Back when the Hot Stove season didn't drag until February in a perfect metaphor for baseball's glacial pace of play, the Red Sox routinely shopped in the high rent district.
Name a monster free agent, and the Red Sox wanted him, from Manny Ramirez to Mark Teixeira to David Price. Somewhere around the time between Nathan Eovaldi earning $68 million based on two good weeks and Chris Sale shutting down before his $145 million extension even started, however, owner John Henry decided to stop throwing reckless money after his problems.
The result last year was one of the saddest free agency periods in modern Red Sox history. They traded away Mookie Betts and replaced him with ... Martin Perez and Jose Peraza?
The good news is the Red Sox have more money to spend this year after resetting their luxury tax penalties -- around $25 million, give or take -- and could exploit some market inefficiencies if everyone else approaches free agency tentatively. The bad news is they're not close enough to contention to justify swimming in the deep end of free agency for the likes of George Springer and Trevor Bauer.
Where they'll likely end up instead is smack dab in the middle -- and that's OK.
Chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom routinely bargain-shopped during his days with the Rays and often landed absolute steals. The two-year, $30 million contract Tampa gave veteran right-hander Charlie Morton, for instance, delivered a 16-game winner to their rotation last year, when Morton finished third in the AL Cy Young voting.
With the Red Sox needing to shore up a rotation featuring exactly zero sure things -- thanks to Sale's Tommy John surgery, Eduardo Rodriguez's COVID-related heart issues and Eovaldi's inconsistency -- Bloom would love to find another Morton in a veteran who won't break the bank but could delivery serious bang for the buck.
Is that pitcher out there? Let's run through some candidates.
One guy who won't cost $30 million is old friend Jon Lester. The Cubs probably won't pick up the left-hander's $25 million option, meaning the Red Sox could right the wrong of 2014, when they traded Lester away and then watched him sign with the Cubs, where he made two All-Star teams, won at least 18 games twice, and helped lead Chicago to its first World Series title in over 100 years.
Lester isn't the pitcher he used to be. His 4.64 ERA over the last two years is below average, his strikeout rate has dropped from 25 percent in 2015 to 15.9 percent this year and he just averaged below 90 mph on his fastball for the first time in his career.
But he won't cost much, and he knows the market. Might sentimentality be clouding this hypothetical? Maybe. But Lester deserves a better sendoff from Boston than the one he got.
If Bloom wants to follow a closer model to Morton, he could do worse than left-hander Mike Minor. The former Braves farmhand remade himself after missing the entire 2015-16 seasons due to arm surgery, coming back as a reliever in 2017 with the Royals before making an All-Star team with the Rangers in 2019.
He was woeful in 2020 (1-6, 5.56), but he still struck out over a batter an inning between Texas and Oakland. He's a candidate for some tinkering, because roughly 20 percent of his pitches over the last two seasons were sliders, which opponents hammered for a .300 average and .500-plus slugging percentage. His fastball, changeup, and curve fared much better, and perhaps there's something to work with as he approaches his 33rd birthday.
If we want to consider a riskier candidate, there's Corey Kluber. The two-time Cy Young award winner threw just one inning in 2020 after being limited to seven starts a year earlier by a broken arm. This time around he tore a muscle in his shoulder, though the injury didn't require surgery. The Rangers hold an $18 million option on Kluber, but they'd like to cut payroll and Kluber is a logical place to start.
Kluber could be worth a short-term gamble, especially considering he's only two years removed from winning 20 games and finishing third in the Cy Young voting. He might've been the best pitcher in baseball from 2014-18, going 83-45 with a 2.85 ERA. If that pitcher is still in there, it's worth exploring whether he can restored.
On the other end of the spectrum is Giants right-hander Kevin Gausman. A former No. 4 overall pick of the Orioles, Gausman muddied along in Baltimore for five-plus seasons before being traded to the Braves in 2018. There's no questioning his stuff, which includes a 95 mph fastball and devastating splitter. Still only 29 years old, he just went 3-3 with a 3.62 ERA while striking out a career-high 11.9 per nine innings.
His relative youth compared to others on this list may price him out of Boston's range, but it's the promise of untapped potential that makes him so intriguing.
Finally, we'll mention a couple of veterans. Former Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta has basically been a .500 pitcher the last three years and he turns 35 in March, but the track record speaks for itself. He last made an All-Star team in 2016, finished above .500 in 2017, and won double-digit games in 2018.
At his best, he was a horse. The Phillies are expected to decline his $22.5 million option after he went 4-4 with a 5.08 ERA this season.
Then there's another former Phillies starter in left-hander Cole Hamels. Next year will be the 37-year-old's 16th season, and he's coming off the first lost campaign of his career. He made just one start for the Braves after signing an $18 million contract, limited first by a shoulder injury he suffered during offseason workouts, and then a triceps strain during this truncated season.
From 2008-19, however, the four-time All-Star made at least 30 starts in 10 of 12 seasons. He has relied on command more than power throughout his career, winning at 91-92 mph even in his heyday. He's a bounce-back candidate.