Zack Wheeler

If Red Sox hope to upgrade rotation in free agency, beyond one big name, they'll find pickings slim

If Red Sox hope to upgrade rotation in free agency, beyond one big name, they'll find pickings slim

BOSTON -- As recently as April, the Red Sox could still credibly claim to be built around their rotation. Now, that rotation could use an overhaul.

The economics of their staff make that virtually impossible. Three more years and $96 million remain on David Price's $217 million contract. Chris Sale's five-year, $145 million extension doesn't even kick in until next season. Nathan Eovaldi may finish year one of his four-year, $68 million deal with only four starts.

Those contracts look immovable, unless the Red Sox are prepared to eat an obscene amount of money. With Eduardo Rodriguez still under team control and Andrew Cashner never anything more than a rental, that leaves one spot to upgrade: Rick Porcello.

The right-hander is in the midst of a brutal season and it's unlikely the Red Sox will extend the free-agent-to-be a qualifying offer, because there's a chance he'd take it and lock in a one-year, $18 million salary.

The Red Sox would be better served spending that money on new blood, but what are their options?

An examination of the free-agent market shows one bonafide ace: Houston's Gerrit Cole. The right-hander is 13-5 with a 2.87 ERA and league-leading 216 strikeouts. He's been on the AL All-Star team the past two seasons and will probably finish in the top five of the Cy Young voting for the third time in his career. He turns 29 next month.

He's also looking at a $150 million-$200 million contract and it's difficult to envision the Red Sox committing that much money to another starter without removing one of the big three from their books. Let's consider Cole too rich for their blood.

So, whom does that leave? Per MLB Trade Rumors, there should be around 40 starters on the market, though a number of recognizable names -- Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Julio Teheran, Corey Kluber -- either hold opt-outs they're unlikely to exercise, or options that should be picked up.

If we operate on a couple of assumptions, we can further narrow the pool. The first is that the Price and Sale contracts have hardened the stance of owner John Henry that free-agent pitchers in their 30s aren't worth major investments. That eliminates San Francisco's Madison Bumgarner (30), L.A.'s Hyun-Jin Ryu (33), Pittsburgh's Chris Archer (31) and Chicago's Cole Hamels (36).

The second is that a rotation featuring extensive durability issues can't afford another iffy arm from a health perspective. That eliminates Washington's Stephen Strasburg (if he opts out of the final four years and $100 million remaining on his deal), Seattle's Felix Hernandez, Philadelphia's Drew Smyly, and old friend Rich Hill, who turns 40 in March.

Then there's stuff. The Red Sox prefer strikeout pitchers who can work up in the zone and miss bats. That eliminates Oakland's Brett Anderson (4.5 K/9), Houston's shockingly effective Wade Miley (7.6), who they've had before, and Atlanta's sinker-balling Dallas Keuchel (6.8).

Guess what's left? Not much! One possibility would be Mets right-hander Zack Wheeler, who turns 30 in May and has already missed two seasons to Tommy John surgery. Two strikes against him, right? Possibly. But he hasn't missed a start in two years, and he hasn't even thrown 700 innings in his career. As a means of comparison, when the Red Sox signed Price at the same age, he had thrown over 1,400. That's a lot of wear.

Wheeler has touched 100 mph while also watching his 4.20 ERA suffer behind a woeful Mets defense. Depending on how many years he commands on the open market, he could be a target, though he's likely to receive a qualifying offer, which would cost the Red Sox a draft pick.

Another option is Cincinnati's Alex Wood, a 2017 All-Star with the Dodgers. Back spasms sidelined him until July 28, but a lifetime 3.29 ERA speaks to his ability. His injury history makes him a risk -- perhaps a low-cost one.

Then there's Minnesota's Jake Odorizzi. He made his first All-Star team this year at 29, though his ERA has climbed from 1.92 in early June to 3.61 today. He posted a 3.82 ERA over three seasons in the AL East with Tampa, for whatever that's worth.

And that's about it, unless you're interested in guys like Tanner Roark, Jhoulys Chacin, or Kyle Gibson. If this little exercise makes anything clear, it's that upgrading the rotation is likely going to require a foray into the trade market, which means this could be one busy offseason -- but that's a story for another day.

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Mets All-Star teammates rave about possible Red Sox trade target Zack Wheeler: 'He'd make a great impact'

Mets All-Star teammates rave about possible Red Sox trade target Zack Wheeler: 'He'd make a great impact'

CLEVELAND -- The Red Sox are in the market for a starter, and the first name rolling off the assembly line is an intriguing one: Zack Wheeler.

The Mets right-hander would certainly represent an upgrade on the back of the Red Sox rotation, which has featured a rotating cast of mediocrity. With Red Sox fifth starters averaging fewer than three innings a start since Nathan Eovaldi hit the injured list in April, someone providing length would help an overtaxed bullpen.

Wheeler could be that man. The flamethrower with a 100-mph fastball has been sneakily consistent. Though he's only 6-6 with a 4.69 ERA, he has pitched into the seventh in 10 of his 19 starts, reaching the sixth 16 times.

Speaking at the All-Star Game, Mets teammates Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil raved about Wheeler, who sat out the 2015 and 2016 seasons following Tommy John surgery, but hasn't missed a start in two years. He is reportedly a target of the Red Sox, with the Yankees and Braves also among a handful of suitors for the 29-year-old, who will be a free agent this fall and is thus a rental.

"Zack has some of the most electric stuff in the game," Alonso said. "The trade talk, to me, I don't think anything of it because it hasn't happened. It's all speculation. It's not real until it happens. Zack is a real mellow guy, and I love watching him pitch. He's got some electric stuff. When he's on, he's almost unhittable. He's filthy."

Wheeler's stuff certainly plays. His fastball averages 97 mph, the hardest he has thrown since averaging 98 mph in 2012 before arm troubles. He has also topped 100 mph while striking out a career-high 9.8 batters per nine innings.

Secondarily, he features a power 92-mph slider that has been hit pretty hard (.437 slugging percentage against), as well as a curveball that one Mets observer believes the Red Sox would try to feature more under the tutelage of pitch doctor Brian Bannister, since Wheeler has only allowed 11 hits on it in 215 pitches -- 10 singles and one double.

"Playing behind him is awesome," McNeil said. "He mixes speed and pounds the strike zone. He's always around the zone. I'm glad I don't have to face him."

Wheeler has a reputation for being injury-prone, but he actually made 29 starts last season and is at 19 this year. Those 29 starts last season came between Games 11 and 150 without missing a turn.

Though he has a propensity to allow big innings because of troubles out of the stretch -- he has surrendered at least three runs in a frame eight times, partly because opponents are hitting .313 with runners in scoring position vs. only .221 with the bases empty -- he still manages to go six or seven in most starts.

"He's very consistent," McNeil said. "You know what you're going to get every single start, and I think that's what you want in a pitcher. It's what makes him so good."

The Red Sox don't boast that kind of consistency anywhere in their rotation. When it comes to reaching the seventh, Chris Sale (5 times), David Price (2), Rick Porcello (6), and Eduardo Rodriguez (6) pale in comparison to Wheeler. None has reached the sixth more than 13 times.

Whether the Red Sox have what it takes to acquire him remains to be seen, but they'd only owe him the prorated remainder of his $5.98 million salary this year, and he's only one year removed from going 12-7 with a 3.31 ERA.

"He'd make a great impact," McNeil said. "He's a big-time pitcher. He has pitched in some big games for us, and he's healthy, which is a big, big thing. I know he's had some health problems last in the past, but he's healthy now and he can really help a team."

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