Red Sox Searching for Starting Pitching

Following the signings of third baseman Pablo Sandoval and now-left fielder Hanley Ramirez, the Boston Red Sox are starting to put their weight in the starting pitching market this offseason. For the Sox, it is obvious that they have their choice of starting pitching.

The Red Sox appear to have Jon Lester at the top of their pitching search, as Michael Silvermann of the Boston Herald reports that “The Red Sox remain deeply involved to bring free agent pitcher Jon Lester back to Fenway Park”. With Jon Lester, the Red Sox expenses would be strictly monetary. Nick Cafardo tweeted that the Red Sox have offered a contract that “falls into the $110-$120 range over six years”, and a 6 year/$110-$120 million offer would have an AAV of $18.3-$20 mil. While that offer is an improvement from the 4 year/$70 million the Red Sox offered Lester’s camp last spring, it is still likely below what his top offer will be. Dave Kaplan of CSN reported that the Chicago Cubs have already submitted an offer to Lester “[significantly] north of $135 million” and for “six years”—meaning an AAV of $22.5 million.

Lester is coming off the best season of his career thus far. While pitching for the Red Sox and Oakland A’s last season, Lester posted career bests in fWAR (6.4), ERA (2.46), BB/9 (1.97), WHIP (1.10), K/BB (4.58), and IP (219.2). The lefty also relied on his famous cutter much more last season, using it 30.8% of the time compared to his career average use of 22.6%. However, since 2010 Lester’s groundball rate has consistently declined to the current 42.4% it stands now, while his flyball rate has risen since 2012 to its current 37% stature. For the most part, due to the 3-time all-stars’ career and his past two seasons—in which he has a combined 10.4 fWAR—he would be a deserving candidate for the top dollar he will command.

It’s understandable to use a Cole Hamels’ comparison when looking at how much Lester may command this offseason. Both are lefties, both have over 8 years of MLB service time, both have almost identical career fWAR totals—Lester has a 35.4 career total, while Hamels’ stands at 34.4—and both are almost the exact same age. In fact, Hamels’ is only 12 days older than Lester.

In July of the 2012 season, Cole Hamels’ signed a 6 year/$144 million extension with a 2019 team option with the Phillies that took effect at the beginning of the 2013 season. It is likely that Lester’s side is using this deal as a point of reference, and would not be surprising if any contract Lester signs will be for more than Hamels’ deal. Lester has thrown 205.1 innings less than Hamels throughout his Major League career—and is signing 2 years after Hamels. Nick Cafardo also notes that Zack Greinke’s 6 year/$147 million deal may also be a model for Lester and his camp.

Boston has also been long rumored to have interest the lefty Cole Hamels himself, and it seems that Hamels is the back-up plan in the case the Red Sox cannot sign Lester—as Jeff Passan notes here.  The Phillies southpaw also turned in one of the best seasons of his career in 2014, posting a career best 2.46 ERA, 0.62 HR/9 and 8.2% HR/FB rate. The Phillies ace has also not yet seen a decline in his fastball velocity, as well. Since 2012, Hamels average fastball velocity has increased from its 90.9 mph state to 92.1 mph in 2014. This is opposed to Lester, who has seen general decrease in average fastball mph from 93.5 in 2009 to 91.5 in 2014. While the former first-rounder is known for his devastating change-up, he has been using it less and less since 2012—which has resulted in using his fastball more and more. His changeup usage has decreased from the 30.3% in 2012 to 22.6% in 2014 which is directly inverse to his fastball, which has seen an increase in usage from 51.3% in 2012 to 54.7% in 2014.

The problem for Hamels is that he comes with a hefty price tag. The 3-time all-star is owed $90 million over the next 4 seasons, and with his no-trade clause he could force the Red Sox to pick up his $20 million team option for 2019, raising the value of his deal to 5 years/$110 million. Hamels will also require a solid group of players/prospects in return, as well. While the Red Sox do have the depth to make the deal for him, it is likely that would only do it if they are not able to land Lester. As a result of his steeper cost, Hamels is somewhat of a contingency plan for not signing Jon Lester.

Amidst the attempt to figure out who the Athletics had just traded in what turned out to be the Josh Donaldson trade, Oakland A’s beat writer Susan Slusser reported via Twitter that the Red Sox are one of 10 teams who have “expressed interest in [Jeff] Samardzija”. As for the Oakland Athletics and Jeff Samardzija, the Red Sox would seemingly be a perfect fit. Samardzija is entering his last year of arbitration eligibility, through which he is predicted by Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors to earn $9.5 million. A 2016 free agent, the A’s might look to maximize his return this offseason by trading him.

Samardzija had an outstanding season last year for the Cubs and A’s, putting up a 2.99 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 8.28 K/9 and 1.76 BB/9 over 219.2 innings. ‘The Shark’ also posted a wSL of 7.9, which puts his slider among the best in all of baseball in 2014.

The A’s are looking for a shortstop to replace Jed Lowrie, and do not see any viable options through free agency. Therefore, Billy Beane and his front office staff are now looking at how they can acquire one via trade. Enter Boston Red Sox—who have Xander Bogaerts. The 22-year old is expected to man SS on opening day for the Red Sox, yet also seems like a very interesting candidate for trade discussion. Bogaerts isn’t free agent eligible until 2020, nor is he arbitration eligible until 2017—meaning he still has 5 years of team control remaining. While Bogaerts seems very team friendly monetarily, he did have a down 2014 season, batting to the tune of a .240/.297/.362 clip over 594 plate appearances. For that reason, it seems a flat Bogaerts for Samardzija trade might not be enough. The Red Sox might need to add in a bat, and it appears Oakland is looking for a right handed one, as well. In that case, 1B/OF Allen Craig fits the mold perfectly, as a versatile right handed bat. Craig—who is owed $25.5 million over the next 3 seasons with a 2018 team option of $13 million—is a buy-low candidate due to his injury-plagued 2014 season, in which he posted a .215/.279/.315 slash over 505 PA. Now healthy, Craig still has the potential to revert to his 2011 form, where he posted a .395 wOBA and a 154 wRC+. Any package highlighted by Allen Craig and Xander Bogaerts might be enough to see Samardzija as a return.

The Red Sox also have multiple pitching interests within the Cincinnati Reds organization. The Reds’ Johnny Cueto is also reported by Jon Heyman to be on the trading block, however he notes that the Reds would have to be “absolutely overwhelmed” to move Cueto this early on. Cueto, Mat Latos, and Mike Leake have all been rumored to be on the trading block, and the Red Sox have been rumored to be interested in all three.

Nick Cafardo mentioned in his column that the Reds “have a need for Cespedes’s bat” and would also “have a need for shortstop Deven Marrero”. He also feels that in order to receive Cueto, the Sox would likely have to part with “Cespedes and maybe two top prospects”.

Cueto is owed $10 million this season and then, like Samardzija, is a free agent next off-season. Much like Lester, Hamels and Samardzija, Cueto is coming off of one of the best season of his career. The righty finished 2nd in the 2014 Cy Young race to unanimous winner Clayton Kershaw. Posting a sterling 2.25 ERA, Cueto punched out 242 batters across a career high 243.2 innings. Not to mention the 2014 all-star posted a wFA of 11.9 and a wCH of 14.7—according to PITCHf/x—meaning Cueto owned two pitches that were near best-in-the-league status.

Mat Latos, however, did not have a strong 2014 season. As Jon Heyman notes, “Latos’ recent history of injuries might limit his value”. The limited value might be exactly what the Red Sox are looking for, as they might not have to give up as much for a one season of a pitcher who is coming off an injury plagued 16-start season. Mike Leake fits with Boston, who will surely be looking for backup to any top-line starter they get. Leake threw 200+ innings last season with 164 K’s, posting a 3.70 ERA with a respectable 3.49 park-adjusted xFIP to compliment him. Leake has thrown over 400 innings the last two seasons, posting a 3.37 ERA in 2013. While he will not blow batters away, Leake—a sinker baller—sits in the high 80’s-low 90’s with a solid repertoire that can keep hitters off balance when combined with a sinker that has a wSI of 9.4—good for 2nd best in all the Major League Baseball to Felix Hernandez.

Joel Sherman also notes that Andrew Cashner and Jordan Zimmermann are also available, and that Boston might be the best positioned to land one or multiple top pitchers. In Nick Cafardo’s column mention earlier, he also opined that the Red Sox are one of the team’s best suited to make a move for Jordan Zimmermann. He also mentioned that Rick Porcello, Annibal Sanchez, and David Price all as names the Red Sox could be pursuing in the near future.

In the end, it seems it will all come down to the decision Jon Lester has to make. Whether he decides to return to Boston or play elsewhere will decide how the Red Sox offseason will shake out. If Lester decides he wants to return to Boston, the Red Sox will likely be out on Hamels, but could still manage to swing trades for anyone else mentioned above as they still have the prospect depth to do it. If Lester decides that he to go elsewhere, that’s when things get tricky. The Red Sox likely would go for Cole Hamels in that scenario, which might take some of the better prospects they have that they were planning to trade elsewhere for say Cueto, Zimmermann, Price, etc. It’s very likely that someone like Samardzija or Leake will be someone the Red Sox are able to get regardless of Lester or Hamels, yet they might not want to pay the steep price it would take for a 2015 rental.

It has been reported that the Red Sox are also not afraid to go over the luxury tax, and that’s something it might take in order for the Red Sox to completely redo their starting rotation like they hope to. While the Red Sox seem to have completed their search for offense, it seems that their search for a top starting pitcher is just about to heat up—with Boston likely waiting for Jon Lester to be the first domino to fall.

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