The Red Sox have three starters lined up for the start of the season in Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz. Former reliever Daniel Bard is likely to be the fourth of five. Who's the fifth, though? That's the question we don't have an answer to yet, even if we know who the candidates are.
Bobby Valentine doesn't know the answer, either -- or he's just not sharing it yet -- but very soon, we'll know who the fifth starter for the Opening Day roster is:
"We're going to collectively map this thing out," Valentine said. "It's about time to really figure this out. We're going to make some cuts again so we're down to a real manageable number, and we'll have a pretty definitive -- we have three appearances left -- a pretty definitive role for everyone, spot they're going to pitch in."
Once the fifth starter -- who doesn't necessarily have to be the fifth all year, thanks to pitchers like Aaron Cook who won't be ready for Opening Day -- is selected, the rest of the pitching staff can fall into place. We'll know if the bullpen is going to have Felix Doubront, Andrew Miller, or both, or if either will be made available on waivers due to being out of options. We'll find out if Alfredo Aceves will get his wish and start, or if he'll continue to be a high-leverage relief arm capable of pitching multiple innings often. We can quit the hypothetical with the rotation, and finally get a sense of how this jigsaw puzzle of a bullpen is going to fit together.
Don't take that to be a criticism of the bullpen's upside. But having Doubront in relief and Aceves in the rotation changes the usage patterns and versatility of the bullpen significantly, and it will be interesting to see who would need to come up to replace Aceves's ability to go long. The Red Sox certainly have options for whichever direction they end up taking the rotation and pen in, but until a starter is named, we won't know that direction.
Speaking of Valentine and his thoughts, he's certainly willing to share them. Terry Francona was respected for his more reserved nature regarding his player's mistakes and what they needed to do, but in a town with Doc Rivers, Bill Belichick, and their honesty, Valentine's recent criticisms fit in.
Granted, Valentine hasn't won a title here yet, like the other two, but he also hasn't had the chance yet. I'll be interested in seeing the reactions to Valentine doing things like calling out Doubront for not being aggressive enough against hitters, or for Mark Melancon's inability to get anyone out, or Jose Iglesias missing a sign that ended up costing the Red Sox an out.
He balances the criticism out with praise, but that doesn't mean speaking his mind will be accepted by all. I haven't developed a strong opinion one way or the other just yet -- hey, it's spring training for everyone -- but it's something I'll try to keep tabs on, given how vastly different he is from his predecessor in this regard.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia split time with Jason Varitek behind the plate last year, in an arrangement that netted him 60 percent of the backstop innings. He's looking to catch far more in 2012, according to Brian MacPherson:
"I'm preparing myself for 140, 160 games," he said at a Jimmy Fund event in January. "I don't want to prepare myself for 80 or 100. I want to be ready and catch as many as I can."
This would actually work out well for the Red Sox. Kelly Shoppach is a useful piece for mashing lefties and giving the starting catcher a break, but, thanks to his defensive track record, he's not the kind of backstop you want catching two out of every five games, like you might with even an aged Varitek.
Saltalamacchia wasn't great defensively in 2011 either, but he also had to contend with knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. Free from the abuse the knuckler brings on both his body and his defensive numbers, Saltalamacchia could very well boost Boston's production by shouldering more of the load behind the plate.
Ryan Lavarnway is on the way, but it's clear (given the Shoppach signing) the Red Sox don't want to rush him until they know he can handle a pitching staff and a full catcher's workload. Salty taking something more like 70-80 percent of the playing time this year would go a long way towards helping the 2012 team in case Lavarnway isn't as ready as we all hope by the summer. And if he is ready, then you've got Saltalamacchia and Lavarnway instead of Shoppach back there.