Free agent pitchers the Red Sox should target this winter
As of Thursday, MLB free agency is officially underway. Unlike other leagues that see massive deals handed out as soon as the clock strikes midnight – or noon, or whatever – baseball’s hot stove is more of a slow burn.
For the Red Sox, most of the attention right now is on internal free agents. The contract situations of Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers are currently at the forefront of the discourse surrounding the team.
However, just bringing back Bogaerts and Devers alone won’t be enough to dig the Sox all the way out of the last-place basement they found themselves in last season. In addition to retaining their big bats, improving their pitching staff is a must after a 78-84 season.
In 2022, the Red Sox finished the season with a team ERA of 4.53. That ranked 25th in all of Major League Baseball, and 14th of 15 teams in the American League. Those issues aren’t isolated to only the rotation or the bullpen, both were issues at times last year. No. 1 starter Nathan Eovaldi heading to free agency won’t help things either.
Beyond Eovaldi, there are no obvious front-end starters in house. Chris Sale remains an unknown due to his recent durability, and James Paxton falls into the same category coming off Tommy John. After Nick Pivetta, most of the starters are prospect-type arms who are tougher to project.
The bullpen needs more of a complete overhaul. There’s still no clear closer, and the group is short on lefty arms.
Then there are players like Garrett Whitlock and Josh Winckowski, who could be starters or relievers. They’ll certainly be factors, but they can’t simultaneously fill both spots.
How can the Red Sox bolster their pitching staff in free agency this year? Here are some names besides Eovaldi to know…
SP Carlos Rodon
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 14: Carlos Rodon #16 of the San Francisco Giants pitches against the Atlanta Braves in the second inning at Oracle Park on September 14, 2022 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Rodon checks one of the Red Sox’s biggest historical check marks for a free agent – he’s under 30 years old. Granted, that’s only for another month (his birthday is Dec. 10), but it’s rare to see players of his skill level hit the open market this young.
The 6-foot-3 lefty had a breakout season for the Chicago White Sox in 2021, going 13-5 with a 2.37 ERA, two years removed from Tommy John surgery. That was a contract year, and although Rodon was expected to be among the top arms on the market last winter he ended up signing a two-year, $44 million contract with the San Francisco Giants. He made his second consecutive All-Star game last year, then opted out of his contract earlier this week.
If the Red Sox want a long-term replacement for Eovaldi at the top of their rotation, Rodon could be the guy. He also may prove to be more durable, as he’s made at least 20 starts in six of his eight seasons, with the other two being his Tommy John season which was followed by the COVID-shortened season.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – OCTOBER 08: Jacob deGrom #48 of the New York Mets delivers during the first inning against the San Diego Padres in game two of the Wild Card Series at Citi Field on October 08, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
As far as 2022 free agency goes, deGrom is the standard when it comes to pitchers. At the same time, he comes with some major risks. The cost is one thing, but the 34-year-old has also struggled to stay healthy in recent years. He hasn’t made more than 15 starts in a season since 2019.
Still, when he’s on – he’s on. His 3.08 ERA in 2022 – in 11 starts – was his highest since 2017. His second-highest in that span was 2.43, when he won his second consecutive Cy Young.
If the Red Sox really want to make a splash signing for their pitching staff, it’s hard to get splashier than deGrom. At the same time though, a rotation led by him and Chris Sale wouldn’t exactly be reliable at the top.
NEW YORK, NY – MAY 29: Chris Bassitt #40 of the New York Mets throws a pitch in the top of the first inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citi Field on May 29, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)
If deGrom is a bit too much of an extreme, the safer bet may be going with the Mets’ other 34-year-old righty. After undergoing Tommy John late in the 2016 season, Bassitt returned midway through the 2018 season and has started at least 27 games in every year since, with the exception of making 11 starts during the COVID season. In that span, he’s gone 44-23 in 100 starts with a 3.29 ERA and 1.14 WHIP.
Bassitt could be a reliable No. 2 or 3 in the Red Sox’ rotation for multiple years. He may not be the most bombshell signing, but he is the kind of arm the team needs.
PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA – OCTOBER 22: Noah Syndergaard #43 of the Philadelphia Phillies pitches during the sixth inning against the San Diego Padres in game four of the National League Championship Series at Citizens Bank Park on October 22, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Chaim Bloom has had success with reclamation project pitchers in the past – especially those coming off Tommy John surgery (ex. Whitlock). So why not try again, this time with a more high-profile player?
Syndergaard was dominant for the Mets early in his career, but missed almost two full seasons in 2020 and 2021 due to TJ surgery and complications that followed. The hard-throwing righty was traded to the Angels before last season, and then was dealt to the Phillies at the trade deadline. In his first full season since 2019, Sydergaard went 10-10 in 25 appearances with a 3.94 ERA.
There’s no guarantee Syndergaard, 30, will ever return to being the player he was regularly throwing 100+ for the Mets in the mid 2010s. However, even if he gets close the upside on such a signing would be tremendous. Could the Red Sox get him on a short-term, prove-it deal? That sort of opportunity could be right in Bloom’s wheelhouse.
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – APRIL 29: Tyler Anderson #31 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches during the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Dodger Stadium on April 29, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)
No, not that Ty Anderson. This Tyler Anderson is a 32-year-old lefty who is coming off of his first All-Star season. He went 15-5 with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2022 with a 2.57 ERA and WHIP of 1.002 in 28 starts.
According to MLB Network’s Jon Morosi, the Red Sox are one of the teams showing early interest in Anderson along with the Los Angeles Angels.
Complicating things here though is the fact that the Dodgers have extended a qualifying offer to Anderson. That means it would take a significant offer for the Red Sox to sign him away from the Dodgers, and if they do the Red Sox would lose a draft pick. Is that all worth it for a front-of-the-rotation arm? That’ll be up to Bloom to decide.
ATLANTA, GEORGIA – OCTOBER 12: Kenley Jansen #74 of the Atlanta Braves reacts during the ninth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies in game two of the National League Division Series at Truist Park on October 12, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Onto the bullpen, where the talent pool isn’t as deep as it is among starters when it comes to free agency. This is where Bloom will really need to work his magic of finding diamonds in the rough, as he did last year with John Schreiber.
We’ll start with a bigger name though in Jansen. Jansen spent the first 12 years of his career with the Dodgers, mostly as a closer. Last year, the 34-year-old joined the Atlanta Braves, and led the National League with 41 saves. His 3.38 ERA was a tick up from his career average, as was his 1.047 WHIP.
Jansen has been more erratic in the past few seasons than he was early in his career, but still has flashes of the All-Star closer he was. Has the clock run out on his dominant window, or could the Red Sox extend the impact portion of his career? With Edwin Diaz now off the market, Jansen may be the best option available in terms of a true closer.
PHOENIX, ARIZONA – SEPTEMBER 14: Pitcher Craig Kimbrel #46 of the Los Angeles Dodgers takes the sign in the 10th inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on September 14, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)
Four years and three teams after leaving the Red Sox following the 2018 season, Dirty Craig is back on the market. At 34 years old he’s not the player he was during his time in Boston – when he made three All-Star games in three years, but he’s still shown he can be an effective back end arm.
Kimbrel’s first two seasons away from Boston didn’t go great. He had an even 6.00 ERA in 36 innings over 41 games. However, he turned things around in 2021 when he once again was named an All-Star. Last season with the Dodgers, he had a 3.75 ERA and 1.31 WHIP in 63 appearances as a late-inning for the Dodgers. He was the final pitcher on the mound for 47 of those 63 games he pitched in.
It’s unlikely Kimbrel would solve the Red Sox’s closer issues on his own. But he would give the team a veteran arm to turn to in the seventh or eighth inning of games.
MINNEAPOLIS, MN – AUGUST 26: Michael Fulmer #52 of the Minnesota Twins delivers a pitch against the San Francisco Giants in the ninth inning of the game at Target Field on August 26, 2022 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Twins defeated the Giants 8-0. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
During Bloom’s tenure, the Red Sox have shown a preference for pitchers who can double as long relievers and spot starters. That’s Fulmer, who began his career as a starting pitcher before transitioning to a bullpen role. The 34-year-old started coming in out of the bullpen in 2021, and in 2022 made 67 appearances, all in relief.
Fulmer’s numbers have improved considerably since making the switch from starter to reliever. He has a career 4.12 ERA as a starter, which drops to 2.98 as a reliever. His strikeout-to-walks ratio is also better coming out of the ‘pen.
If the Red Sox want to move Whitlock to the rotation full time, they’ll need another bridge arm for the bullpen. Fulmer is a guy who could fill that role.
RP Brad Hand
PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA – JULY 07: Brad Hand #52 of the Philadelphia Phillies pitches during the eighth inning against the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park on July 07, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
If it feels like Hand has been around forever, that’s because he has. He’s been pitching in the Majors since 2011. At the same time, he’s only 32 years old having made his MLB debut at 21.
Throughout his career, Hand has been a steady lefty presence in the middle of the bullpen. With the Phillies last year, he threw 45 innings in 55 appearances, compiling a 2.80 ERA and 1.33 WHIP.
Once again, Hand likely isn’t the solution to the closer issue in Boston. But he’d be a good complementary signing adding lefty depth. He also would bring postseason experience – which the Sox are suddenly lacking in the bullpen.
RP Carl Edwards Jr.
ARLINGTON, TX – JUNE 24: Carl Edwards Jr. #58 of the Washington Nationals pitches against the Texas Rangers during the sixth inning at Globe Life Field on June 24, 2022 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
Edwards was a big part of the Cubs’ World Series run in 2016, and was their setup guy in 2017 and 2018 as well. After that though he struggled to stay on the field, appearing in just 34 total games for five different teams between 2019-2021.
After starting last season in the minors, the Washington Nationals called up Edwards, and he stayed with the team the rest of the year. In 57 appearances, he has a 2.76 ERA and 1.23 WHIP.
The 31-year-old righty would again bring experience and a big game resume to the Red Sox bullpen. Is what he did last year sustainable? If Bloom thinks so, he’d make a lot of sense as a more affordable addition.
Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarthor via email at abarth@985TheSportsHub.com.