Whether you like it or not, the talk surrounding the Red Sox and their apparent lack of an "ace" is not going to go away all season. If the rotation succeeds, the people who have been fine with it will (annoyingly) brag about being right. If the rotation goes down in flames, and the Red Sox go down with it, those who clamored for a top-of-the-rotation arm will (annoyingly) proclaim "I told you so." You can complain about not wanting to hear it all you want, but it’s not going away. Still, even if you don’t think they need an established ace to succeed (they don't), it would be a massive help to have someone pitch like one in 2015. Who in the organization has the best chance of stepping up and becoming that guy?
For reference, I’m going to loosely define an "ace" as a top-20 pitcher who puts up an ERA+ around or above 125.
6. The Prospects
I’m grouping all of the young pitchers who could see time in the majors this season together. They are somewhat interchangeable, and I haven’t seen enough of any of them to have a clear sense of who I think can provide the most this season. Eduardo Rodriguez, Henry Owens, Matt Barnes and Brian Johnson are all exciting arms, but they also have, at most, a negligible amount of major-league experience. It is entirely possible, maybe even likely, that one of them will grab and hold onto a rotation spot at some point in 2015. However, it’s very hard to expect one of them to immediately become an ace-like pitcher this year. One or two may become that kind of guy a few years down the road, but I can’t justify putting them ahead of any of the more established players at this point.
5. Joe Kelly
Sorry Joe, but I think your Cy Young ambitions may be a bit too bullish. It is true that he has flashed some impressive stuff in his career, and I fully expect there to be a few spare outings throughout the year where he looks like a great pitcher. He hasn’t shown the consistency to expect that kind of performance more often than not, though. He has spent his major-league career striking out slightly less than 16 percent of his opponents, while walking just under nine percent. Both of those numbers are worse than the league average. His ground ball rate has been very good, and is a big reason why I can see him being a solid back-end pitcher, even if I think he’s better suited for the bullpen. Still, it’s not enough to give him much of a chance at being a go-to guy.
4. Rick Porcello
I went back and forth on this one a million times, and if you ask me again in an hour I may switch him with the guy in the number three spot. I expect to catch a lot of flack for this, and I want to clarify that this is strictly about Porcello’s ceiling. If I was ranking everyone’s floor, or even my median projection for them, there’s a good chance he’d be in the number one slot. However, I just can’t see him being much better than he was in 2014. Obviously that was a very good season for him, but not quite up to the standards I set in the beginning. The biggest problem for me here was his strikeouts. He’s a guy that relies on balls in play, and that can be a very dangerous game. Boston should sport a solid infield defense, but the development of Xander Bogaerts’ glove at shortstop will play a big role in Porcello’s success. I’d prefer my ace to not have to rely on outside forces like that. He did get his K-rate close to league-average two years ago, but it dropped back to the 15 percent range in 2014. His swinging-strike and ground ball rates also fell. There is a perception that because he is young, improvement is a given, but we’ve seen enough young pitchers stagnate to know that’s not the case. Porcello is the safest pitcher on the staff. There’s a good chance he’ll wind up with the best season, and the Red Sox can succeed if that's the case. I just don’t see him jumping up to becoming a top-20 arm in the game.
>Photo Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
3. Wade Miley
With the amount of focus on Porcello’s addition to the roster, Miley has become something of a forgotten man. The former Diamondback took some big steps forward in 2014, even if the final results didn’t show it. His strikeout rate jumped up to 21 percent with his ground ball rate staying safely above 50 percent. Despite that, he finished with a below-average ERA, mostly due to batted ball issues.
Bradley returning to mechanical roots at the plate
Jackie Bradley has tinkered with his mechanics extensively in the early part of his major league career. This spring, however, the outfielder took the wrappings off a revamped, familiar swing.
Some of that was on him, as he gave up a lot of hard hit balls. Some of it was on Arizona’s defense, though. For all of the talk about Porcello playing in front of a poor defense, the Diamondbacks allowed an equivalent batting average on balls in play last season. It’s not a perfect measure of defense, but if you’re giving Porcello credit for playing in front of a better defense this year, similar measures have to be taken for Miley. In the end, I gave Miley a slight edge because of his jump forward in strikeouts last season (a bigger jump forward than Porcello took in 2013, for what it’s worth), and the fact that he’s averaged 21 more innings than Porcello in their full seasons.
2. Justin Masterson
Again, this is strictly about a player’s ceiling and their relative chances of reaching it. I don’t think Masterson is the second best pitcher on the staff. With that being said, he’s not far removed from being an All-Star and has put up two stellar seasons in his career. He’s combined strikeouts with ground balls in a way that neither Porcello nor Miley has to this point. Of course, he’s coming off a rough 2014, but injuries may have played a role in that. If he can go back to the kind of pitcher he was in 2013, when he was striking out more than a batter per inning with a 60 percent ground ball rate, he’s going to be the best pitcher on the staff. I wouldn’t necessarily bet the house on that being the case, but the potential is clearly there.
1. Clay Buchholz
You had to have seen this coming, right? I’ve been tooting the Buchholz horn all winter, and I’ll continue to do so until I’m on my deathbed. In some circles it’s seemingly become a given that he’ll be terrible, which is silly. Really, it’s silly to have firm expectations one way or the other with him. Still, if anyone can be an elite pitcher on this staff, Buchholz is that guy. Remember two years ago, when he tore through the league for three months and was the early favorite for the Cy Young? He strikes batters out at a respectable rate, limits walks, induces weak contact, and, when he’s at his best, keeps the ball in the yard with the best of them. I should also note that he looked a hell of a lot better last year when he came back from his knee injury last year. It’s impossible to know what to expect from him, but if I’m putting my money on a Red Sox pitcher to garner Cy Young votes this fall, my pennies are being put on Buchholz.