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It’s okay to be uncertain

The Red Sox can’t be completely certain in the back of their rotation, but that’s not actually a problem.

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Buster Olney produced one of the sillier statements (Insider only) of the offseason this past weekend, suggesting that, hot on the heels of trading Clay Buchholz, the Red Sox were doomed to dip into the (non-existant) starting pitching market in search of, well, a Buchholz-like replacement. He went so far as to say it “seems inevitable”.

The thinking, basically, is that with Eduardo Rodriguez tweaking his knee in Venezuela, Steven Wright coming off a second-half of injury and ineffectiveness, and Drew Pomeranz’ stamina in doubt, the Red Sox are lacking certainty in their rotation. This is not incorrect, to be fair. Pomeranz still hasn’t quite proven he can go a full season at full strength. Steven Wright may not be able to cope with the heat and humidity of the dog days of summer. Eduardo Rodriguez’ knee might explode into a million pieces. All these statements are individually correct and fair.

The misconception is that the Red Sox need to be completely certain of five starters. Or even four. And really, this is the sort of thinking that seems to pop up a bit too often among baseball fans and analysts, particularly when looking at high-profile teams like the Red Sox.

The Red Sox cannot be certain they won’t at some point end up dipping into Triple-A “depth” like Henry Owens and Brian Johnson in 2017. But this is true of most teams—yes, even the contenders and favorites—and the Red Sox are already unusually well-protected against it with a legitimate sixth starter set to begin the year in the bullpen, assuming they aren’t hiding a freshly-amputated Eduardo Rodriguez.

There seems to be an expectation of perfection, or at least something approaching it when it comes to certain teams. But that’s just not terribly realistic. A season with even one team free of weak links is the exception, not the rule. With nine starters in the lineup, five on the mound, and three or four high-leverage bullpen spots, it’s damn hard to avoid going into the season accepting a couple big roles will be filled with mediocre answers and that a couple others could swing either way. If the goal is to eliminate those spots entirely, it’s one rarely achieved, with the 2017 Red Sox having come as close as most do.

Now, it’s possible that there’s more to this than just speculation and unrealistic expectations. Perhaps this is Olney’s way of hinting at something he’s heard about off-the-record. Maybe he knows something we don’t about Eduardo Rodriguez’ knee. Certainly concerns over just that possibility are what drove some to criticize the early timing of the Buchholz deal.

If that’s not the case, though, the Red Sox pursuing a Buchholz replacement would seem far from “inevitable” indeed. The fourth and fifth starters don’t need to be aces. They don’t even need to be particularly good. And while it’s true that the Red Sox have been hurt in the past at times by a lack of even replacement-level pitching, it’s also true that those years haven’t come particularly close to having the top three the Red Sox are looking at now.

Last year, the Red Sox survived months relying on Rick Porcello and Steven Wright to carry the rotation while everyone else who could throw a baseball was doing their best Allen Webster impression. Things got so bad that having Sean O’Sullivan reliably throwing five innings of four-run ball was, for a brief period of time, actually a relief. They still won 93 games. No team is perfect, and at some point in 2017 the rotation might have a week or even a month bad enough to inspire folks to crack wise about the absence of Clay Buchholz. But that’s just the cost of doing business in a game where even the best teams tend to lose 60+ times a year, not a sign of a broken or even deficient rotation in need of help.