Felix Doubront managed to strike the most confusing, frustrating balance possible in 2012. Not good enough to really reassure fans of his ability to hold down a spot in the Red Sox' rotation, not bad enough to convince us that he couldn't.
It all started well enough. Doubront helped the team to their first win of the season, and stayed strong through the end of May, keeping his ERA down below 4.00 on a team filled with absolute disasters in the rotation. Combining a powerful fastball with a sharp-breaking curve and the occasional changeup, Doubront struggled to get hitters out quickly, but looked good while doing it, racking up 59 strikeouts in his first 56 innings.
The problem with his season, however, was the same as his problem in any given game: staying power. June provided his first speedbump, with seven homers in five games leaving him with a 5.83 ERA for the month, and while he managed to dodge damage despite walking 17 batters in 28 July innings, a series of mid-game meltdowns (often starting right around pitch #50) around the end of the month and the beginning of August prompted the Sox to shut Felix down for a while.
By that point, Doubront had already thrown nearly as many innings as he had in any other professional season. What's more, his innings in the majors were remarkably high-stress, involving massive pitch counts that left him with an arm about as worn down as a pitcher with 20-30 more innings than he actually had thrown. Likely the Sox would've prefered to have taken it easier with him earlier in the season, but with the state of the rotation being what it was, no move was possible.
When he came back, Doubront did manage to put together a nice run to finish the year, with a few sketchy results belying some very positive peripherals before he ran off 26 innings of 3.11 ERA ball to finish the season strong. Had the year ended before that last stretch, the Sox would have been hard-pressed to keep Doubront in a starting spot, especially with the amount of cash available to them in the offseason. After he showed some signs of life, though, it's just as hard to pass up on the possibility that the guy that started and ended the season is in there somewhere.
The problem for the Sox is that Felix is just not that well-equipped to deal with Fenway. A lefty without extreme groundball tendencies, Felix was hit pretty hard at home, even with his solid strikeout numbers. It's not something impossible to overcome, but that's just one of the questions surrounding Doubront. Can he keep his strikeouts up while reducing walk totals? Can he last through a full season of starting now that he's got another year behind him? Can he get batters out with any efficiency? There's a lot of unknowns when it comes to Felix, and while that would be fine for a fifth starter, this is a rotation that is currently dealing with at least two fifth starters and no real front-line arms.
Still, it seems unlikely that the Sox deal Doubront now, since if he could pull his ERA in-line with his peripherals (3.86 xFIP) his value to them and the rest of baseball would skyrocket. RIght now it might be best to see Lackey and Doubront as something of a combo five, with neither one really trustworthy enough to have earned a spot in the rotation, but each providing enough potential that the Sox have to give it a shot. That could lead to some difficulties with both the roster and rotation, but that's probably better than the alternatives in either direction.
It will be interesting to see what next year holds for Doubront. Perhaps more than anyone else he could rise to new heights or fall off the map entirely. The Sox have had a farm system filled with lottery tickets for years. Now it seems like they have one in the majors as well.