The Red Sox had a pitiful September, but given the injuries they were dealing with, and the talent sent westward, it's understandable that it would happen. It's now Boston's off-season already, meaning it's time to both reflect and look forward. What did the post-Adrian Gonzalez Red Sox do in September, and what did we learn from that? Let's check in on the five major items we took away from the last month-plus of the season: we already looked at what we learned from the offense, now it's time for the pitching.
1: The rotation is awful. Daisuke Matsuzaka started six games, and gave up nearly 10 runs per nine innings in that stretch. Aaron Cook not only successfully posted the lowest strikeout rate for a starter since 1954, when Bob Trice struck out just 1.7 batters per nine in 119 innings. While that worked out for Cook at times, by year's end, his strategy had more than caught up with him: Cook's ERA from the time of the Adrian Gonzalez trade through the end of the year was 7.31. That was the worst of it, though, and neither of those pitchers are likely to be part of next year's rotation. (Exhale.)
Jon Lester's 4.21 ERA during this stretch isn't great, but he faced tough competition, and overall the last third of his season went well. Clay Buchholz exploded in the season's final start, but in September alone, was as good as he had been since May began. There are worries with this pair, but they're relatively little ones, since Lester was dealing with mechanical issues for much of the year that he seemed to be over by season's end, and Buchholz's final start is mostly painful because it was the last start. Shorter: Lester and Buchholz were not and are not the problems with the rotation.
The issue is filling those last three spots, regardless of what role (ace, back-end help, mid-rotation) you're ascribing to them. Felix Doubront posted a 5.40 ERA from August 24 onward, and only got to that point because in his final two starts, he was excellent (more on that later). Then there's Dice-K and Cook, but again, there won't be going forward.
Boston will need to sign or trade for a starting pitcher. He doesn't necessarily need to be a top-of-the-rotation arm, as another solid pitcher of the level of Lester and Buchholz could give the Red Sox three capable #2 types to go along with Doubront and the returning John Lackey. But someone, a pitcher far more reliable, consistent, and durable than Cook or Dice-K, is necessary. Lackey's return, given the distance between his Tommy John surgery and the start of 2013, could mean a 30-plus start, 200-inning season, much like Adam Wainwright (198 frames in 2012, one year removed from TJ) accomplished this year. Doubront has work to do, but should be a capable back-end arm. It's all about finding someone for the first three slots.
2: The bullpen was awful. But also great. It all depended on who was pitching. Alfredo Aceves threw 21-1/3 innings, and posted a 7.59 ERA. He gave up three homers and 18 runs in that stretch, taking two losses. Andrew Bailey didn't do well, either, but that was something of an anomaly for him, and in just 13 innings. Vicente Padilla unraveled late in the year, with his strikeout rate dropping and his ERA rising. Mark Melancon showed a lot of positives -- 11.6 strikeouts per nine, just 1.5 walks per nine -- but also gave up seven runs in 11-2/3 frames. Daniel Bard continued to be a massive disaster, with more walks than strikeouts, and an ERA even higher than both.
On the other side, you had Junichi Tazawa's dominance (17 games, 17-2/3 innings, 23 strikeouts against three walks, just three runs allowed). Craig Breslow was finally used often, and justified that, with over a strikeout per inning in his last 13 games, and a 3.09 ERA. Scott Atchison returned after a possible ulnar collateral ligament scare. Rich Hill threw six scoreless innings in eight games, following his own elbow trouble. The base for a great bullpen is here, and Boston likely won't need to bring in any outside arms in order to put the finishing touches on it.
3: Fenway is often to blame. But this time, blame the pitchers. Fenway is a hitter's park, and it gets a lot of the criticism for the poor performance of Boston's pitchers. Rightfully so, generally, but the incompetence on display in the last month-plus of the season had more to do with the pitchers than the setting. Red Sox hurlers gave up a collective .293/.373/.499 on the road, while limiting opponents to .255/.328/.405 at Friendly Fenway. That's not a normal split for Boston, nor is it one you should expect to continue. But in this instance, the pitchers just flat-out pitched poorly.
4: Felix Doubront might turn out to be pretty useful. Might is the operative word there. He needs to be more efficient in order for this to happen, and that's not going to take additional experience or innings or aging, but a fundamental understanding of why efficiency is important, as well as how to implement it. Doubront showed more efficiency in his final two starts of the year, striking out 21 batters in 14 innings while walking just three. But a lack of walks isn't the only way to be more efficient: the key for Doubront is to throw strikes, but quality ones, strikes that won't be fouled off continuously and drive up his pitch count. He threw 65 percent strikes in those last two outings, and threw seven innings each time. He had just one other start of seven innings all season, and threw just 62 percent strikes the rest of the year. It's a start, but that's all it is: there's still work to be done here, especially if he's to ever approach the 200-inning mark.
5: Zach Stewart might be over-matched as a starter. Stewart might need some more velocity and bite on his fastball before he can face major-league hitting consistently, and that might require a move to the bullpen. He would be following the same path as Clayton Mortensen and Andrew Miller in that regard. With that being the case, it becomes even more important Boston acquires additional rotation depth this off-season, whether it sits in Pawtucket or in the Boston bullpen, because as of right now, Franklin Morales is all there is.