It hasn’t been pretty on the mound for the Red Sox so far this year.  The Sox have managed an 11-10 record through 21 games, but there have been some nights that the starting pitching hasn’t given the offense (producing 109 runs so far, although they have been the beneficiary of some bad opposing defensive play) a chance to win.  The team ERA was an even 5.00 after 20 games, with the starters ERA above that.  This has led for many people to already clamor for Ben Cherington to take action.  It is natural then for Cole Hamels’ name to come up, as any big market team in need of a top starting pitcher has been connected to Hamels at one point or another.

It is well known that the Sox talked with the Phillies about Hamels during the past offseason, but balked when the Phillies asked for top prospects plus the Red Sox to take on most of the remaining $96 million (minus what the Phillies have already paid him this year). (Update: The Phillies are willing to pay some of the contract) With the Sox on his no-trade list, it is possible that he could make the option in 2019 be picked up (it vests if he hits certain inning thresholds), which would push the guarantee past $100 million.  This would cover his 31-35 years old seasons and he currently has over 1800 innings pitched, with another 80 postseason innings.  For a front office that is very cautious about committing big money to pitchers past 30, this raises a giant red flag.

Of course, Hamels has made 30+ starts every year since 2008, with only four 15 day DL stints (per BP).  Perhaps the most troubling of the injuries was a mild UCL sprain in 2007, but he only missed a month with that ailment.  The obvious comparison in this situation is James Shields, who signed a 4-year/$75 million deal this offseason and is 2 years older than Hamels.  Both are aces with a history of durability, and it’s a question of if that history will continue to the end of their contracts (Good sign for Hamels: his fastball velocity this month is in line with past Aprils).  But that’s not why the Sox shouldn’t make this move.

This year’s free agent class features David Price, Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmerman leading a strong top group, and depth abound.  These guys will command lots of money, but won’t cost prospects (they will cost a draft pick).  For a team like the Red Sox, money isn’t an issue, as they rank near the top of the league in payroll.  Paying a lot of money is better than less than a lot of money plus prospects.  Think of prospects as weighted dice, with rolling 6 representing a great major leaguer and rolling 1 not a major leaguer at all.  The Phillies are asking for dice that are weighted towards the 4, 5, 6 area, as well as the Sox to pick up a nine figure tab.  Granted, the Sox have a lot of top prospects, but finding dice that are weighted towards the 4-6 sides isn’t easy.  It’s worth it to pay (lots) more money over a couple of more years than to give up a couple of these better dice.  Finding money in baseball is easier than getting into a benches clearing brawl with the Royals.

Another aspect to consider: the weak AL East.  The Sox might not need all of the wins that Hamels could add.  One additional win could very easily make the difference in winning the division and making the playoffs.  There are pitchers (think Aaron Harang if he’s able to continue to pitch similar to what he has done so far), who can provide that additional win for far less cost, both in terms of money and prospects.  Then this offseason, the Red Sox can get a pitcher through free agency and save the prospect cost.  They would then have a younger pitcher (maybe by only a couple years, but that matters with the age that Hamels is at) to put with the prospects they didn’t ship to the Phillies.

Ben Cherington was aggressive with upgrading the offense this past offseason, and it has worked so far, as the offense has been able to help the Sox over .500 despite some awful pitching.  The rotation probably won’t have the same five starters at the end of the season as it does now.  There is also a good chance that next year’s Opening Day starter doesn’t pitch an inning for the Red Sox this year.  The Red Sox can supplement their offseason plan (the offense will win enough games to put the team in position to win the division) without shifting their future plans.

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