Craig Breslow has made no secret of his first, second, and maybe even third priorities this winter -- starting pitching.
The Red Sox rotation he's inheriting wasn't so much bad last year as nonexistent. Not a single arm spent the entire season in the rotation, the closest exception being right-hander Brayan Bello, who arrived in mid-April.
Otherwise, their starters either missed time to injuries (Chris Sale, James Paxton, Tanner Houck), swung between the bullpen and rotation (Kutter Crawford, Nick Pivetta), or both (Garrett Whitlock).
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Breslow sounded a note of disappointment before leaving the MLB Winter Meetings in Nashville this week that he hasn't yet been able to add a starter. While the offseason remains in its infancy, a number of viable options have already come off the board, so let's reset where things stand on the starting market, which could determine the fate of Boston's 2024 season.
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Signed free agents
Aaron Nola (Phillies), Eduardo Rodriguez (Diamondbacks), Sonny Gray (Cardinals), Kenta Maeda (Tigers), Luis Severino (Mets), Kyle Gibson (Cardinals), Lance Lynn (Cardinals), Wade Miley (Brewers)
To no one's surprise, Dave Dombrowski struck first, inking Nola to a seven-year, $172 million contract to remain in Philadelphia. The latest domino to fall was E-Rod, who joined the defending NL champs for four years and $80 million.
For a study in one road not taken by Breslow, consider the Cardinals. Rather than pounce on the clear-cut top of the market, they spent roughly $100 million for three years of Gray, and one each of Gibson and Lynn. Gray just made an All-Star team with the Twins, while Gibson won 15 games in Baltimore and Lynn struggled between the White Sox and Dodgers. None is an ace, but each made at least 32 starts last season.
That type of trio isn't necessarily exciting, but it's at least reliable. Breslow appears to be aiming higher. So who's left?
High-end free agents
RHP Yoshinobu Yamamoto, LHP Blake Snell, RHP Marcus Stroman, LHP Jordan Montgomery
Yamamoto remains the big prize, but as the buzz on him grows, those $200 million projections suddenly feel quaint. It wouldn't be a surprise if he earns 10 years and $300 million, and that's a hell of a risk for a guy who could be an ace, or could be Daisuke 2.0. If the Red Sox decline to enter that stratosphere, who could blame them?
Snell remains an imperfect candidate because of his disappearing act between Cy Young Awards, but Stroman and Montgomery are definite possibilities, the former because of his toughness, experience in the American League East as a former Blue Jays All-Star, and his connection to Breslow with the Cubs.
Montgomery, meanwhile, needed only a couple of months with the World Series-champion Rangers to transform his free agency from second tier to top shelf, but don't sleep on the MassLive report that he's been working out in Boston this winter while his wife begins a dermatology residency. If she likes her job and the Red Sox make a competitive offer, Boston certainly feels like a viable destination.
As things stand now, Breslow really needs to land one name from this list.
Lesser free agents
LHP Shota Imanaga, RHP Lucas Giolito, RHP Kyle Hendricks, RHP Seth Lugo, RHP Mike Clevinger, RHP Michael Wacha
And then ideally he'd grab a second name from this one. Imanaga hasn't earned nearly the headlines of Yamamoto, but he's an intriguing prospect who probably more closely aligns with the Mets' Kodai Senga, who signed for $75 million last winter and turned out to be one of the bargains of free agency.
Imanaga is 30 and started the championship game of the World Baseball Classic vs. the United States. He appears to be flying under the radar, but wouldn't be a terrible consolation prize.
Giolito is a bounce-back candidate not because he did anything last year that offers a glimmer of hope that he's better than his terrible numbers, but because he's a former All-Star who has fallen on hard times.
The other name worth watching is Lugo, who spent most of his seven-year Mets career as a reliever before transitioning to the rotation with the Padres last year and posting a 3.57 ERA in 26 starts. The Red Sox have already been linked to Lugo, but he's more of a lower-rotation piece.
Whatever path Breslow chooses, the market should heat up in the next couple of weeks, making this the most important stretch of the offseason.