball gets up in the strike zone, you are looking at 5-0 before you get to the third inning.
So we need a shutdown pitcher. Someone who dominates and sends the hitters back to the dugout shaking their heads. Jon Lester was like that many times last year, but that was yesterday and yesterday’s gone. We need a Cole Hamels or Johnny Cueto who can lead the struggling sinker-ballers out of the wilderness.
Your work is not done, Mr. Cherrington. Get in the top pitcher sweepstakes. If you can do it without sacrificing Mookie Betts or Blake Swihart, that would be great, but make the deal or sign the free agent. Boston wants an ace.