You might never see these Red Sox spend significant money on a pitcher. It's not because they're cheap, either. It's likely part of a team-building strategy, one that is reacting to the way the game is played today.
Offensive levels continue to slide down, with power drops across the game, strikeouts continuing to climb, and defenses better understood and better constructed. Quality hitting is the rarity in today's MLB, and nothing shows that's how the Red Sox feel more than their signing of 19-year-old Cuban free agent infielder Yoan Moncada. The Red Sox committed $31.5 million (plus the same hefty total in international spending penalties) to Moncada, who isn't old enough to drink and has never even played in the minors, and that's more than general manager Ben Cherington has ever committed to a free agent starting pitcher.
It would be unfair if we pretended that was entirely by choice. Cherington had little budget to work with in his first year on the job in 2012, and his staff was basically full in both 2013 and 2014. The Red Sox attempted to bring Jon Lester back to the only organization he had ever known before he was traded this past July, but their reported $135 million offer fell short. It's very likely that contract only existed for Lester: Boston was one of the first major players to back off of free agent James Shields when his price didn't suit them, and they were never seriously in on Max Scherzer after confirmation that he indeed was looking to set some contract records. Instead, the Red Sox spent $183 million to bring free agents Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to Boston for the next few years, months after paying another Cuban free agent, Rusney Castillo, $72.5 million, and now they've added Moncada.
Castillo is a risk, one the Sox felt was worth taking. (Photo credit: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
The most Cherington has ever spent on a free pitcher is $26.5 million for a two-year Ryan Dempster deal. The second-most is Justin Masterson's one-year, $9.5 million contract that has incentives to push it to $12 million. It's too early to say there is a definite pattern here, but you can see it forming when the organization is more willing to write a $31.5 million penalty check to Major League Baseball than they are to guarantee $10 million less than that to a high-end, proven pitcher on an average annual basis.
The Red Sox have run this way for longer than just with Cherington: the largest free agent pitcher deal they've ever agreed to is John Lackey's five-year, $82.5 million one back before 2010 under Theo Epstein. Even that came with a huge caveat that benefited them, in the form of a sixth-year, league-minimum option that kicked in if Lackey's preexisting elbow injury became a problem. Now, that's not cheap, but it's not ace money either. The Sox just don't historically play in that end of the pitcher free agent pool, and they probably still won't next winter when what is potentially the greatest free agent pitching class ever hits the market -- not unless the sheer volume of pitchers somehow dilutes their value and lessens Boston's risk, anyway.
It's not just free agents, either. The Red Sox are unwilling to commit to paying all of Cole Hamels' remaining $96 million -- a deal that could turn into $110 million if he requires his option to be picked up in order to waive his no-trade clause -- because the Phillies want top prospect Blake Swihart as the center piece of a deal. It's just not how they run, and while telling people to count the rings isn't a good look, this plan has worked for the Red Sox for a decade already. Until they no longer can succeed with this strategy, it's going to be the one they use. They might end up paying for it at some point, but they've gotten this far by promoting from within and trading for the help they can't develop on their own. Why stop now, when they have the potential of Henry Owens and Eduardo Rodriguez on the way? They won't be aces, but if the Red Sox hit like they're constructed to, they won't have to be.
This is all different than saying the Red Sox aren't willing to pay for pitching at all or take any risks with pitchers. Rick Porcello is making $12.5 million this year in his final season of arbitration -- which the Sox are responsible for after trading for him. Masterson is cheap on the years, but $9.5 is still a risk for someone who looked lost thanks to injuries just last summer. Clay Buchholz is pitching for the right for his $13 million option for 2016 to be picked up. Those are short-term costs, though, and on the pitching side, that's where the Red Sox are bound to focus. They could definitely go bigger than this with their short-term spending -- Cliff Lee and the potential $52.5 million he could be owed if he's healthy come to mind -- but the combination of a lot of years and even more dollars just isn't likely. If the Sox weren't going to go big enough to get Lester, they won't go bigger to get pitchers they aren't intimately familiar with.
The Red Sox invested $183 million in a third baseman who might not age well and a shortstop who will play left field and maybe only for 100 games per season, then bookended those purchases with over $100 million on Cuban free agents who had never played a game on MLB soil before. Those are all risks to different degrees, but they are risks the Red Sox believe are worth taking in today's pitching-heavy game. The Red Sox feel they need to bet on hitters with the upside of these four, but they won't do the same for pitching. That might not be the case forever -- baseball is cyclical, after all -- but it's how these Red Sox are going to do things, for as long as that plan works.