We're officially in February, just weeks away from the start of spring training. While "Roy Oswalt is still a free agent" wouldn't have been believable at the onset of the off-season, that's the situation both Oswalt and the teams who want him are dealing with now.
As Ken Rosenthal reports, this is Oswalt's own fault. He has the right to pitch where he wants, but the places he would like to play in 2012 already have full rotations, and/or are stretched in their budgets. Oswalt not only wants to pitch for just the Texas Rangers or St. Louis Cardinals in 2012, but he wants to make $10 million a year doing so. While his track record certainly merits $10 million a year, he's asking two teams that would need to move money, players, or both in order to fit him in. And this less than a year removed from a back injury that had enough teams worried this winter to keep him a free agent this long to begin with.
The obvious fit at this point is Boston (sorry, Royals), where the Red Sox have just four rotation spots full, and a spring training battle planned among Vicente Padilla, Aaron Cook, Carlos Silva, and others for the remaining gig. The Red Sox are near the end of their budget -- albeit it a much larger one than either Texas or St. Louis are working with -- and haven't wowed Oswalt with their reported offer. Then again, neither have the Cardinals or Rangers, or else this article would have an entirely different angle.
Boston should be able to absorb the risk in Oswalt's back, thanks to the aforementioned hurlers vying for the fifth spot, and they also have Alfredo Aceves in the bullpen for additional insurance. Adding Oswalt would strengthen not only the rotation, but also the bullpen, since the pen would then include the likes of Padilla and possibly Cook. The team's starting pitching depth would then be the envy of many non-Rangers/Rays teams. Plus, Oswalt would push the Andrew Miller Experiment even further back on the depth charts.
The problem is that Oswalt doesn't want to pitch in Boston, because Boston isn't St. Louis or Texas. Since this isn't the 1960s, Oswalt gets to pick where he wants to pitch, assuming the other party is also into the arrangement.
The Rangers lost C.J. Wilson to the Angels this winter, but shifted last year's closer Neftali Feliz to the rotation, and signed Yu Darvish to a six-year, $60 million contract. This bumps Alexi Ogando to the bullpen once more, where he gives them plenty of depth, but on top of that, there's another former starter, Scott Feldman. He'll make $6.5 million in 2012 to mostly sit around and wait for someone in the rotation to get hurt, because the Rangers also have enough faith in their bullpen that they are attempting to trade Koji Uehara.
Assuming his back is fine, Oswalt is an upgrade on Matt Harrison, who is next-in-line to be dumped into the pen should the Rangers acquire another starter. But maybe not by a whole lot, considering Harrison had similar peripherals in 2011, didn't have the luxury of pitching in the NL, and is more of a groundball-oriented pitcher than Oswalt. The 34-year-old Oswalt is the better pitcher, but the difference might not be significant enough for the Rangers to both bump Harrison and spend another $10 million, especially given the depth they have already assembled.
The Rangers' reasoning for signing Oswalt can be boiled down to, "because it's funny, and because we can." Hilarity isn't exactly a priority for them for business decisions, even if it would make Sox fans lose it.
The Cardinals have more of a pressing need for Oswalt, in the sense that avoiding 30 starts from either Kyle Lohse or Jake Westbrook would be beneficial to their playoff aspirations in this post-Pujols world. Westbrook is an extreme groundball pitcher with average control and below-average strikeout rates. His 2011 season was worse than what teams are accustomed to getting from him, but if you're picking him or Lohse, Westbrook might be the safer bet.
Lohse features all of the no-strikeout action of Westbrook, but combines that with a flyball-heavy approach that makes him less dependable. He has his moments where the defense covers for him enough that things like 2011 happen (3.39 ERA, 30 starts and 188 innings pitched), but the 2012 Cardinals are likely in for a more Lohsian season. Something like his 2008-2010 campaigns, where his ERA+ was 78 and his contact-oriented approach resulted in an above-average rate of hits allowed.
Oswalt is a clear upgrade for St. Louis, far more so than he would be in Texas. But the Cardinals are paying that pair nearly $20 million, and would need to clear some payroll to improve on their current offer to Oswalt. That's where the Kyle McClellan trade attempts have come in. McClellan is making $2.5 million in his second year of arbitration, and while he was a dominating setup man in 2010, he was a disappointing starter in 2011.
Were St. Louis to make the space for Oswalt, not only would they benefit, but the veteran righty would get to play in a pitcher-friendly park before he re-enters the market to try for a more lucrative contract next winter. Boston has the same competitive environment that other teams might want to see him in, but Busch is no Fenway when it comes to hitters.
Should St. Louis make room, they're the likely destination for Oswalt. That would take a team out of the running for Edwin Jackson, so Boston doesn't necessarily lose in their attempt to sign a one-year fill-in. But the Cards need to make the room first, or else Oswalt might as well be demanding to pitch on the Moon this year.