With Jon Lester’s best days clearly behind him and Clay Buchholz’ inability to stay on the mound a serious problem, it’s fair to say the Red Sox do not have a real No. 1 starter.

Given Boston’s highly touted farm system, the inclination is to look down on the farm for the next Red Sox ace. And by most accounts, the Red Sox have three of the top 50 or 60 starting pitching prospects in the game in Matt Barnes, Allen Webster and Anthony Ranaudo.

Matt Barnes is currently the only Red Sox prospect who truly projects as a No. 2 starter. Photo by Kelly O'Connor.

Matt Barnes is currently the only Red Sox prospect who truly projects as a No. 2 starter. Photo by Kelly O’Connor.

But if Sox fans are banking on one of those players becoming Boston’s next ace, they’re likely to be disappointed. That’s the reality we face with the majority of the 2013 season in the books, and with the majority of the players listed above fighting through challenging seasons.

You know the backgrounds of these players by now. Barnes was the team’s first selection in 2011, and was generally considered the team’s second or third-best minor leaguer headed into the year.

He has a 5.22 ERA in 70.2 Double-A innings, posting a great K/9 of 11.21 but a poor BB/9 of 3.57. Advanced statistics suggest he’s been the victim of some bad luck (3.68 FIP), but many scouting reports suggest he’s becoming susceptible to the “big inning.” He’s currently day-to-day with a wrist injury sustained on a comebacker in early July, but has the highest upside of any Red Sox MiLB pitcher.

Webster was one of the pieces that came back in the megastealdeal the Sox made with the Dodgers last season, and the one most poised to make an impact for the Red Sox in 2013.
In 58 Triple-A innings, he’s been pretty good, posting a 3.41 ERA, 10.24 K/9 and 3.57 BB/9. The 4.13 FIP suggests he’s been a bit unlucky, but that’s not a stat that means a lot in such a small sample at the MiLB level.

In 26.1 MLB innings this year, Webster’s been a train wreck. He has a 9.57 ERA, has walked 14 batters and has already given up 7 homeruns. He’s demonstrated an inability to keep his fastball down in the zone, and an inability to adjust when hitters are sitting dead red. Webster has since been temporarily passed on the Sox’ depth chart by Brandon Workman.

Finally, we have Ranaudo: a man many prospect enthusiasts – myself included – left for dead at the beginning of the season, but whose revived his career in Double-A. The 23-year-old LSU product has a 2.67 ERA in 91.0 innings in Portland, striking out more than a batter per inning with a tolerable BB/9 rate of 3.10. He’s in line for a promotion soon.

As I wrote in my piece last week, though, Ranaudo didn’t blow me away when I saw him in person. I am not a qualified scout and I only saw one start, but none of Ranaudo’s pitches stood out as truly exceptional – although the curve was very good – and there was no deception in his delivery. I see more of a mid-rotation starter than a potential No. 2: great considering where Ranaudo began the year, but disappointing given the hype he’s received since.

And that point underscores a hard truth about all three of these pitching prospects: they don’t project as elite MLB starters.

Stating that they don’t project as aces is hardly an insult. The only minor leaguers I can confidently project as true No. 1s are Archie Bradley and Taijuan Walker, with Dylan Bundy and Lucas Giolito worthy of mention as well once they recover from their various injuries.
But for me, Barnes, Webster and Ranaudo don’t project as No. 2 starters either. Barnes and Webster are both fighting through command issues – hardly a death sentence for right-handed power pitchers – but neither possesses a third plus pitch. Ranaudo is doing a better job directing the ball, but I’m not sure any pitch other than his curve grades out at 60.

This isn’t to suggest that the Sox’ trio of righties doesn’t have value. Even league-average starters who are under team control for six years are incredibly valuable to any organization, freeing up the team to allocate resources in other places. And while I don’t think they’re potential forces, calling Barnes and Webster league-average could easily be selling them a bit short.

Given the attrition rate we see with pitching prospects, having three all come up within the same 12-to-15 months also gives the Sox some insurance. If Webster does have to move to the bullpen, Barnes and Ranaudo could perhaps still slot in a 3 and 4 in the rotation for the next several years. If Barnes takes longer to develop than originally thought, that’s all the more reason to give Webster longer to sort his issues out.

Workman and Rubby De La Rosa factor in to the picture here as well, although I think the former has a No. 4 ceiling and the later is our closer of the future.

While this might seem discouraging to Red Sox fans, I’d argue that much of what I just wrote is actually a positive. That we can name five pitchers who are all potentially capable of pitching in a big league rotation soon is a terrific sign for an organization that, as recently as a few seasons ago, was bereft of quality MiLB starting options. Now we can fill an entire projected rotation.

The only problem is, baring a big step forward from Barnes, such a rotation wouldn’t include a true top of the rotation force. As Sox fans bristle at the thought of giving up good prospects for a player like Cliff Lee or other aces, that’s probably good to keep in mind.