Jun 26, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia (39) congratulates pitcher Koji Uehara (19) after defeating the Colorado Rockies 5-3 at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Boston Red Sox: Should They Trade For A Starter Or A Reliever?

June 21, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Jon Lester (31) walks off the field after being relieved in the sixth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Red Sox sit atop the American League, sporting a league-best 49-34 record. They’ve proven that their hot start out of the gate wasn’t a fluke, rather a result of a solid offseason and player growth. In other words, the small sample size ship has sailed.

So…they have no flaws, right? Wrong. Every team has flaws, some more than others, obviously. Boston’s offense is set, if there is such a thing. Their 17.0 offensive WAR, per FanGraphs, leads baseball. Their offense has the second-highest team batting average, second-highest slugging percentage and best on-base percentage. I’m going to a leave a few out, but you get the point.

The Red Sox’ pitching hasn’t been as good, but they’ve been better than average-much better. Naturally, they’ve been linked to some of the common names on the trade block, both relief and starting pitchers. After all, the Red Sox are contending, which means they’ll be buyers, like most contenders.

The question management faces: Should they pursue a starter or a reliever?

Let’s take a look:

Starting Pitching Situation

June 2, 2013; Bronx, NY, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Clay Buchholz (11) pitches against the New York Yankees during the second inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

Red Sox starters have been good. Actually, they’ve been really good, sporting the second-best ERA (3.81) starters’ ERA in the American League. Only the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers have been better.

The fuss about Boston’s rotation, however, isn’t for a lack of effectiveness–at least that’s the consensus. The source is two injuries to their No. 1 and No. 2 starters–Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester.

Buchholz hasn’t pitched since June 8 with shoulder inflammation (he took a come backer off his shoulder). He was shut down from throwing for a few days over the weekend, but an MRI taken Wednesday didn’t reveal any structural damage. The Red Sox can rejoice.

But they aren’t going to push Buchholz, and Buchholz isn’t going to push himself (courtesy of the Boston Globe). That’s probably the smart move in the long run. Boston’s brass probably wants him back, as he’s leading the AL in ERA. Whether his return comes before or after the All-Star break has yet to be announced.

Jun 26, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox pitcher John Lackey (41) delivers a pitch during the first inning against the Colorado Rockies at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Lester, meanwhile, suffered a “freak” injury in his June 28 start against the Toronto Blue Jays. The lefty slipped off the mound and had a gimp to his step on his way to the clubhouse. There was, and probably still is, some concern regarding his hip, as he was diagnosed with a “jammed hip.” However, he intends to make his next start, according to The Globe.

So there’s your Red Sox injury update, which isn’t so bad if you think about it. Buchholz will be back at some point, and Lester seems to be fine.

The injuries are certainly worth the fuss, but Boston might have alternative reasons to pursue a starter.

For one, Lester has a 6.99 ERA since May 20 (eight starts). He and Allen Webster, who’s posted a 7.84 ERA in two June starts, have skewed Boston’s overall rotation, which has the seventh-best ERA in the AL during June–not bad, but not quite in line with their season trends.

Secondly, Boston’s rotation has the fourth-highest FIP (Fielding Independent Percentage in June. FIP essentially measures what a pitcher can control, such as strikeouts, walks and home runs. It’s also an accurate measure of future performance, and in Boston’s case, their 4.53 FIP calls for a regression.

However, we’re starting to nitpick, and that’s thus causing us to overlook the positives (all ERAs in June): John Lackey has a 3.03 ERA in June. Felix Doubront has a 2.75. Ryan Dempster has a 3.58. And the troubled Alfredo Aceves has a 1.64 mark (he was sent down on June 18).

So at this point, adding a starter might be considered overkill.

Had Buchholz’s shoulder injury created more concern, sure, adding a starter would probably be wise. Had Lester’s hip shelfed him, sure. Had Doubront lagged through June, maybe. None of those scenarios currently exist, though. Unless Boston feels like Doubront’s spot in the rotation is in need of an upgrade, a starter shouldn’t be their primary focus.

A reliever, meanwhile..

Bullpen Situation

June 23, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell (53) takes the ball to relieve relief pitcher Andrew Bailey (40) in the seventh inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

There’s really no other way to put it, so I’ll put it bluntly: Boston’s bullpen has been a disaster in June. Their relievers have the fourth-highest ERA in baseball, on top of the fact that they’re allowing the fourth most home runs per nine innings too.

So yeah, times have been better in the ‘pen. But not much better. In April and May, Sox relievers still ranked in the bottom half of the league in bullpen ERA. The struggles on that front have simply been magnified with the trade deadline looming.

I wouldn’t go as far to say that Boston’s bullpen is in shambles, however. Since recording his first save on June 26, Koji Uehara is 3-for-3 in save opportunities and has a 1.50 ERA in June. In 10.2 innings, Andrew Miller has a 1.69 ERA. Junichi Tazawa and Craig Breslow both have mid-3.00 ERAs (in June). The recently recalled Pedro Beato has pitched three scoreless innings.

There’s Andrew Bailey. I’m sure you’ve heard about him, or more specifically, his implosion. The once All-Star closer has allowed at least one run in his last five appearances, ultimately equating to a 21.00 ERA. Over the same span (three innings) he’s allowed four home runs.

Bailey was pulled out of the closer’s role after allowing a walk-off two-run homer against the Detroit Tigers on June 20. The move to less-pressured situations hasn’t yielded anything positive, that’s for sure.

Additionally, Franklin Morales had a 9.82 June ERA in five games (7.1 innings) before being placed on the DL a few days ago.

So there are a couple guys struggling, yes, but the majority of Boston’s bullpen unit has been fine.

Now that isn’t to say that adding a reliever isn’t needed. In fact, adding a closer might be the final touch to solidifying Boston’s ‘pen. Such as move would allow Uehara to recede to his eighth-inning set-up role, and Bailey would repair his problems in the middle innings.

The Verdict

The Red Sox should pursue a late-inning reliever, preferably a closer. A front line starter wouldn’t hurt, but Boston’s resources would be better spent upgrading their mediocre bullpen.

All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs

Tags: Boston Red Sox Clay Buchholz Jon Lester

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