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With only a few short weeks until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, let us take a look at who we should expect to see in Fort Meyers. The starting rotation is pretty set, but there will be a number of guys vying for the final rotation spot and some new faces who will provide insurance policies on the key guys.
The Red Sox will have one of the best threesomes of any starting rotation in Beckett, Matsuzaka, and Lester. Tim Wakefield still puts up consistent numbers when compared across the season though, typical of a knuckleballer, they can be inconsistent from outing to outing.
With the departure of Paul Byrd to free agency, the fifth starter has opened up. Like last season’s signing of Colon, the Red Sox have taken a calculated risk with low-money, high-incentive deals to Penny and Smoltz, hoping at least one will pan out. Michael Bowden did make a couple starts after coming up last season, however, he is essentially new to the staff.
John Smoltz appears likely to miss the beginning of the season after missing nearly all of last season with shoulder problems, however, he says is on schedule and feeling well. With all of the other options at their disposal, the Sox can afford to take this one slow and make sure he is right before breaking him in, as to avoid a Colon-type situation where after seven starts, he is never seen again. Also, Beckett has always had nagging injuries and Wakefield has missed some time in the past couple seasons as well.
Brad Penny, though new to the Sox, is no stanger to injury, and aside from one season, has not been able to put together a complete season, always seeming to fade in the second half. Terry Francona also seems quite content to let all of his starters get a respite during the grueling 162-game season, always finding a way to shut players down for a couple weeks to get them rested for the second season. Starting pitching depth is always a luxury, and even last season when it seemed like the Red Sox had an abundance, there was never too much.
Clay Buchholz began last season with the big club, but was very disappointing in the early going and ceded his spot to Masterson, and eventually Colon, when he was ready. Masterson pitched well as a starter, but was even better as a setup man for Jonathan Papelbon, a role he seems likely to fill again this season. With the bullpen shakier than the championship season of 2007, he provided a much needed ballast.
Buchholz will likely be given a shot to win a spot, but will probably end up starting the season at AAA unless Penny, for instance, does not look like he can shoulder the work. It will also be interesting to see how Buchholz reacts to the trade talk surrounding him as his name came up in some of the catcher talks in the offseason. He seems distractable so far with his celebrity girlfriends and the early success he had with the no-hitter.
Much of the success of the 2009 Red Sox will ride on the arms of this collective bunch as it appears to be the strongest part of the team. The Red Sox will have more depth than almost any other team in baseball in this area, though the Rays have a good core of starters as well. The Yankees made much ballyhooed offseason signings, but the depth is not there and injuries certainly seem to be a much greater concern to their five.
Beckett will have to live up to the number one billing, as he primarily has, and Dice-K will have to continue to be consistent, although throwing more than five innings without running up a pitch count would be a welcome sight. Lester will be the key this year, to see if he can recapture the dazzling season he had in 2008 or if that was something of a career year for the young lefty.
Between the veterans, Wakefield, Penny, and Smoltz, and the youngsters, Buchholz and Bowden, the Red Sox should be able to carve out the final two spots with some success. They do not need aces in the back end of the rotation, they just need to get some quality innings to avoid overly taxing the bullpen.