A lot of things went wrong for the Boston Red Sox in 2012. Adrian Gonzalez produced just an .812 OPS, Kevin Youkilis was even worse until he was replaced by Will Middlebrooks, who had his season end prematurely when he took a pitch to the wrist. David Ortiz also went down for the end of the year, though in more bizarre circumstances, and the Sox had Dustin Pedroia playing (or not) through various levels of injury for a couple months.
But above all else it was the starting pitching*--the terrible, terrible starting pitching--which sank any hopes for a rebound season from the Red Sox. Clay Buchholz clearly wasn't ready for the season to start until it was over a month old, Josh Beckett jumped between scandals and implosions with impressive speed, and Jon Lester just flat out sucked. Mix in a Daniel Bard debacle which left the Sox relying on a clearly over-the-hill Aaron Cook for most of the year and the incredible disappearing Felix Doubront to the equation, and it's all negative.
Add this to the somewhat lacking free agent market for starting pitching, and it's hard not to get a little concerned. The Sox are out on Greinke, reasonable (if in some cases uncertain) options like Peavy, Haren, Baker, and Kuroda are gone (whether or not they were really available to begin with), and there is precious little room left before the market shrinks to the likes of Lohse and Liriano.
That being said, it's worth asking how much help the Boston rotation needs, and how much we Sox fans could really expect to receive in the first place.
For any team that has as much money as the Red Sox have this offseason (even now, after adding some $35 million in payroll, they've got $40 million left to play with) the limiting factor is likely to be willingness and playing time as much as anything. Yes, if the Sox wanted to they could have gone out and signed up Greinke and Hamilton, maybe thrown in Swisher or Sanchez to go with Napoli and Ross to fill in holes.
They did not, however, and that's where willingness comes in, because that's not their style right now. They're trying to avoid the big deals, thus artificially limiting the market to a more mid-level quality of free agent. That puts some restrictions on the team, but the greater part of it when it comes to the rotation is a matter of roster space.
As it stands, the Red Sox' rotation heading into 2013 is composed of Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront, John Lackey, and nobody. Unless the Sox are super confident in Franklin Morales as a starter, they're going to be getting someone to fill that spot. But that still leaves them with four huge question marks. Is Jon Lester going to be Jon Lester? Was Clay Buchholz' first half just a matter of coming back from injury? Is Felix Doubront able to handle a full season of starting, or will he fade again? And John Lackey? Really?
There is the potential for a surprising amount of quality here. We know what Jon Lester can be, and if Buchholz has often been a bit lucky in his best years, he does have the ability to provide the Sox with plenty of high-quality innings when healthy. We saw how good Felix Doubront could be early on, and hard to believe though it may be, John Lackey could still provide some value. We haven't, after all, seen him really healthy since his second half in 2010, when he put up a 3.97 ERA and 3.38 K:BB ratio.
Unfortunately, it's easy to write the other side of that coin. Jon Lester may have started his decline, and can't necessarily be counted on to improve from his dismal 2012. Clay Buchholz was simply seeing what it was like not to lead a blessed .260 BABIP life on the mound. Felix Doubront faded after a couple of months and still doesn't know how to record outs efficiently enough to make it as a major league starting pitcher. And John Lackey? Really?
It's not really going to be easy to trust the Red Sox' rotation headed into the season without two legitimate options from free agency to go with a decent selection of minor league backups. Hopefully the Sox will find that second part in the likes of Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster, and even Chris Hernandez this year, rather than needing to pick guys like Aaron Cook up off the scrap heap.
The good news is that the names are still out there, and the Red Sox still have the money to make the other half of that happen. With $40 million left to them, the Sox could easily pick up two of Anibal Sanchez, Ryan Dempster, and Brandon McCarthy while still having cash left over to find a left-handed bench bat and to make a splash at the trade deadline if necessary without going over the luxury tax threshold.
The question is whether they're going to be willing to overfill their rotation, or if free agents like Brandon McCarthy will be willing to take a job when they're uncertain of the rotation situation they'll be walking into. Somehow it seems unlikely, however. More likely the Sox will get their one arm. In that case we can only hope it's the right arm. Because if it's not, then the Sox will have just made their rotation of risk and uncertainty a complete set.
*And Bobby Valentine, because come on.