The second half of the season is upon us, and the Red Sox have many questions going forward. Will Jacoby Ellsbury be able to recapture any of his greatness for 2011 when he returns from injury? Will Carl Crawford be able to start living up to his contract, if he can even make it back this season? Will Adrian Gonzalez turn his power back on and start producing like the number three hitter this team brought him in to be? Will the starting pitching turn out enough consistent performances to push this team into the playoff hunt? With respect to that last question, in order to answer "yes", the team must first figure out how exactly they're going to fill out the starting staff.
When the season resumes Friday after the All-Star break, it seems the Sox are going to go with a six man rotation, with Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront, Aaron Cook and Franklin Morales taking the six spots. After one turn through this rotation, it seems likely the starting staff will be whittled back down to a more traditional set of five pitchers. Assuming the first four in the above group are safe, barring injury, the competition for the final spot will come down to Morales, Cook, and Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list on July 3 with a strained trapezius muscle.
In the most traditional sense of a starting pitcher, Aaron Cook seems to be the best fit. He's a veteran who has started his whole career, and survived in that role despite pitching his whole career in the pitcher's hell otherwise known as Coors Field. While he isn't the sexiest type of pitcher, he keeps the ball on the ground, inducing ground balls 58 percent of the time this season, and 57 percent of the time over his entire career. If Middlebrooks, Aviles, Pedroia and Gonzalez are all healthy and in the lineup, that is a good enough defense to make the necessary plays on all of those ground balls.Of course, there is something to be said for the lack of upside that come's with a pitcher whose game revolves around balls being put in play. There is not a whole lot of upside, and if the baseball gods aren't smiling down on him on a given day, ground balls can find holes in the infield and teams can put runs up in bunches. Out of the 93 batters that Cook has faced this year, 89 of them have put the ball in play, with two striking out and two more drawing walks. Ideally, one would like their starting pitcher to take care of as much business as possible without getting the defense involved. Even so, Cook has looked solid since his first start for Boston, in which he was crushed by Baltimore after a play at the plate left him with a gashed knee. Although he has only pitched against the likes of Atlanta, Seattle and Oakland in that stretch, he's pitched well, allowing five earned runs in 20 innings of work. The highlight of this stretch was his 81-pitch complete game shutout in Seattle on June 29th.
The next possible candidate is on the disabled list for now, and hasn't made many friends in Boston over the past few years. Matsuzaka missed most of last year after needing Tommy John surgery, and returned this past June, making five starts thus far in 2012. In those five starts, he has only managed to last 23 innings (or about four and two thirds innings per start), and has posted a putrid 6.65 ERA and 4.76 Fielding Independent Pitching. His last start really messed up his line. In Oakland, the day before he was placed on the DL, he didn't even record a single out in the second inning, and was pulled after allowing five runs on two walks, two home runs and zero strike outs.
Assuming he can come back healthy, Matsuzaka would still probably be the odd man out in this competition. Beyond his surprisingly good 2008 season in which he finished with a 2.80 ERA, he just has never produced much in a Boston uniform. Since 2009, his ERAs have been: 5.76, 4.69, 5.30 and 6.65, while he's posed FIPs of: 5.09, 4.05, 4.95 and 4.76. In fact, even in that 2008 season, he finished with a 4.03 FIP. All indications are that Matsuzaka just doesn't have the talent to make it as a starter for this team. With control issues dampening the rest of his skillset throughout his career, it makes me wonder if a move to the bullpen should be in the works. We've seen with guys like Daniel Bard that shorter stints could lead to better command. Whatever Dice-K's next role with this team is, hopefully it won't be in the rotation.
Finally, that brings us to Franklin Morales, who is far and away the most interesting candidate for this role. Once a starting pitching prospect in the Rockies' farm system, Morales never panned out in that role and has spent the majority of his big league career as a relief pitcher. He was the classic starting pitching prospect turned reliever, with big-time stuff, high strike out numbers and bloated walk totals. He's continued working in relief for the Sox, while clearly winning over Bobby Valentine, who started giving him more and more high leverage situations as the season progressed. When the starting staff was ravaged by injuries and spot starts were needed, Morales was moved back to his old role as a starting pitcher, and surprised everyone with his success.
In his first three starts since 2009, Morales shocked Sox fans with three extremely solid performances. After his games against the Cubs, Braves and Mariners, he had logged 18 innings as a starter. In that time, he allowed just four earned runs, while striking out 24 batters and walking just three. Even after struggling in his first real test against the Yankees (Three and a third innings, six runs, four home runs, two walks and two strikeouts), he still has a 4.22 ERA and 3.91 FIP as a starter. What's most impressive is how he's harnessed his command, which was why he was moved to the bullpen in the first place. In those four starts, he's averaged 11 strikeouts per nine innings, while allowing just 2.1 walks per nine.
The reason Morales is such an interesting candidate is his potential to be a true game-changer. Of the three candidates, he is the only one who possesses any semblance of upside. His stuff is clearly unmatched by both Cook and Matsuzaka, as evidenced by his vastly superior 11-percent swinging strike rate. What's most impressive is that he hasn't had to dial back too hard in his starts. His fastball has still had quite a bit of life, with average velocities ranging from 93.6 MPH to 95.1 MPH in his four starts. When one compares those numbers to his yearly average of 94.2 MPH, and career average of 93.6 MPH, one would notice that there is virtually no change in his velocity between him starting and him coming out of the bullpen.
Still just 26 years old, Morales gives the club their best chance at an impact starting pitcher. Because of this, he should be given the inside track for the final spot in the rotation. If the team is willing to take a chance on someone with plus-stuff, but potentially risky command issues, Morales may have huge returns. With the next few weeks available to set up the team's possible trade deadline scenarios, management needs to put the highest upside players on the field. Cook is a nice pitcher who works perfectly as a sixth or seventh starter to be used in emergency situations, but his talent at this point in his career doesn't warrant a rotation spot on a potential playoff team. Based on his strong starts over the past few weeks, plus-stuff and strong upside, and a dearth of talent in this competition, Franklin Morales should be given the opportunity to become the team's fifth starter until any potential trades are made to bring in an outsider.