Regardless of whether they plan to contend in 2021, the Red Sox desperately need to upgrade their rotation beyond its current of status of "unwatchable."
They'll have some money to spend in free agency, too, since Monday's trade deadline also counted as the official reset of luxury-tax penalties. Unlike last winter, when their only goal was shedding payroll, this time they won't have to forlornly watch everyone else play in the snow.
That's the good news. Now for the bad news: the class of free agent starting pitchers is weak.
Unlike a year ago, when Cy Young candidate Gerrit Cole commanded over $300 million from the Yankees and Zack Wheeler bolted the Mets for the Phillies, there's no clear standout.
At one time, this seemed like Corey Kluber's class to own. The two-time Cy Young Award winner won 20 games as recently as 2018, but injuries limited him to seven starts last year and only one inning in 2020 before a muscle tear in his shoulder ended his season.
The Rangers are likely to decline Kluber's $18 million option as part of expected cost-cutting measures, but the fact is, the 34-year-old will hit free agency having thrown only 36.2 innings since 2018. Unless he's a bargain, that's a risk the Red Sox simply can't take, not with Chris Sale rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and Eduardo Rodriguez dealing with the great unknown of COVID heart damage.
Then there's Reds right-hander Trevor Bauer, Kluber's former teammate in Cleveland. The No. 3 pick in the 2011 draft is equal parts cerebral and willful, and he frequently left Indians manager Terry Francona exasperated. He has also had exactly one standout season in nine tries, going 12-6 with a 2.21 ERA and finishing sixth in the 2018 AL Cy Young voting.
He has already tossed two shutouts this year, dropping his lifetime ERA below 4.00 for the first time, but he's about to turn 30 and hopefully the Red Sox have learned their lesson about signing pitchers that age to long-term deals. They should let Bauer be someone else's problem.
Most best-of-class lists then include Robbie Ray, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, Marcus Stroman, and Jose Quintana, with Jake Arrieta a likely addition if and when the Phillies decline his club option.
Needless to say, those are some uninspiring choices. Ray was just traded to the Blue Jays after posting a 7.84 ERA in Arizona. He was an All-Star in 2017 en route to a 15-5, 2.89 finish, but clubs have spent the ensuing three years trying to rediscover that player.
Paxton is once again on the IL and has yet to make 30 starts. As he nears his 32nd birthday, it's hard to imagine him becoming more durable. Meanwhile, Tanaka, his Yankees teammate, has been pitching with a partially torn UCL since his rookie season in 2014. He opted for rest instead of surgery and has made exactly 150 starts since, but that's what's known as a time bomb, especially just a couple of months shy of his 32nd birthday.
At just 5-foot-7, it's hard to imagine that Stroman is built to last over the course of a long-term deal, while Quintana has lost his mojo since leaving the White Sox for the crosstown Cubs. Arrieta has similarly faltered since leaving the north side of Chicago for the south side of Philadelphia.
If the Red Sox want to plug a gap, they could target a veteran like Cole Hamels or Jeff Samardzija or old friend Rich Hill, but injury concerns make all three a risk.
The greater likelihood is that they take a flyer on another Martin Perez type while looking to address their longer-term issues in the rotation via trade, because there's just not enough available in free agency that will be worth the price.