Back in March, you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting some baseball 'analyst' who thought the Boston Red Sox were just the bee's knees. In an unrelated story, can people please stop swinging dead cats around? They really bruise if you're not careful.
While some drooled over their potential offensive output, the crown jewel was a starting rotation that was simply to die for, what with all their ace pitchers with their strikeouts, coiffed hair, and such. As we know, the 2011 Red Sox season didn't play out like people thought. Not one of the team's aces managed 200 innings pitched, though John Lackey did one worse in allowing 200 hits. [crickets... tumbleweeds...] Expected to give the team about ninety starts, the bottom three fifths of the rotation combined for forty-nine starts, two Tommy John surgeries, and a broken back.*
*It's the 2011 Red Sox version of The Twelve Days of Christmas! Twelve Youks a-yak'n, Eleven Petey's peeping, Ten Lackeys lacking, Nine leads a-losing, Eight Papis managing, Seven Craws a swing'n ('n miss'n), Six Becketts burping, Five Chicken Wings! Four lost leads, Three Tommy Johns, two more lost leads, and a whole new front office.
As you probably heard, John Lackey, owner of the worst ever in the history of all of it, has opted to have Tommy John surgery. He apparently felt some elbow pain during the year but didn't want to disrupt the tremendous roll he was on to get it looked at. I wonder if the clause that adds a sixth year at the major league minimum salary to his contract if he has a re-occurrence of the injury he had in Anaheim had the unintended affect of incentivizing him to avoid getting the elbow pain looked at. In any case, at least we know why Lackey was pitching so badly. He and Daisuke Matsuzaka combined to throw 197.2 innings of 6+ ERA baseball. Next season the Red Sox likely won't get a third of an inning from either of them. Which, in an odd sort of way, might not be the worst out-come.
This means the great rotation of 2011, the one that looked so promising at the beginning of the year, is down to three guys, one coming off a broken back. As we discussed recently on the OTM Podcast, there isn't much in the pipeline in terms of major league ready starting pitching. The options aren't plentiful inside the organization. It's possible that Felix Doubront could dedicate himself to getting into shape this off season and become more than a middle reliever. Alfredo Aceves could be another option, and for the increasingly desperate, there's always Tim Wakefield. That wouldn't be the group with the highest upside in the league, and there is some significant injury risk there as well, but one advantage to replacing John Lackey's 2011 is, even if you try, it's hard not to get better.
There will be the requisite big names on the free agent market in C.C. Sabathia (assuming he opts out), C.J. Wilson, and Japanese star Yu Darvish, who is likely to be posted. Not one of those guys will come cheaply, and in terms of overall cost, each is likely to command a contract that would require the biggest financial commitment given to any Red Sox starting pitcher. That in and of itself isn't a reason not to sign them, but considering the recent success the team and indeed the league as a whole has had with big money free agents, it should at least give some pause.
Other options involve trades which, considering the cost and likely competition for the above free agents, could be the best route. The Red Sox farm system isn't as strong as it was last winter, but there is talent available to deal. A player like Francisco Liriano could be available, though he'd come with his own set of question marks. An intriguing name is that of Anibel Sanchez, one of the former Red Sox prospects who went to Florida in the Josh Beckett deal. At 27 years old, Sanchez finally put together the top level season many thought he had in him. Like Liriano, Sanchez has a year left before becoming a free agent and the skinflint Marlins surely won't want to pay him to stick around.
In the whirlwind of yesterday's hellos, good-byes, and not-all-that-shocking news, it becomes clear that new GM Ben Cherington's biggest job won't be repairing Carl Crawford's ego, becoming BFFs with Larry Lucchino, or figuring out which pizza place delivers at 4am. His most important goal this off season is going to be improving the starting rotation. How he accomplishes that will speak volumes about him as a General Manager going forward. Though if two more starters end up going under the knife next year, it may not end up mattering after all.