The Red Sox starting pitching is in a sorry state. Even the most optimistic projections don't paint a rosy picture of the 2013 rotation. This season has helped highlight the downward slide that Jon Lester has been on for a few seasons now. Clay Buchholz looks like a top of the rotation guy for three months, utter garbage for a month and then misses a month due to injury. The aforementioned Doubront is alternately good and awful. John Lackey is coming back. Maybe he'll be above average, but nobody around here is going to hold their breath waiting for that to happen.
None of that sounds promising, nor should it, but the Sox do have some options in the minor leagues. First and foremost is the man, the myth, the legend that is Matt Barnes. Barnes looks to be a top starter if not an ace in the major leagues, but after just scraping Double-A he won't meet that ceiling next season. Then comes Alan Webster and Ruby De La Rosa, refugees from the Dodgers for Nick Punto. Though farther along than Barnes in his development, Webster isn't ready to be a significant part of a starting rotation at the major league level yet. De La Rosa might be, and he has amazing stuff, but based on his record, counting on him for above average production against major leaguers at this point is simply wish-casting.
In a post on the Globe’s Extra Bases blog, Peter Abraham makes the point that the Red Sox must add to their starting rotation this off-season. Quoth: "…if Doubront is the No. 3 starter at the start of next season, the Red Sox will have failed this winter." It's a hard statement to disagree with, but it's based on one assumption: that the Red Sox will try their hardest to win in 2013. Looking at their rotation, their minor league system, and the free agent and trade markets, I'm not so sure that's the case.
Let's step back for a second. Assume the Red Sox do want to compete for the World Series next season, where does the rotation come from to enable that to happen? (We'll look at this with as much optimism as I can muster.)
1. Jon Lester - His K rate has dropped for four straight seasons from elite to league average, but we'll give him the benefit of lots of doubt and call 2013 a bounce-back year. But even so, Lester was a back of the rotation starter this season. Improvement on that puts him as a healthy league average or slightly above starter, say somewhere around a number three starter.
2. Clay Buchholz - 2013 is the year he stays healthy, his back doesn't start shooting disks across the field mid-pitch and he is able to maintain his above average stuff and command all year long. We'll call him the number two starter.
3. Felix Doubront - How good is Doubront? Well, he gets strikeouts. That’s good and important. Beyond that, there isn’t much to recommend him. He walks guys, gives up hits, and doesn’t work late into games due to an almost comical inability to conserve pitches. Maybe he takes a step or two forward to make himself into a number three or four starter next season. More likely he's a five, but in the spirit of this exercise we'll call him a four.
4. John Lackey - No idea what to expect from Lackey, but when Daisuke Matsuzaka came back from Tommy John surgery, I thought maybe he'd come back as a new pitcher. Maybe the surgery and resulting time off would have renewed his health and spirit. Maybe he'd finally be the Daisuke that was advertized lo these six seasons ago. I see now that I was fooling myself and any attempt to project similarly on Lackey is probably more of the same. The fact is Lackey hasn't been good in three seasons. Maybe he'll be league average, but even that might be a stretch.
That's it. Aaron Cook might be back but if so it should be pitching for Pawtucket. Daisuke has his ticket out of town punched. Tim Wakefield isn't walking through that door. If all four of those guys 1) stay healthy (not particularly likely, but go with it), and 2) pitch to those optimistic projections, here's how the Red Sox rotation will look next season.
You can see that isn't exactly the strongest rotation, and don't forget, we're talking about the starting rotation of a team that just traded away arguably two of its better hitters. Baring another crazy Punto-level deal, the Sox don't figure to remind you too strongly of their '04 predecessors when the bottom of the inning rolls around at Fenway Park. To win, they're going to need a strong rotation.
And that's really what I'm getting at. Where is that strong rotation going to come from? Clearly not from the personnel currently on hand. The above rotation could win some games fronted by the '04 lineup, but it's doubtful the 2013 group is going to bash their way to an AL East title. No, they need good young starting pitching, which, due to ineffective drafting, doesn't exist in the team's pipeline yet.
That means they'll have to go outside the organization to improve the starting staff. As I discussed on the podcast a few weeks ago, I'm not necessarily against bringing in Zack Greinke, but it doesn't seem that Greinke is on the Red Sox radar due to some personality issues and likely the front office's desire to avoid more Beckett/Crawford/Lackey/Gonzalez- type deals, the kind that Greinke would certainly require were he to move to Boston.
Beyond Greinke the pickings get super slim. Anibel Sanchez could be a nice addition if he weren't hurt constantly. How's Joe Blanton strike you? Hiroki Kuroda, Francisco Liriano, or Ryan Dempster light a fire? Edwin Jackson? Feel like going round and round with Roy Oswalt again? Here's the list. Maybe I'm missing something. But remember while you're looking: the Sox are set with number threes and fours. Those question marks, as in no idea who is going to fill this role not just inhabit it, are at the top of the rotation. The one and if you're being less generous, two spots are wide open, and filling them via free agency doesn't seem likely or even realistic.
There are of course trade targets too. The bi-annual call to Seattle to check on Felix Hernandez's availability should be nice and short as usual. Jake Peavy might be available, either through free agency or in trade if the White Sox pick up his massive $22 million extension (it's either that or pay him $4 million to hit the market).
There are other options for sure. Maybe I'm selling the Sox starters short and adding Jake Peavy on a two year deal plus an option shores up a rotation that isn't top heavy but makes up for it in depth. But given the lack of depth on the market and the huge amounts of money many teams will have available, the free agent market should be rife with teams making the kind of mistakes the Red Sox front office just swore off making. Getting Peavy at a two year deal is probably a pipe dream.
To compete in 2013, Ben Cherington & Sons will have to over-turn every stone. Creativity will be at a premium. But when they're done doing that, they may just find that, like last off-season, the team that ended the previous season ignominiously is the same one that takes the field next spring in Fort Myers.