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For Red Sox, How Many Starters Is Enough?

The starting rotation provides the biggest question mark for the 2013 Red Sox. But just how many decent pitchers does the team need to bounce back from the mess that was 2012?

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

If you're anything like me, you can't help but be worried about John Lackey. It doesn't matter that he's only pitched three innings. It doesn't matter how many times we repeat the mantra that spring training performances don't mean much. It doesn't matter that this is his first time pitching in over a year after having Tommy John surgery. It doesn't matter that he looks, physically, like a new man.

All that matters is that his name is John Lackey, and he has surrendered four runs in those three innings. Such is the stigma attached to his name that, even as someone who was cautiously optimistic about him headed into his Grapefruit League debut, I now find myself dreading his first start come the regular season. It may be reasonable to have no faith in John Lackey, but it's a lot less reasonable to get to that point through two spring training games.

Still, I am where I am, and that has me looking for reassurance. I look for it in Franklin Morales and Rubby De La Rosa, though the latter won't be starting in Boston for a while anyways. I look for it in Felix Doubront, making his debut today. I look for it because, after last year (and the end of 2011), another season without starting pitching seems entirely intolerable.

Unfortunately, though, the roster is what it is, and given the problems Doubront and Morales faced last year (being largely related to durability), nothing they do this spring is going to be hugely convincing. In the end, that means the best possible scenario involves just three starters to feel good about in Buchholz, Lester, and Dempster (the last two having looked quite good so far, thankfully). My question: is that enough?

Of course, we all know last year was awful and a rotation like that is completely unacceptable. How bad was it, though? Just as a refresher, the Red Sox had seven players make 10-or-more starts. Not a one came in with an ERA under 4.50. Only three even came in under 5.00. That's zero above-average pitchers, with 21 starts going to the truly putrid Daisuke Matsuzaka and Daniel Bard. You know it's bad when the bottom tier does not even include Aaron Cook.

2011 is a year remembered for bad starting pitching in the last month of the season and the disaster that ultimately came of it. Of course, it was not that way all year long, of course, with Josh Beckett and Jon Lester being exceptional for almost the entire season. Still, even if you combine Clay Buchholz and Erik Bedard into one full starter, the Sox were always scrambling after the third spot. Andrew Miller, Tim Wakefield, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Alfredo Aceves, and Kyle Weiland combined for 51 truly unfortunate starts.

2010 was a slightly less polarized version of 2011. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz were excellent up top, John Lackey was a mediocre (but not awful) number three, and Daisuke, Beckett, and Wakefield brought little in the way of quality to the fourth and fifth spot.

Even in 2009, the last time the Red Sox made it to the playoffs, there was little depth to the rotation. All year long the Sox were looking for a number three to go behind Lester and odd-year Beckett. They eventually found that answer in a revitalized Clay Buchholz, but he only made 16 decent starts. Tim Wakefield was at least average in the fourth spot, but he only provided 21 starts. That left 55 starts to be filled by Daisuke, Brad Penny, John Smolyz, Paul Byrd, Junichi Tazawa, and Michael Bowden. All with an ERA of 5.00 or higher.

The last really impressive Red Sox rotation came all the way back in 2008, but from 2009 to 2011 the Sox won 274 games with rotations that were, at best, three-deep. This bodes well for the 2013 team. The caveat, of course, is that, those Red Sox teams had other things going for them, and other problems. And only one of them made the playoffs. But the lineup is in decent shape heading into 2013, and the bullpen is looking to be a real plus in it's own right. And while missing the playoffs wouldn't be a cause for celebration, I don't think anyone would complain about "just" 90 wins this year.

No, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Ryan Dempster are not sure things. But on some level, if they don't work out, this team isn't going anywhere to begin with. We knew coming into this season that any hope for playoff contention rested on hitting on some wild cards. Some wild cards, though, are more likely to pay off than others. The good news is that, at least in the rotation, we don't need a perfect draw to see results. There is still the possibility that Lester, Buchholz, and Dempster will form a strong front-three while the likes of Lackey, Doubront, Morales, De La Rosa, or even Steven Wright manage to provide two decent starters between them. But that would just be so much gravy.