Along with David Ortiz's contract situation, a possible extension for Jon Lester has been the hot topic of the early parts of spring training. I haven't been the biggest proponent of anything too extreme for the lefty, preferring to wait a bit into the season to see if he can consistently come close to the guy we saw last fall in the playoff run. That doesn't mean I don't like him as a pitcher, though, as he's proven he can be competent front-end pitcher, the next best thing to a "true ace," a la Clayton Kershaw or Felix Hernandez. That the Red Sox lack of an elite arm like that is actually one of the reasons keeping Lester would make a lot of sense. It's not that he'll ever be one of those guys; that's not happening. It's that he and Clay Buchholz form a perfect pair for a one-two punch atop a rotation with no real ace.
One of the biggest criticisms from Red Sox fans over the past few years has been the clear lack of an elite ace on top of the rotation, possibly showing signs of being spoiled throughout the Pedro Martinez years. This conversation comes up seemingly every trade deadline, when pleas for deals returning players like Hernandez or Cliff Lee have become an annual tradition. Hopefully that will end this year, as the 2013 season should have proven it's possible to run through the season and the playoffs without one of the game's top-10 pitchers. (Though, to be fair, Lester pitched like an elite guy during the postseason.) What the Red Sox do have, though, is depth in the back of their rotation, and two guys at the top who each possess a key element of what being an ace is. There's Lester, who is basically a guarantee for 32 starts and 200 innings of solid-to-good work. Then, there's Buchholz, who has trouble staying healthy, but pitches as well as just about any pitcher in the game when he is on the mound. Put those two in front of the type of solid mid-to-back-end starters filling out the roster, and that's a great rotation.
In the days of advanced stats, innings pitched may be one of the more underrated numbers for a pitcher's stat line at the end of the season. While Lester isn't exactly a slouch in other areas, it's this category in which he truly shines. Since 2008, he has throw fewer than 200 innings just once, and he finished at 191-1/3 frames for that season. He's the very definition of a reliable workhorse, starting at least 31 games every season since becoming a full-time major-leaguer in 2008, and making 33 starts in three of those seasons. His ability on the mound has been inconsistent over the years, but it's probably safe to say he's somewhere a little above-average given his 109 ERA+ last season, and 104 mark for the past three seasons. That talent, combined with his durability, is a perfect complement for Buchholz atop the rotation.
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With the constant injury issues Buchholz has suffered through over his career, and again last year, it's easy to forget how good he is when he is healthy and on. Take last season, for example, when he was the easy Cy Young favorite through his first 12 starts, before hitting the disabled list. At that point, he had thrown 84-1/3 innings (about seven innings per start), putting up a ridiculous 1.71 ERA bolstered by an 81/29 K/BB ratio and an opponents' OPS of .535. He finished 2013 with a ridiculous 234 ERA+ in 108-1/3 innings, and even added more strikeouts to his arsenal, striking out eight batters per nine innings for the first time since 2008. For his career, he has an ERA+ of 121, and that mark is 119 over the last three years, despite an inconsistent 2012 that ended with an ERA+ of 92. However, even with all that talent, he just doesn't have the durability. He's yet to amass 30 starts or 200 innings in a season, and at age 29, it's probably unfair to expect him to do so at this point. This is why it's nice to have him paired with another number 2 who can be relied upon to start every five days. When Buchholz is out there, though, he's proven he has the ability to be one of the best in the game.
The way these two pitchers atop Boston's rotation complement each other is especially encouraging when you look at the pitchers coming up through the system. While there is a plethora of talent on the way, it is coming mostly in the way of number three, four and five starters. The only realistic hope for a true ace on the farm right now is Trey Ball, who has yet to pitch in a full season of professional baseball. Unless the Red Sox find a way to trade for one of the elite pitchers in the game - and those guys aren't exactly readily available - they will be fielding a rotation similar to what they have now for the foreseeable future. A complementary pair like Buchholz and Lester is what makes this rotation work.
Now, I'm still not ready to go crazy with a Lester extension, since I'm still not sure what Jon Lester will be taking the mound in 2014. However, looking at how these two polar opposites form an ideal one-two punch for a team lacking an elite pitcher, it is starting to make more sense to keep Lester around. The Red Sox aren't going to be hurting for starting pitching depth for the next few years, but they still need something in front of the solid mid-rotation guys coming up. Having a workhorse like Lester and an ultra-talented Buchholz on top of the rotation could be the perfect combination.