The Red Sox have a lot of pitching this season, but the difficult part seems to be figuring out where all of the pieces should go. While some of the off season acquisitions of starting pitchers that were rumored never panned out, the Red Sox now have several ways to approach their starting pitching situation, while creating a strong bullpen.
While it's still early in the process of figuring out how exactly the bullpen puzzle fits together this season, there may be some creative solutions that could make the starting rotation even stronger. Of course some of these proposals will seem unconventional, perhaps creativity can work as an asset for the Red Sox until some of the question marks about ability and specialization sort themselves out naturally in 2012.
With the lack of free agent acquistions for the starting rotation, the forth spot in the rotation belongs to Daniel Bard, who will transition from the bullpen. Bard has experience as a starter in both college and the minor leagues, but there is still an element of unpredictability about how smoothly his transition will go. That said, Bard is the forth starter for now and will have an opportunity to prove himself as a member of the rotation.
The real issue for the Red Sox rotation comes when considering the fifth rotation spot--one where there are many possibilities with no clear answer. So what if the Red Sox decide to think outside of the box, breaking certain conventions that surround baseball as a way to mitigate uncertainty in the fifth rotation spot? While none of these creative solutions are meant to be long term solutions, there could be an upside to beginning the season with a creative approach, even if it breaks convention.
The Four Man Rotation
I know what you're thinking. The four man rotation will never work and it should not be considered and it is no longer relevant to baseball. Undeniably, there has been a paradigm shift in the usage of pitchers since baseball's inception, with a trend towards larger pitching staffs and an increased specialization of pitchers. Since the late 1970s, the four man rotation has been a thing of the past. Still, the four man rotation occasionally pops up in the modern era and coule prove beneficial.
Recognizing that they would not really need a fifth starter until mid-April, Ned Yost chose to start the 2011 Kansas City Royals with a four man rotation of Luke Hochevar, Jeff Francis, Kyle Davies, and Bruce Chen. Fourteen games into the season the Royals added Sean O'Sullivan from the bullpen as their fifth starter. While a four man rotation is not likely to be a long term situation, perhaps the Red Sox are in a situation where they could use the four man rotation for the first month, maybe two, of the season.
With a shortage of quality starting pitching and it could be beneficial for Beckett-Lester-Buchholz-Bard to start more often, while still keeping their pitch counts in check to balance injury and fatigue issues. There has been research conducted, an essay in Baseball Prospectus' Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game is Wrong comes to mind, that find little evidence that four days rest is better than three.
In this essay by Keith Woolner, he argues there is no evidence that the extra day's rest makes a difference in a pitcher's ability to recover, as long as pitch counts are kept in check. While the norm is now a five man rotation, the Red Sox could benefit from using a four man rotation, at least in the short term.
But there is a cultural and normative distaste for the idea of using a four man rotation in the modern era, especially for veteran pitchers who would be required to change their routines and make the adjustment to three days rest instead of five. While it remains to be seen if a modern rotation could sustain a four man rotation for even half of the season, it could give the Red Sox the opportunity to worry less about the fifth starter for now.
The four man rotation also gives the Red Sox an opportunity to sort out a plan for long term relief pitchers in the bullpen like Alfredo Aceves, Andrew Miller, and Vicente Padilla, rather than rushing one of them to the fifth rotation spot. Having the opportunity to stretch all three pitchers out into long relief could work to their advantage while cementing a fifth rotation spot somewhere down the stretch.
Return Of the Swingman
Perhaps the greatest asset for the Red Sox could be Alfredo Aceves' versatility. As he proved last year, he is capable of transitioning from the bullpen to a starting role with relative ease and success. This ability makes him an incredibly valuable piece to the Red Sox, and could perhaps be considered as a swingman.
Much like the four man rotation, the role of the swingman, a pitcher who is comfortable working in both starter and relief capacity, is largely extinct. As pitchers become more specialized the idea of using swingmen is rarely embraced, but for the Red Sox could be a real option to consider this season, at least in the short term.
If the Red Sox start with a four man rotation, they could use Aceves to make spot starts as needed--especially in situations where the schedule is grueling and starters may need an extra day's rest. As Aceves showed last season when he stepped into the a starters' role last May following Daisuke Matsuzaka's season-ending injury, he is capable of pitching in that role when necessary.
Aceves was invaluable to the rotation and the bullpen last season because of his ability to adjust as needed-- and the need last season was the bullpen. Aceves became the best option for long relief, but with bullepn additions like Vicente Padilla and a healthy Felix Doubront, Aceves could be an asset as an occasional starter, or even the fifth starter.
Aceves' best asset remains his versatility and the Red Sox could maximize his ability as a starter AND in relief by adopting him as a swingman, instead of limiting his role to just starting or just relief appearances. However, because of his success in the bullpen last season, it seems likely that Bobby Valentine will decide to use him in relief, rather than testing his abilities in the rotation unless there is an injury situation.
Fifth Starter By Committee
What seems more likely is that the Red Sox may start the season with a rotating cast of fifth starters--trying a combination of pitchers until someone proves they are capable of assuming the position full time.
Entering the season without a clear fifth starter could present a unique line of challenges, including shaky starts and undue fatigue on the bullpen. The Red Sox have reached the halfway point at spring training with no clear candidate for the fifth starter position, though there are several hats in the ring.
Andrew Miller, Alfredo Aceves, Vicente Padilla, or Felix Doubront are pushing for the position, but they all have some downside that make them unattractive starters. Miller has shown control issues since joining the league in 2006, and struggled last season as a starter for the Red Sox last season. While Aceves did have success in the rotation last season, his value as a reliever overshadowed his achievements in the rotation. Vicente Padilla has experience as a starter and had one of his best seasons in 2010 for the Los Angeles Dodgers, but he spent the majority of the 2011 season sidelined with a forearm injury. For Doubront, a lack of experience and a history of injury remain a concern for him joining the rotation.
While continuing tryouts for the fifth starter role into the regular season does not seem prudent, it might be a reality. The last two seasons, riddled with under performers and injury, are a lesson that there can never be too many options for starters. The Red Sox seem to have a lot of options ready in the bullpen this season, but finding the right combination is proving an arduous decision. While a creative use of the pitching roster might be unconventional by league norms, it could create an advantage if done correctly even if it means breaking the mold of tradition.