Why Red Sox are taking a patient approach to free-agent starting pitchers

KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - APRIL 14: Corey Kluber #28 of the Cleveland Indians throws in the first inning during the game against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on April 14, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by John Sleezer/Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - APRIL 14: Corey Kluber #28 of the Cleveland Indians throws in the first inning during the game against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on April 14, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by John Sleezer/Getty Images) /

There’s a reason why the Red Sox aren’t rushing to sign a pitcher

Fans are anxious for the Boston Red Sox to address the clear weakness on their roster by signing a starting pitcher. Every time a fresh rumor pops up tying the team to a position player you can almost hear Red Sox Nation shouting, “What about the pitching?!” Take a deep breath, relax. Boston’s brass isn’t ignoring the void in their rotation but there are valid reasons why they aren’t rushing out to fill it.

This free-agent market is expected to move at a snail’s pace with many teams facing a financial crunch in the wake of a pandemic-shortened season and uncertainty about whether fans can return to fill stadiums next year. The Red Sox have been relatively quiet but so has everyone else. A few free-agents have come off the board but most of the options that Boston is rumored to have interest in remain available. There’s no prize for being the fist team to fill their needs in the offseason so Boston’s limited activity so far doesn’t mean they aren’t intending to make moves.

One glaring reason why patience could pay off revolves around interest in Corey Kluber. The two-time Cy Young award winner pitched only one inning for the Texas Rangers in 2020 before he was shut down with a Grade 2 major teres strain in his right throwing shoulder.

A fractured forearm and a strained oblique limited Kluber to seven starts in 2019. He posted a career-worst 5.80 ERA while displaying an uncharacteristic lack of control and fluctuating velocity during that limited sample. He’s fully recovered from those ailments but the more recent shoulder injury remains a concern. Kluber is the most decorated pitcher on the free-agent market with elite upside but there are questions about whether he can return to form following two lost seasons.

According to WEEI’s Rob Bradford, Kluber is expected to throw a bullpen session for interested teams sometime in January. His suitors, which includes the Red Sox, will want to see how he looks on the mound before committing a contract to him so we shouldn’t expect Kluber to sign before this showcase.

While meeting with the media on Monday, Red Sox CBO Chaim Bloom stated that he would be unlikely to sign any player returning from an injury without seeing at least one workout. While he didn’t mention Kluber by name, the statement clearly applies to him.

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The Red Sox will benefit from the return of Eduardo Rodriguez and eventually Chris Sale. If both return to anything resembling their previous form then the rotation will already be significantly better than last season. Boston still needs to add a starting pitcher but they don’t have room in the budget or rotation to snatch up every option they are rumored to be interested in. They might only need one. If Kluber is their preferred choice, it makes sense to wait to see if he’s healthy and throwing the ball well in next month’s bullpen session.

Other free-agent starters in the mid-tier class might be waiting on Kluber before they sign. If Kluber’s showcase doesn’t go well it could severely dampen interest from his suitors, thereby increasing the leverage for other free-agents when teams in need of pitching are forced to pivot their way. Even if Boston is ready to strike with an offer to one of their targets, it doesn’t mean that pitcher is ready to sign with anyone.

While Bloom’s comment about requiring a workout for pitchers coming off an injury seems to hint at Kluber, the same can be said about other potential targets. Jose Quintana, Cole Hamels, James Paxton and Chris Archer all fall in that boat and each could be a viable backup plan if they don’t land Kluber.

There’s risk in signing any of these pitchers after they missed all or most of the 2020 season but those concerns would be mitigated by a successful bullpen session that allows teams to evaluate how well they are throwing the ball and confirm the status of their health. Boston could move quickly to sign a safer choice but they would end up kicking themselves for not waiting if these questionable options with higher ceilings come back strong next year.

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The patient approach doesn’t always work. The old saying, “you snooze, you lose” comes to mind in some scenarios but that’s not the case this year. With a slow-moving market and uncertainty on the status of several high-upside starters, the Red Sox can afford to be patient.