If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times – if the 2013 Boston Red Sox are going to go anywhere, they’re going to have to get better production out of their starting rotation than they’ve had the past few seasons. While there’s been little question as to the talent of the last couple of rotations, the results simply haven’t been there for a variety of reasons – ranging from injuries, ego problems, under performance and in some cases – flat out awful luck.
Regardless, this year’s version of the staff will have to step up on the backs of some interesting additions and re-introductions. There are some new faces and new twists on some older ones, but both could translate into success.
The 2013 rotation is a deeper group than previous iterations we’ve seen. In addition to the return of John Lackey, the Red Sox will finally have the luxury of dipping into their farm system more than they’ve been able to in the past and will have some bullpen pitchers who can stretch out and start for limited periods of time. They have a bona fide innings eater in the middle of the rotation and for the first time in what seems like forever – a young starting pitcher with apparent upside in the rotation.
All those things should certainly go in the rotation’s favor, but at the end of the day, they’re only going to be as good as a unit as the two guys at the front end. If the Red Sox can’t find success at the top of the rotation, it’s going to be a long, middling year. If they do – they could jump-start this team into a potential playoff run, perhaps even something more.
The success of the front end begins with Jon Lester, who depending on who you talk to is either in statistical decline or mired in a mechanical mess that’s hindered his performance the past three seasons. Truth be told, there’s a strong case for both.
On the statistical side, there’s been a three-year decline in his FIP, xFIP and tERA. His SIERA has dropped four consecutive seasons. His velocity dip isn’t alarming, but it’s sagging, to the tune of a full MPH since 2009. His contact% is up, his Z-contact % is up and his swstr% is moving in the wrong direction. This is becoming something that isn’t just a blip on the radar, either. This is 3 seasons of gradual decline. The sample is sufficient.
Mechanical issues have been cited by many publicly, including new Manager John Farrell, who recently discussed the issues with hanging his Cutter, his plant foot and even eluded to arm slot issues. Could a tweak in his delivery bring back the guy who many were projecting to be a perpetual Cy Young Award contender? Absolutely. IN addition, it should be noted that Farrell knows Lester about as well as anyone. And anyone who knows anything about pitching knows the importance of comfort and surroundings. Farrell’s presence alone could help in both areas.
It could also be that there isn’t much of a problem at all, and just a case of bad luck. Lester’s 2012 home and road splits were pretty enormous (3.67 FIP on the road vs. 4.52 at home) posting a ridiculous .341 BABIP in Fenway Park as opposed to a .276 mark everywhere else. His BB/9 was a full BB lower on the road and the difference in his WHIP is jarring (1.59 v 1.16). Maybe it’s a mental thing at home or; maybe, just maybe – it’s a luck thing.
Regardless of what’s causing Lester’s woes, they need to get it fixed. Without Lester producing at the top of the rotation, it could turn the season into an uphill climb right out of the gate. He doesn’t need to be Justin Verlander, but he does need to be significantly better that what we’ve seen the past few seasons.
The questions surrounding Clay Buchholz have never been about his ability. It’s his health that’s the concern. After a string on injury-riddled seasons, fans were hopeful of a bounce back last year, but things didn’t exactly go that way. Buchholz got hammered in the early part of the year only to turn on the afterburners in June before receding back into his cocoon again in September.
So who is this guy? I don’t know. What I do know is that with a healthy offseason to prepare as opposed to rehabbing, he might be a sleeper to bounce back. What’s also interesting was a piece written on Fangraphs back in December by Colin Zarzycki that noted the use – and effectiveness – of a split finger fastball that Buchholz developed while trying to regain a feel for his changeup. It’ll be interesting to see if he reinvents himself a little bit next year with a new, improved arsenal.
The signing of Ryan Dempster, while unspectacular, does give the Red Sox something they haven’t had in a long time: a projectable, durable, capable innings eater at an affordable price. While Dempster’s on the wrong side of 35, he’s also got significantly less wear and tear than other pitchers of his profile thanks to his more limited workload as a reliever earlier in his career. He’s posted a FIP below 3.99 five seasons in a row in addition to throwing for 200 IP in four of those seasons. With very few injuries to deal with, what you see with Dempster is what you get. A little dose of certainty in this rotation is certainly a refreshing thing and should go a long way to maintaining its stability as the season progresses.
The bottom of the rotation should be pretty solid. It’s entirely reasonable to assume that Felix Doubront can improve on last year’s performance, where he was carrying a FIP below 4.00 until he hit his career high in IP and things began to fall apart. Even if there’s a slight regression from his mid-season form due to batters getting another look at him, he should be plenty good enough to fit comfortably into the fourth slot in the rotation.
John Lackey will be one of the more interesting pitchers to watch this season and all things considered, I find myself in the unfamiliar position of being pretty optimistic about his performance. For the first time in about five years, Lackey will be coming into the season with a relatively clean bill of health, no off the field distractions and free from the weight of expectations.
While there are legitimate questions concerning his comeback from Tommy John surgery, I’m not as wary as others are about his ability to perform again. While Lackey IS a control pitcher and control is one of the last things that comes back for a pitcher following the TJ procedure, we also need to realize that Lackey’s been throwing since September. His arm SHOULD be in pretty good throwing shape. Minus the noise in the background, there’s little reason to think he can’t be a solid fifth starter. I don’t think it’s a stretch at all that he could potentially break a FIP lower than 4.00, either. Yes, I just said that.
Should the bottom fall out, the Red Sox should have enough internal options to bridge a gap towards finding an alternative solution. Alfredo Aceves, Franklin Morales and Rubby De La Rosa could all find themselves starting at various points this year and each could be productive in short streaks. There’s also no telling what we could see from AA studs Alan Webster and Matt Barnes. While it’d appear unlikely on the surface, there’s a possibility they could be turned to for the odd start at some point this season.
While there’s certainly a substantial gaming element to projecting this rotation, one thing IS for certain – and that’s that the Red Sox have significantly more depth than they’ve had in the past. Barring another explosion of injuries, they should be able to patch gaps pretty effectively as the season goes on.
With the upgrades to the bullpen and catching positions (defensively), the Red Sox staff has been put in a position where they’ll have the comfort to work knowing that the running game will be kept more under control and the peace of mind that goes with having a reliable bullpen to lean on when you need to get out of a jam. From the organization’s standpoint, they’ll know that they’ve done what they can to put this staff in the best possible position to succeed, so if we see continued regression from guys like Buchholz and Lester, it’ll be significantly easier to move on. When you patch the holes, you remove the excuses.
At the end of the day, as goes this rotation will likely go the 2013 Red Sox. More specifically, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are going to have to be good in order for this team to contend. They don’t have to be sensational – but they have to be dependable, which in and of itself is a legitimate question mark. The back end of the rotation could turn into a strong point, but they’ll need the boost from the top to take this team out of the unknown and into the ‘contender’ column.