The Red Sox have lacked real rotation depth for a few years now. In 2010, Tim Wakefield was about it for depth, but it was also all they needed: Boston's five primary starters accounted for 139 of the 162 contests, and Wakefield picked up all but four of the rest on his own. Felix Doubront, then 22, picked up three of the four others, but this was something of a surprise, given he began the year at Double-A. -- he doesn't count as planned depth, in the same way Wakefield does.
In 2011, it was once again Wakefield, who would make 23 starts. This time around, though, with injuries to contend with in the rotation, the lack of depth eventually caused Boston to miss out on the playoffs. Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester, and Daisuke Matsuzaka -- the same primary five as the prior season -- combined for just 110 starts in 2011, leaving 52 games to expose just how little depth was actually there. Andrew Miller, a failed starter who was still failing in that role, combined with reliever Alfredo Aceves, breakout minor-league pitcher (but likely relief-bound) Kyle Weiland, and what remained of Wakefield's career to fill in the holes. Depth was such an issue that, at the trade deadline, the Red Sox had to choose between adding the injury-prone and potentially non-helpful Rich Harden and the injury-prone and potentially non-helpful Erik Bedard.
This wasn't all a failure in planning. Miller and Weiland were never supposed to get a chance to start in the majors (not unless Miller miraculously transformed into the pitcher multiple teams had already hoped he would be), if things worked out even halfway-decent, as Doubront was expected to be the first non-Wakefield line of defense from the minors. He showed up to camp out of shape, though, and dealt with minor injuries at inopportune times throughout the year, keeping him from fulfilling that goal.
Things were a little better in 2012, but not by much. Boston moved Doubront into the rotation and converted Alex Wilson to relief, eliminating the chance of any help from Triple-A without a surprise breakout from someone at a lower level. Aceves was around if need be, and had stretched out for that role, and though he was a long shot, the team now had former starter Franklin Morales in tow. The key depth on the roster was Aaron Cook, who was working back from recent injuries and ineffectiveness, and Dice-K, who was coming back from Tommy John surgery and aiming for his last chance at redemption in Boston.
When Aceves became the closer with the injury to Andrew Bailey, it was down to Cook, Dice-K, and Morales, only one of whom worked out. Better pitching depth wouldn't have been enough to save the 2012 Red Sox, but it was another year in what was becoming a trend.
The 2013 season already looks very different in this regard, even though it's just mid-December. Morales pitched well as a starter in 2012, posting a 4.14 ERA in his nine starts to go with over a strikeout per inning -- having someone who can produce at an average level as depth is huge, and he's still around to do just that. Aceves remains around, and even if he isn't an ideal starter, as a spot-start type, he beats having to rely on the Millers and Weilands of the world. More importantly, though, is what Boston has at Triple-A: the fact that there's anything at Pawtucket that could be realistically thought of as starting pitching depth right now is a significant change from the last few seasons.
At Pawtucket, Boston is projected to start the season with Rubby De La Rosa, Steven Wright, Chris Hernandez, and Allen Webster in the Triple-A rotation. De La Rosa and Webster are two of the club's best pitching prospects, right up there with Matt Barnes, who will begin the year a level below. Hernandez isn't in the same class, not by a long shot, but he's a 2010 draftee who has made his way to Triple-A -- and succeeded there -- before either of the more highly touted from the same year -- Anthony Ranaudo and Brandon Workman -- made it out of Double-A. Wright, while a huge wild card as a knuckleball pitcher, could very well be given a shot at the majors should he continue to pitch at Pawtucket like he did to close out 2012.
De La Rosa might be a reliever in the long run, but that's one of those questions Boston plans to answer in the next couple of years. He's started 10 games in the majors in his career, posting a 3.88 ERA. 1.8 K/BB, and just under a strikeout per inning in 55 frames. He's no guarantee to excel, but like with Morales, if you can get numbers like that out of a backup option, you're doing well. If Boston had been able to get anything like that out of their depth in 2011, recent history would be a whole lot different. While De La Rosa might not be Opening Day depth, given he is young and working his way back from Tommy John, he's a potential excellent option for the rotation as soon as mid-season, if needed.
Webster is less-likely to thrive in 2013, as it would be his first go at Triple-A, and while he was promising at the previous level, didn't dominate. By season's end, though, if needed, Webster -- who is already on the 40-man -- could very well be better-prepared for spot starts than much of what the Red Sox have thrown at the wall in the past few seasons. He fits the Felix Doubront mold in that sense, in that he might not be entirely ready for permanent big-league status, but is a good bet to get the job done if needed in short bursts.
Knuckler Wright is the old man of the bunch at 28, but the Red Sox thought enough of the right-hander to add him to the crowded 40-man roster. While he's (unsurprisingly) given up his share of walks in the minors, he's also shown promise with his knuckleball, enough that, with some more seasoning in Triple-A, he'd be an easy sell for a chance to pitch in the majors. What happens once he gets there is a bit more up in the air, as knucklers tend to be as unpredictable as their favored pitch, but as the fourth or fifth line of defense, Boston, and a lot of teams, could do a whole lot worse.
Then there is Hernandez, who doesn't fit in with the rest of this group in a lot of ways. He profiles more like a Twins pitcher than anything, using command and grounders to get his outs, eschewing the swing-and-miss stuff of even Wright's knuckleball in the process. But, Hernandez keeps the ball in the park, and has succeeded at every level of the minors. There's a huge difference between success at Triple-A and success in the majors, but if Hernandez can consistently keep his sinker low in the zone, with Boston's infield defense that includes the likes of Will Middlebrooks, Jose Iglesias, and Dustin Pedroia, things could work out very well in a depth role.
The Red Sox might not have the roster space to sign loads of big-league depth options, but unlike in past years, that might not be a problem. There's so much depth at Triple-A and in the bullpen already, and it's not depth that you have to wish too hard on, either. Its presence doesn't guarantee success, but it at least leans that way a whole lot more than the assembled arms of the last three years have.