By Jeff Louderback
Ineffective starting pitching was a key reason why the Boston Red Sox imploded in September 2011 and posted their worst record since the 1960s when they finished 69-93 and in the American League East basement in 2012. Yet there is reason for optimism regarding the team’s rotation for next season.
In Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront and John Lackey, the Red Sox have four arms that would be an asset to any rotation. Yes, I mentioned “Lackey and “asset” in the same sentence for reasons that are detailed later in this column.
Though Lester and Buchholz have true ace potential, the general consensus among baseball pundits and Red Sox fans is that the club needs to acquire a proven arm to anchor the rotation – a dominant arm that can silence opposing lineups in big games like Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling once did.
Unfortunately for the Red Sox, Seattle does not appear interested in dealing Felix Hernandez, and the Tampa Bay Rays are not going to trade David Price to a division rival. So what Boston needs is for Lester to duplicate his success from 2008-2011 when he won 65 games and posted ERAs of 3.21, 3.41, 3.25 and 3.47 respectively.
Lester, who will be 29 in January, has his share of detractors, yet the numbers show that from 2008 through 2011 he was one of the most effectively and reliable starting pitchers in the majors. Aside from 2012, when he flopped with a 9-14 record and a 4.82 ERA, Lester is a proven winner. His overall record is 85-48, which shows that good things can happen when he is on the mound.
The 28-year-old Buchholz arguably has the best stuff among Red Sox starting pitchers and is capable of dominating opposing lineups. After a rough first half last season, he rebounded and was one of the most effective starters in the majors after the All-Star break. He finished with an 11-8 record and a 4.56 ERA, but he is capable of producing numbers that are more similar to the 17-7 record and 2.33 ERA he posted in 2010.
Doubront, a 25-year-old left-hander,could be used as a trade chip this offseason because of his upside. He wore down in the second half during his first full season in a Major League rotation, but the Venezuelan had impressive outings against the New York Yankees and finished with a team-high 11 wins. If he remains in the Red Sox rotation, he should be stronger and better with the experience of a full season completed.
As for Lackey, the 34-year-old right-hander was a lightning rod for criticism in 2011 because of his role as the ringleader of “friend chicken and beer gate” and his 6.41 ERA. He underwent Tommy John surgery last October and he is expected to be fully recovered when he reports to spring training. The Red Sox are reluctant to trade Lackey – even though he is owed $15.25 million in each of the 2013 and 2014 seasons – because they are intrigued to see if he can return to the form he showcased before first experiencing elbow problems in 2008 with the Los Angeles Angels.
In 2007, Lackey won 19 games and logged a 3.01 ERA in 33 starts and 224 innings. The next season, he made just 24 starts (3.75 ERA) and he completed 27 starts and produced a 3.83 ERA in 2009. Though he recorded 33 starts and 215 innings for the Sox in 2010, he was not at full strength.
Though Lackey is not a top of the rotation arm, he can serve as a reliable back of the rotation starter. The Red Sox are wise to keep him and see if he can revitalize his career in 2013.
Unlike in recent seasons, the Red Sox will have better starting pitching depth, beginning with 26-year-old left-hander Franklin Morales at the Major League level. Morales will likely serve as a reliever and a spot starter for the Red Sox in 2013. Boston will also have a similar arm in Alfredo Aceves if they keep the sometimes volatile right-hander who frequently clashed with Bobby Valentine.
Since the 29-year-old Aceves is under affordable team control and new manager John Farrell tends to get the respect and attention of pitchers, it would not be a surprise to see the Red Sox keep Aceves instead of non-tendering him or trading him this offseason.
In recent years, the Red Sox have lacked effective and Major League ready starting pitching prospects. That will not be the case in 2013. Pawtucket’s opening day rotation next season will likely include highly regarded prospects Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster (both of whom were acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in last summer’s blockbuster trade), 2011 first round pick Matt Barnes and one of my favorite darkhorse prospects, 23-year-old left-hander Chris Hernandez, who projects as a back of the rotation starter or a relief specialist in the majors.
The hard-throwing De La Rosa is considered a future top of the rotation starter or a closer at the Major League level.
Undoubtedly, the Red Sox will add at least one starting pitcher to the rotation mix this offseason. They have been linked to trading for Cleveland’s Justin Masterson and showing interest in free agent right-hander and former Red Sox prospect Anibal Sanchez. One or two of the aforementioned starting pitchers under Red Sox team control could be included in trades as well. Yet for 2013, the Sox are in much better shape with their rotation depth compared to recent years.