The Red Sox won the 2013 World Series without an ace. Jon Lester? John Lackey? Good pitchers. But not aces. Not anymore. Boston did, however, boast a deep, talented staff that, by and large, stayed relatively healthy last season. Lester’s regular season was far from elite (109 ERA+), but he did elevate in game in the second half. Beginning on August 8, the big lefty started ten games. He threw 70 innings and produced a 2.19 ERA during that stretch. Lester went on to pitch brilliantly in October. In the fall, he was the ace of spades.
No one will remember Lester’s inconsistent regular season. Instead, they’ll back on 2013 and point to the magnificent final month of the season he put together. It takes a special type of pitcher to do what Lester did in the postseason–4-1, 1.56 ERA, 29 strikeouts in 34.2 innings. Clay Buchholz is a player who possesses that same ability to go through stretches of unadulterated dominance. His upside, talent, and contract render him a commodity that is virtually untradeable.
Beat writers, radio talk show hosts, and bloggers are not demanding that Ben Cherington sell Buchholz to the highest bidder. No one is saying that. But there has been chatter that Buchholz represents a solid trade candidate given the Red Sox’ surplus of pitching combined with frustration over the slender righty’s lack of durability. Many of these points are correct in and of themselves, but bundling them together in order to reach the conclusion that Buchholz should be shipped out of Boston is borderline ludicrous.
Buchholz is really, really good at baseball. Even Buchholz’ harshest critic will quickly concede that the Texas native is extremely talented. There’s no debating it, and it’s been that way for awhile around here. Too often, however, the discussion around Buchholz focuses on his inability to stay on the mound. The value he brings when he is pitching actually ends up getting lost in the fray. Get ready for this — Baseball Reference has Lester’s WAR at 3.0 in 2013. Buchholz, who threw 105 less innings than Lester, earned 4.3 WAR. It’s actually sort of unreal. Basically, when Buchholz was on the mound last season, he was better than just about everyone else. And that is absent of any exaggeration. There is no doubt that he raised his level of performance from April to June in 2013. He went 11-1 in 12 starts, punching out 81 batters in 84.1 innings. He posted a 1.71 ERA during that span while his opponents couldn’t get above the Mendoza Line. The way he manipulated the baseball for those two months was truly something special. But pitching at an extremely high level is old hat for Buchholz. Since 2010, the right handed starter has compiled a 46-19 record to go along with a 3.15 ERA. Over those four years, he averaged 138 innings with a 135 ERA+. He has put together 12.7 bWAR since 2010. To put that into perspective, Zack Greinke, during that same four-year stretch, had 111 ERA+ and 12.3 bWAR. Greinke will make $128M over the course of the next five seasons. Buchholz’ contractual situation is quite a bit different.
If the Red Sox choose to exercise their team options, the highest annual salary that Buchholz will earn over the next four years is $13.5M. That will be during the 2017 season. As television money continues to surge into the game and the cost of pitching remains extremely high, Buchholz is primed to be an absolute bargain for a team that is flush with young pitching prospects in their organization. In 2014, the wiry righty will make $7.7M. If he’s healthy — and all reports indicate that he will enter Spring Training that way — it won’t take Buchholz very long to earn his salary in terms of WAR. He jumps to $12M in 2015, his age 30 season, and remains relatively cheap still. The Red Sox hold team options in 2016 and 2017 that are worth $13M and $13.5M, respectively. Should Buchholz’ health woes begin to outweigh the value he brings when he takes the mound, the Red Sox can simply cut ties after the 2015 season ($250K buyout). The way his contract is structured, even if he suffers a catastrophic injury, it is virtually impossible that Buchholz ever becomes an albatross on the Red Sox’ payroll. Conversely, if things break right for Buchholz, the Red Sox will have a player who has the ability to be the best pitcher in baseball for the next four seasons at a price that will make GM’s around the game drool. No matter what, until he puts together a season that resembles more 2010 and less 2012, health will always be a question that looms over Buchholz.
Durability, or lack thereof, is something that may very well plague Buchholz his entire career. His frame is not conducive to bearing the load required to shoulder a 34-start season. He is injury-prone. There’s really no way around it. Throughout the course of the second half of the season last year, Buchholz received a tremendous criticism for his lack of toughness. He dispelled that notion during the World Series. Buchholz wasn’t close to being 100 percent in Game 4, but he yielded one run — which wasn’t earned — over four innings. And it’s likely that no one will remember his effort. If those four very solid innings came in relief, it’s likely that his performance would have much more memorable. Nevertheless, Buchholz’ level of “grit” may not match his ability, but it’s significantly closer than most fans would like to believe.
No player is untradeable. But the value that Buchholz brings to the Red Sox makes him a player that is worth guarding, unless a deal comes along that Cherington cannot refuse. Given his fragility, it’s hard to see a team blowing the Red Sox out of the water with an offer. In the end, it’s probably best to stick with Buchholz and hope that he is healthy for an October run, whether it is in 2014 or 2017. If that happens, the rest of the league, heck, the rest of baseball, will be in for quite a show.