- Tim Burke
Starting Pitching is key for the Red Sox in 2023
When Kikè Hernandez signed his one-year extension in Boston in September, he revealed that Red Sox Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom promised him that the Red Sox would be a better team in 2023. For a player like Hernandez, who values winning above all else, that promise means something. After a season where Boston finished last in the American League East with a 78-84 record, the Red Sox need to improve their roster. This offseason, they committed more than 51 million dollars to Kenley Jansen, Chris Martin, and Joely Rodriguez to fix the Red Sox bullpen disaster in 2022. Clearly, that is what the Red Sox view as the team's biggest weakness in 2022, which is not inaccurate. However, that is a lot of money spent on relief pitching, and there are still plenty of holes to fill with their roster.
With the loss of Xander Bogaerts, the Red Sox are worse off than in 2022. They have around 40 million to spend before hitting the luxury tax threshold. Whether the Red Sox want to steer clear of the tax or blow past it is a crucial decision. If they go past it in 2023, that will be the second consecutive year of doing so. There's not a lot of money coming off the books after the 2023 season, so they will likely be spending three consecutive seasons above the threshold, resulting in a 50% tax. Something ownership would like to avoid. However, suppose Boston does not want to spend another 40 million to upgrade its current roster. In that case, they might as well go into a full-blown rebuild because this roster needs several improvements to be competitive within their division, never mind competing for a World Series run. The Boston Red Sox are in a terrible spot. But they still can salvage this offseason. Most people want the Red Sox to sign one of the remaining big-name Free Agent Shortstops in Correa or Swanson. I have previously written that Correa is the player I'd be most willing to pay in Free Agency. That remains true. However, what if the Red Sox invested their money in pitching? Historically speaking, the Red Sox are only as good as their pitching, so I believe that should be their priority moving forward.
This is the projected 2022 Red Sox rotation as of today.
There are some good mid-rotation arms and foundational pieces in this rotation. Bello showed promise at the big league level last season and is still 23 years old. Garett Whitlock has been one of the most effective pitchers for the Red Sox for the past two seasons, both as a starter and a reliever. Nick Pivetta has been the most durable Red Sox starter in the last two seasons. But Sale and Paxton cannot be relied on. Chris Sale has only made 11 starts since 2020, and James Paxton has only made 6. It is a no-brainer that Boston is going to add pitching, but they need to target the best available. Those names include Kodai Senga, Carlos Rodon, Nathan Eovaldi, and Chris Bassitt.
Eovaldi has been with the Red Sox for four and half seasons and has been the rotation leader since 2020. In 2021 he was even the best pitcher on a Red Sox team, two wins away from going to the World Series. The four-year 68 million dollar extension Dombrowski gave to Eovaldi is one the best contracts the Red Sox have given to a pitcher in recent memory. Since 2020, Eovaldi has had an ERA of 3.79, striking out 350 over 340 innings. He also has an ERA of 3.14 with the Red Sox in 11 postseason appearances. This guy out pitched Gerrit Cole in the 2021 American League Wild Card. In 2022, he battled through injuries and didn't look right in the second half of the season, but he still was the rock of the Red Sox pitching rotation. There is no reason not to want Nathan Eovaldi back in Boston. Bringing back Eovaldi and signing another reliable rotation arm would greatly improve the Red Sox pitching staff.
Carlos Rodón was the breakout star of 2021 with the White Sox, and he built off that success in 2022 with the Giants. Rodon set a career-high in innings pitched; his 237 strikeouts were the second most in the National League, and he was the National League leader in FIP. Rodón has an electric arm; he averages 95.5 MPH on his fastball to go along with a nasty slider. In my opinion, Rodon has the best fastball/slider combo of any starter in baseball. Considering he's been one of the best starters in the game over the last two years, he won't be cheap. The 30-year-old is reportedly asking for a seven-year contract, and I hope the Red Sox give him one. Unfortunately, the Red Sox have a long history of being cautious about investing in Free Agent pitchers. Especially ones who are in their thirties. But Carlos Rodón has only improved as his career has progressed. He should be an exception to the rule and someone Boston should pursue.
Japanese sensation Kodai Senga has been touring American cities this winter to see where he would like to play Major League Baseball. Many teams are high on Senga as he won the NPB pitching triple crown in 2020 for leading the league in wins, ERA, and strikeouts. Throughout his NPB career, Senga has a 2.59 ERA over 1,089 innings with 1,252 strikeouts. The consensus appears that he projects as a solid number two starter in North America. Like Eovaldi, Senga has a devastating fastball/splitter combination and can reach 102 MPH on the radar gun. He certainly has the ability to generate swings and misses in any league. The 30-year-old is likely to get a contract for 5-6 years. Like all international free agents, there is a risk with this signing, but if any team should take risks, it's the Red Sox. Boston has been included in the reported list of teams interested in Senga.
Chris Bassitt is another option for the Red Sox. The 34-year-old is the oldest starter mentioned in this article but also threw more innings in 2022 than any other starters mentioned, with 182. At least at the Major League level. Bassitt is known as a finesse pitcher. He doesn't have overpowering stuff to generate swings and misses, but he does have a strong variety of pitches he uses to get batters out. Bassitt is one of the most underrated pitchers in the game. He has posted a strong 3.31 ERA from 2019-2022 in 96 starts for Oakland and New York. He is not flashy but a dependable starter who will improve any team he is on. What his next contract entails is anyone's guess with this current market, but given his durability and consistency in recent years, signing Bassitt would not be of great risk.
The ideal scenario is signing two of those four arms. Rodón and Senga are the two most coveted pitchers on the market and will be the most expensive. Rodón is the most proven and will get the most lucrative contract in the group, followed by Senga. Bassitt's durability also puts his value ahead of Eovaldi. The only pitcher without a Qualifying Offer attached to their name is Kodai Senga. So there would be no compensatory draft pick given up for signing him. The same goes for Eovaldi, as the compensatory draft pick only applies if he leaves Boston. That all being said, the best scenario for the Red Sox would be a combination of Senga and Eovaldi in their rotation for 2023.
However, any way you slice it, adding any of these starters improves your rotation. Adding two would significantly improve the rotation, and I want to see the latter. The Red Sox consistently have one of the best offenses in baseball. They underperformed last year, and I do not expect that to be the case in 2023. Rafael Devers is in his contract year, Triston Casas is one of the most impressive young hitters I have seen, and Trevor Story looked strong after adjusting his mechanics at the plate. Losing Xander hurts the offense, but pitching is the biggest need for this team. Given their injury history, I do not trust Chris Sale and James Paxton to be major contributors to this team. If they are healthy and can contribute, that is great. Imagine a rotation where those guys are healthy, along with some variation of the top remaining starters on the current market. It would be one of the best rotations in baseball. Boston can explore the trade market, but it will not be any less crazy than the Free Agent market has been. Would they rather spend money or give up the minor league assets they have acquired under Bloom's tenure? Only time will tell. But if Chaim Bloom wants to keep his promise of the Red Sox being better in 2023, he must be aggressive for the remainder of this off-season.