Small-market pitching candidates Red Sox could target this offseason

John Tomase
·6 min read

Tomase: Could Sox pursue one of these small-market starters? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Chaim Bloom's priority this winter is probably going to be his priority next winter, too, and maybe the winter after that -- starting pitching.

The Red Sox should feel queasy about the state of their rotation, given that ace Chris Sale is unlikely to return from Tommy John surgery before June, replacement ace Eduardo Rodriguez continues to feel the effects of a COVID-related heart condition, and replacement-replacement ace Nathan Eovaldi is a three-month injury waiting to happen.

There are lots of ways for the Red Sox to improve this winter, from free agency, to developing another starter in the model of 2020 surprise Tanner Houck, to trades. Today, we're going to examine a specific subset of option No. 3 and focus on pitchers who could be available because they're two years away from extensions that their current teams might not envision paying.

Just such a pitcher was traded this season in Cleveland's Mike Clevinger, who had resisted long-term overtures from the Indians before being shipped to the Padres, where he promptly broke down. San Diego parted with no fewer than six prospects to get him.

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The Clevinger model means sorting smaller market teams for starters who can become free agents after the 2022 season, when they'll be no older than 32. That gives us a list of nine pitchers, including virtually the entire Pirates rotation. Could any of them interest the Red Sox? Let's dive in.

1. Jose Berrios, RHP, Twins -- The two-time All-Star remains a bit of a mystery in Minnesota, where he struggled over his final 10 starts of 2019 before carrying that uneven performance into 2020. It's hard to imagine Minnesota dealing him now, though, because the Twins are already planning to replace free agent starters Rich Hill and Jake Odorizzi. Berrios remains too important a part of their plans, though his situation could be revisited at the trade deadline.

2. Brandon Finnegan, LHP, Reds -- Yes, that Brandon Finnegan. Remember him? The Royals took him in the first round of the 2014 draft and four months later made him the only player to appear in the World Series and the College World Series in the same year. He was gone by the following July, shipped to the Reds for Johnny Cueto. He hasn't pitched in the big leagues since 2018, however, and he hasn't consistently thrown strikes since 2015, so let's just move on.

3. Joe Musgrove, RHP, Pirates -- Now things start to get interesting. The Pirates may have finished with baseball's worst record, but they also return eight pitchers who could win rotation spots next season, and that's three too many. Musgrove is the best of the lot, a hard-throwing right-hander who was part of the Gerrit Cole trade with the Astros in 2018. His 1-5 record in 2020 obscures some excellent peripherals, including 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings and a 3.42 FIP.

He's still only 27 years old and was reportedly nearly traded to the Blue Jays at the deadline. That suggests he's available. If Bloom makes one call this winter, it should probably be to Pittsburgh counterpart Ben Cherington. Perhaps the longtime Boston executive could be interested in outfielder Andrew Benintendi, whom he acquired with his final first-round pick as Red Sox GM.

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4. Chad Kuhl, RHP Pirates -- Sticking with the Pirates for a few more spots, there's Kuhl. Before undergoing Tommy John surgery and missing the 2019 season, Kuhl had established himself as a roughly league-average starter, maybe slightly below. He was the exact same pitcher upon his return, with strikeout totals that are a little too low and walk totals that are a little too high. The Red Sox can do better.

5. Trevor Williams, RHP, Pirates -- It looked like Pittsburgh had something when Williams went 14-10 with a 3.11 ERA in 2018, but he has fallen on hard times since an oblique injury in June of 2019. Williams pitches a little like the Red Sox version of Jake Peavy, with 92-mph fastballs up in the zone and sinkers, sliders, and changeups down. He pitched well for five starts last year and then posted an ERA over 8.00 over his final six turns, allowing an NL-worst 15 home runs in only 55.1 innings. As far as targets go, he falls in between Musgrove and Kuhl on the appealing scale.

6. Jameson Taillon, RHP, Pirates -- One more Pirate! Taillon was outstanding in 2018, going 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA and delivering on the promise that had made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draft. He lasted only seven starts in 2019, however, before undergoing Tommy John for the second time in his career (also in 2014), and missing the 2020 season. He's expected back for spring training, and after committing to his rehab for this long, it's hard to imagine the Pirates dealing him.

7. Sean Manaea, LHP, A's -- The Red Sox need no introduction to Manaea, who no-hit them in 2018 en route to a 12-win season. He looked like a burgeoning ace while going 4-0 with a 1.21 ERA to open 2019 before Tommy John intervened. He returned to go 4-3 with a 4.50 ERA in 11 starts this season while retaining his pinpoint command.

When healthy, Manaea isn't overpowering, but he's effective, with a languid delivery that's reminiscent of former Red Sox All-Star Bruce Hurst. The A's have a number of decisions to make in arbitration, and while dealing Manaea now feels unlikely, it never hurts to call.

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8. Michael Fulmer, RHP, Tigers -- Fulmer was the American League's surprise Rookie of the Year in 2016 and an All-Star in 2017, but he's yet another starter on this list returning from Tommy John, which cost him the 2019 season. Though he throws in the upper 90s, even hitting 100 mph in 2018, he relies primarily on a hard slider and outstanding changeup. He got lit up in 10 starts this season, but he'll enter spring training nearly two full years removed from surgery and is certainly a bounce-back candidate.

9. Matthew Boyd, LHP, Tigers -- The Tigers acquired Boyd from the Blue Jays in their 2015 deadline deal of David Price, but the left-hander has yet to produce at a level that would make him a trade target. With a lifetime ERA of 5.08 and consecutive seasons leading the AL in homers allowed -- including a ghastly 39 in 2019 -- he's doubtful to be on Boston's radar.