The Yankees had to upgrade their starting rotation. They knew it. Their fans knew it. The competition knew it, too.
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The New York starters were mediocre last year — 14th among 30 big league teams in ERA — and couldn’t beat the underdog Detroit Tigers in the first round of the American League playoffs. And they actually overachieved, considering the Freddy Garcia/Bartolo Colon renaissance and 16 victories from rookie Ivan Nova.
So when Yankees general manager Brian Cashman made his stealth moves on Friday the 13th — acquiring Michael Pineda from the Mariners, agreeing to terms with Hiroki Kuroda — the industry offered a rueful nod: The Yankees’ greatest weakness became a strength, restoring their status as AL frontrunners.
Now, one month before pitchers and catchers report, it’s time for the Boston Red Sox to confront their reality.
The Yankees look like the Braves of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz in comparison to their ancient rivals. If you were underwhelmed by the Yankees’ No. 14 rotation and quick postseason exit, then what of No. 22 and one of the worst collapses in baseball history?
In some respects, it’s a wonder the 2011 Red Sox were in position to fumble away a playoff berth. They had the worst rotation ERA in the majors among clubs that finished above .500. Boston starters won just four games in September — and none after Sept. 16.
The Red Sox had the No. 3 rotation in the AL East last year, behind the Rays and Yankees. The Blue Jays are a threat to move ahead of them, too, if Ricky Romero continues developing into an ace, while Brandon Morrow and Brett Cecil rebound from disappointing seasons.
At the moment, the Boston rotation consists of Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, who faded down the stretch; Clay Buchholz, who has not pitched in the majors since June 16; Daniel Bard, whose most recent start came with the 2007 Lancaster JetHawks; and a fifth starter to be named later.
So, yes, the Red Sox have interest in free agents Edwin Jackson and Roy Oswalt. They will consider trade candidates like Matt Garza and Gavin Floyd. They must know the status quo — dreaming on Carlos Silva and Aaron Cook — is not a viable path to October in baseball’s best top-to-bottom division.
The Red Sox have maintained dialogue with Oswalt’s representatives in recent days, major league sources said Sunday. Oswalt, the favorite son of Weir, Miss., realized that East Coast baseball suited him quite well during a season and a half in Philadelphia. He is famously low-maintenance and would be able to handle the pressure of working at Fenway Park.
However, there are questions about his troublesome back (which caused two disabled list stays last year) and overall adaptability to the AL, after spending his career with two National League franchises.
Oswalt, 34, isn’t a perfect solution for the Red Sox. Still, he’s something like the 2009 version of Pedro Martinez: While no longer a 200-inning ace, Oswalt possesses sufficient skill and nerve to negotiate big moments in games that matter.
As an added bonus, he’s not demanding C.J. Wilson money — although it remains possible Oswalt will sign a multiyear deal.
“The Yankees did well by waiting out Kuroda,” one National League executive said, in reference to the right-hander’s one-year, $10 million deal. “The Red Sox could do the same with Oswalt.”
Meanwhile, as free-agent pitchers go, there is plenty to like about Jackson: He’s only 28. He’s been a 200-inning pitcher, on average, over the past four seasons. In 2009, he was an All-Star. In 2010, he fanned 7.8 hitters per nine innings. In 2011, he beat the Phillies with a quality start in the NL playoffs.
Jackson deserves a multiyear contract. And the Red Sox have the means to grant one, as long as they’re comfortable cutting a revenue-sharing check after the coming season.
It’s foolish to say the Red Sox must sign Oswalt or Jackson if they wish to make the playoffs. The existing cast, for all its flaws, nearly lurched into October last year. And for all we know, Boston general manager Ben Cherington is engaged in covert trade talks for a frontline starter at this very moment.
But the Red Sox must do something to fortify the rotation. The memory of last September is too fresh. They can ill afford to have an April clunker by Beckett or Lester bring about cries that Cherington, in his debut offseason, didn’t do enough to fix last year’s fatal flaw.
When Grady Little was left without a closer at Yankee Stadium in 2003, Theo Epstein made certain Keith Foulke was there for new manager Terry Francona the following year. Cherington owes Bobby Valentine a similar favor now.
The new manager hates the Yankees, remember? He deserves the tools to beat them.