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Forget the ace, let's figure out the rest of the Red Sox rotation

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The Red Sox are likely going to add a top arm to their rotation for 2016. But with so many arms already on the team, who's going to fill the other four slots, and who's going to be left out?

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There's a ton of attention being paid to the front of the Red Sox rotation. Everyone, after all, wants to know: who will be the ace? Will it be one of the major free agents? Jordan ZimmermannZack Greinke? Will the Red Sox trade for a Sonny Gray? Or will everything go wrong leading Dave Dombrowski to pretend he's totally cool putting his full faith in Clay Buchholz?

Everyone wants to know, and the only people with even a well-informed opinion probably work in Fenway's front office. Hell, we can only guess if it's going to be one top pitcher brought in or two. Not two aces unless Dombrowski goes really nuts, but a clear #1 and a #1B/#2  type? It's possible.

But for all the fascination with the top of the rotation, the middle- and back-end are just as uncertain. Yes, the Red Sox certainly have the names to fill the spots, but which ones they will actually rely on are a mystery. After all, Dave Dombrowski is new. We know Ben Cherington was a fan of Wade Miley's boring-but-reliable nature. We know he liked Rick Porcello enough to give him that big extension. And we know he oversaw the drafting of Brian Johnson and Henry Owens (though he was only the GM for the former), and held onto both throughout the past few years.

We don't really know what Dave Dombrowski thinks about these guys. The best information we have is that he exercised Clay Buchholz' option, and spent plenty of time with Rick Porcello in Detroit. What's worse, those are probably the two most useless pieces of information we could have. Porcello is virtually unmovable, but certainly not beyond hope (particularly given the way he ended his season), and thus almost guaranteed a spot in the rotation. Clay Buchholz' option year, on the other hand, is exceedingly reasonable, meaning Dombrowski would be just as likely to exercise it to trade Buchholz as to slot him into one of the first couple slots in the rotation. Even Eduardo Rodriguez might be seen as a sell-high option through the right lens.

So that leaves us with the following picture (in no particular order):

  1. Rick Porcello
  2. ??? (Likely a front-line accquisition)
  3. ???
  4. ???
  5. ???

Take your best guess.

Actually, let's all work on that. Currently, the options available for those spots are (again, no order):

  1. Wade Miley
  2. Eduardo Rodriguez
  3. Clay Buchholz
  4. Henry Owens
  5. Brian Johnson
  6. Joe Kelly
  7. [Acquisition]

I think we have to assume the Red Sox go out and get someone. It might not be one of the Price/Greinke/Cueto/Zimmermann tetrarchy that rules the free agent class. It might not even be one of the real studs who might end up on the trade market like Sonny Gray (and no, Beane's statements don't mean he's actually guaranteed to be out of the picture). But the Red Sox will not walk away completely empty-handed. Few would be fully satisfied with a Tyson Ross or Carlos Carrasco type, but the Red Sox will get someone, so let's just add that someone to the mix with Rick Porcello.

Except sticking that transaction in a vacuum doesn't really work. After all, if that acquisition is a free agent, then we've got those same six names left for three spots. if that acquisition came via a trade, however, is Henry Owens still on the team? Is Eduardo Rodriguez? Even Clay Buchholz might be involved in the deal.

That first big acquisition really is the lynch pin in all this, with the rest of the dominoes falling from there. So how do we deal with that before the big name comes in? By figuring out what results are just...unacceptable. Consider, for instance, a back-four of Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, Brian Johnson, and Joe Kelly. Not even Clayton Kershaw at the top could make that an acceptable rotation.

To that end, let's group our six names into a few categories

Anywhere but #1

This is clear Rodriguez and Buchholz territory. Neither one can be relied on as the ace. Rodriguez is too young, and while he was very good in 2015, was not ace-like. Maybe a few years down the line, once the specter of the sophomore slump is behind him and Rodriguez is in his prime, but at the moment he's not an acceptable #1 in a traditionally-built rotation. Buchholz, on the other hand, has often pitched like a #1, but has the health issues that leave his ability to be that guy in any given game--hell, any given season--in serious question.

Back-end or bust

Wade Miley and Henry Owens fall in here. Either one is fine as a #5 type. Henry Owens probably represents the bottom limit of the sort of player you'd want to rely on, though, as his 2015 campaign was not as immaculate as 2014, including a mixed bag debut in the majors. It was good enough to make him an option, but the point is that you want to limit yourself to one Henry Owens. Not two.

Do Not Touch

Sorry, Joe Kelly and Brian Johnson, but you just can't be in the cards for this one.

The problem for both of these pitchers is not one of talent, but risk. Well, it may be both, but risk is the bigger part. Brian Johnson might well be ready to play the part of the serviceable back-end guy in 2015, but there's too much smoke surrounding that elbow to really be all-in on him. And for Joe Kelly, as high as the upside is on him, even after the way he closed out his season it's hard to imagine he's a favorite to maintain his late-season success in 2016 rather than repeat what was, overall, an unacceptable season.

There's room for one or two question marks in most rotations. But the Red Sox have certainly already used those up. Rick Porcello is nearly a guarantee to be taking a slot, as discussed earlier, and Clay Buchholz is very likely to be in the mix as well. Consider a rotation featuring Porcello, Buchholz, and Kelly three-through-five. There's just too much risk that none of those three arms will be viable by June, much less just two of them.

Where does that leave us, then? My best guess is:

  1. Ace acquisition
  2. Clay Buchholz
  3. Eduardo Rodriguez
  4. Rick Porcello
  5. Wade Miley

Joe Kelly heads to the bullpen, but likely winds up in something of a swingman role and sees at least a couple starts on the year as the Red Sox refuse to give up on that particular dream (just being realistic on that one). Brian Johnson or Henry Owens provide depth in the minors, whichever one isn't traded for help in the rotation (likely Owens would be the one dealt in that situation) or bullpen (likely Johnson). In the event that both are dealt, though, Kelly might well find himself in Triple-A as the designated #6 starter, as he still has two options left and is well short of the five years service time before his consent is needed.

There could still be that big curveball coming from Dombrowski and co. Maybe they do decide to pick up two starting pitchers. Maybe they end up trading away Clay Buchholz. But as it stands, even with an ace in the mix, the Sox' quantity is located towards the very bottom rungs of the rotation. They have a glut of guys hanging around the fringe either as unproven prospects on the rise or veterans who have struggled to repeat their past successes, and only just enough to fill out the middle. With that in mind, the Red Sox should be holding onto the likes of Buchholz and Rodriguez for dear life, and trying their best to find some way to have the likes of Kelly, Johnson, Owens, and Miley contribute to the 2016 cause, whether it be as trade chips, in the bullpen, or as the #5/#6. There's diminishing returns on backups, after all, and having Johnson waste away as the #8 man will only do the Red Sox any good if their rotation is already going horribly, horribly wrong.