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While this Red Sox offseason has been relatively quiet outside of the trade for closer Andrew Bailey and the hiring of Bobby Valentine as manager, they have made a little noise lately with regards to their starting rotation. General manager Ben Cherington signed veterans Carlos Silva and Aaron Cook to minor league contracts to add potential depth to the Sox pitching staff.
As of this date in January, the Red Sox will enter Spring Training with many questions and stories, but the most significant for the team going forward is who will secure the last two spots in the rotation behind Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Clay Buchholz. Meanwhile, what can realistically be expected of those three considering the ups and downs each has faced over the last couple of years?
The bullpen has question marks of its own, as it has the potential to have a completely new look with the acquisitions of Bailey and Houston reliever Mark Melancon. Set up man Daniel Bard will be a candidate to win a job as a starter, leaving Melancon to set up Bailey. However, if Bard remains in the bullpen the Sox would have a great strength in the later innings, as the trio would be one of the best 7-8-9 set of relievers in the game, rivaling that of the Yankees’ Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, and Mariano Rivera.
One way or another, the biggest problem remains the starting rotation. It appears that as of today the realistic options for Valentine include Silva, Cook, Bard, Alfredo Aceves, Andrew Miller, and Felix Doubront. It doesn’t appear that the Red Sox are willing to spend any more money this offseason on pitchers such as Hiroki Kuroda or Roy Oswalt, who would immediately enter the rotation. That’s quite unfortunate because there aren’t any clearcut frontrunners for those last two spots.
Instead of worrying about which two pitchers can get the job done, let’s shift our attention to the three starters who will hopefully lead the Red Sox throughout the 2012 season. Beckett and Lester are clearly the true aces of the staff, as Buchholz has the potential but has been inconsistent throughout his career because of injuries. If the three of them can perform at great levels, the importance of getting great value from the backend starters is lessened, and the depth in starting pitching becomes an advantage.
Beckett was phenomenal in 2011, soaring past expectations after a year before in which he struggled mightily and looked lost on the mound. In 193 innings he posted a 2.89 ERA, the lowest of his career when pitching at least 25 innings. He had an even more impressive 1.03 WHIP and was considered in the discussion for Cy Young despite the field being blown away by Justin Verlander. In 2012, Beckett should show signs of his 2011 form, although he won’t be as dominant.
Prediction: 16-8, 3.20 ERA, 190 innings
Lester seemed to take a slight step back in 2011 surprisingly, though his numbers across the board were still that of an ace. He finished 15-9 with a 3.53 ERA, but pitched under 200 innings striking out just 182 after consecutive seasons of striking out 225. This year I expect Lester to bounce back to being the #1 pitcher on the staff, and even rise to the Cy Young discussion.
Prediction: 19-5, 3.00 ERA, 200 innings
Buchholz is a critical pitcher for the Red Sox in 2012 and for the next several years. Last year, he only started 14 games because of injuries and was limited to under 100 innings. However when he did pitch, he was effective, finishing the year 6-3 with a 3.48 ERA and striking out nearly twice as many batters as he walked. His season though came no where close to 2010, when he was 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA, numbers which it will be interesting to see if he can ever get back to in the coming seasons. This year will be a step in the right direction though.
Prediction: 14-6, 3.40 ERA, 180 innings
Given those approximations for numbers next year, the Red Sox pitching staff will have quite the trio of starters to work with as they attempt to make another run at a championship. Those win totals sum to nearly 50, but for this team to win the World Series in 2012 they are going to need nearly 50 more from the rest of the staff. That’s where the promise of depth in starting pitching and a rebuilt bullpen could be critical.
There certainly aren’t too many sexy options to take those backend rotations spots. Usually a look at the pitching matchup for a game and the sight of “Andrew Miller” doesn’t exactly bring the excitement of Beckett or Lester. However, I think the pitchers with a real shot at those rotation slots as of right now are Miller, Aaron Cook, and Alfredo Aceves.
I understand the allure of having Daniel Bard start, and I have no doubt that he will be stretched out and be given the opportunity to prove himself in Spring Training, but I think that with the lot of starters the Sox have already assembled, as well as the possibility of injured pitchers like Daisuke Matsuzaka returning during the season, there’s no immediate need to try and transition him to the rotation. The appeal of that deadly backend trio is too enticing to pass up. He can land the rotation gig next year, but for now he belongs in the bullpen.
To this day I can not understand why Brian Cashman and the New York Yankees allowed Alfredo Aceves walk away in free agency…nonetheless allow him to sign with the rival Red Sox! Aceves has shown a great potential to start, and received the opportunity many times last year with the Sox, so it should be no surprise that he is a favorite for the fourth spot in the rotation.
At this point in his career, he should be transitioning to a consistent starter instead of fill-in and long reliever. Normally, he’d be a terrific fifth starter, but the Red Sox can get by with him as their four.
I think this will prove to be the real battle in Spring Training. One of these pitchers can win the last spot in the rotation, and the other will be on call if a starter goes down. I like the signing of Cook a lot. He’s battled through injury problems over the last few years but has some potential, so there’s lots of upside there. On the other hand, the Sox have seen Miller up close and know what to expect from the sometimes stellar, oftentimes erratic pitcher. I think Miller will land the spot, but we’ll definitely see Cook at some point later this year if he stays healthy.
The words ‘pitching’ and ‘health’ have haunted the Red Sox over the last few seasons, and there’s no real reason to believe that this year will be different. But at the same time they do have great depth in options if any of their pitchers go down. The key for Boston in 2012 will be keeping their trio of aces healthy if they want a chance at a run in October. Still though, they have arguably the best offense in baseball that can carry any pitcher throughout the regular season, so there’s no reason expectations for this year should be any less than last season. I still believe they are the favorites for the American League East, and believe they will atone for their collapse last year.