The promise of this season, coming in, was pitching and defense. Instead, to this point we’ve seen a team riddled with injuries and dependent more on their offense — despite a recent lull, the team is still second only to the Yankees in all of baseball with 521 runs scored — than their bottom-third defense (tenth in the AL at 444 runs scored). Much of that blame has to be placed on the injuries to Beckett, Buchholz, Wakefield, and Matsuzaka; the mediocre performance from Lackey; and the the at-times awful bullpen contribution.
However, things appear to be looking up for the pitching staff: Beckett and Buchholz have both recently returned to action with strong outings, while Matsuzaka and Lackey seem to be hitting their strides. Shoring up the starting rotation would be a tremendous improvement for this team, but would it be enough?
With exactly 100 games in the bag so far, the Red Sox sit at 56-44, eight games back of the division leading Yankees and five games behind the current Wild Card leaders the Tampa Bay Rays. With those teams each hitting on all cylinders of late (especially Tampa’s stellar starting staff), the Red Sox have a big hill to climb. While the front office searches for bullpen help — and don’t listen to the Adrian Gonzalez boosters, offense is far less a problem than the sixth through ninth innings — a rotation full of aces suddenly looks like the best deadline acquisition possible.
Jon Lester has been the rock of the rotation this year. He has not missed a start, is very much in the conversation with David Price and Cliff Lee for the AL Cy Young Award this season. Buchholz has been nearly as good in more limited time, posting a 2.71 ERA in 17 starts. After those two, however, things have been a bit more dicey; John Lackey has been essentially league average to this point, and behind him we’ve seen spells of sub-par work from Tim Wakefield (5.58 ERA in 108 IP), Daisuke Matsuzaka (4.09 ERA in 83 IP), and Beckett himself, whose ERA was in the sevens before his injury and who has just recently returned.
Going forward, if the Sox can stabilize that rotation — Lester, Beckett, Buchholz, Lackey, Matsuzaka still sounds pretty unbeatable — they’ll be adding tremendous value to a weak part of the game to this point. In addition, having that front four going (hopefully) deeper into games will help Francona expose his weak bullpen less, and rely on the bridges to Bard and Papelbon less. That alone might improve the pen overall. Another quality arm (or two) in the pen would be a fantastic addition, but if it doesn’t happen there’s still a chance of pen improvement as a trickle-down effect from a starting staff that is going deeper into games and suppressing opposing run production more.
The key, then, rests with Josh Beckett, John Lackey, and Daisuke Matsuzaka. If recent starts are any indication of future performance, this team is not out of it yet. If Beckett doesn’t return to form and Lackey and Matsuzaka pitch the last 62 games like they did the first 62… then winter will include October this year.