COMMENTARY| With Hiroki Kuroda signing a one-year deal with the New York Yankees, the proverbial hot stove continues to heat up for the Boston Red Sox.
The most essential need for the team is pitching. The Sox combined for a whopping 4.70 ERA last year, the third worst in the American League. The good news is that Boston should have a much different looking starting rotation next year. But exactly what that rotation will look like is unknown.
What's certain is that Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz will be the anchors of the rotation. Both struggled in 2012, and will be looking to get back on track with former Sox pitching coach and now manager John Farrell. The last year Farrell was in Boston, 2010, both Lester and Buchholz finished in the top 10 for the Cy Young Award. So the prospects for the two will be high.
After missing a season due to Tommy John surgery, the embattled John Lackey will return. Lackey has struggled during his tenure with Boston, and he most likely will not be a front-line starter. The Sox should be looking to fill the rotation with stronger pitchers, which will lessen the pressure on Lackey. He should be much more effective at the number four spot than at number two or three.
After Lester, Buchholz and Lackey, the Sox are left with a smorgasbord of uncertainty. Felix Doubront was respectable in his first half last year. However, the young starter completely fell off, nearly finishing with a 5.00 ERA. Franklin Morales held his own, but shoulder inflammation shut him down in August. And then there was Daniel Bard, who after struggling early in the season to convert to a starter, will probably be back in the bullpen.
Assuming the Red Sox are looking to considerably upgrade from last season, the team needs to be more active in free agency. Last year's plan of bringing in long shots (Carlos Silva, John Maine, Aaron Cook, Mark Prior, Ross Ohlendorf) was a minor gamble. If something had worked, great. However, this year the team needs to fill two spots with proven talent. Could Morales and Doubront fill those spots? Theoretically, yes. But, a starting rotation with those two doesn't exactly scream championship or even playoffs.
The conversation should start with Edwin Jackson. The free agent is coming off a solid season with the Washington Nationals, pitching to a 4.03 ERA in 189 innings. Both numbers would have ranked first with the Red Sox. Jackson also has plenty of postseason experience, including starts in the World Series. He's looking for a multi-year deal. Would the Red Sox be willing to bite? Possibly. Jackson is an innings eater, something Boston hasn't had since Tim Wakefield retired. However, a potentially high-asking price could scare the Sox away.
Another young pitching target could be a former Red Sox pitcher. Anibal Sanchez had had even better numbers than Jackson (3.86 ERA, 196 innings). He was also lights out in the postseason this year, allowing four earned runs in just over 20 innings of work. Would the Sox be interested? One would think. But, like Jackson, a steep asking price could inhibit interest.
If the Red Sox are looking to take a small gamble, Dan Haren could be the answer. The veteran had a disappointing season with the Angels, especially coming off a strong 2011 campaign. Much like with Lester, the Red Sox could look at Haren and believe the talent outweighs the poor season. The 33-year-old does have a career 3.66 ERA and could just need a change of scenery to get it rolling again. Don't be surprised at all if the Sox show interest.
Brandon McCarthy could be the wild card of free agency. He took a line drive to the head in early-September that led to a lengthy hospital stay. McCarthy has started throwing again, but there really is no telling what he will be like when he comes back from injury. McCarthy is a career .500 pitcher, but it's mostly due to being on poor teams. His career ERA (4.02) more than gives one confidence that he can pitch at a good level.
Other pitchers that could be in the mix include Scott Feldman, Shawn Marcum and Ryan Dempster. However, these may be longer shots. Feldman has been inconsistent at best for the Texas Rangers. There also may be some warning flags considering the Rangers were willing to decline his option. Marcum is a career 3.76 ERA pitcher and has experience in the AL East with Toronto. However, durability issues may scare Boston away. Dempster, a proven starter over the years, really fell apart down the stretch after the trade to Texas. At 36, his age is also a factor.
There are many other potential names out there that could interest the Red Sox. It would be hard to believe Boston doesn't make a move or two. Is it a gamble to bring in a few free agents to fit in the rotation? No question. But, it's an even larger one to go with Morales, Doubront or young prospects. Limiting the gambling may be Boston's best strategy right now.
Chris Sedenka is a Yahoo! Contributor in Sports covering the Boston Red Sox. You can listen to his daily radio show on 96.3FM in Portland, ME or thebigjab.com. He is also the voice of the Maine Red Claws of the NBA D-League.
You can follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisSedenka.