Red Sox Preview: Starting Rotation

The snow may fall (and fall) in Boston, but the sun shines warmly in Ft. Myers, Florida.

Eighteen days. After all the disappointment of the 2010 season, after all the excitement that followed it in the off-season, the wait is almost over: pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training in just 18 days. But what can Red Sox fans expect from these pitchers, especially the starting rotation? In a winter of high-profile moves for the Red Sox, the starting rotation remains exactly the same as it was a year ago. Between the talent-level and the contracts of the starting five, there was simply no place to add another pitcher. The Red Sox, for better or for worse, are stuck with what they’ve got, at least until someone gets hurt or traded. So let’s take a look at the Red Sox rotation, including last year’s record and this year’s projected starting order:

1) Jon Lester (19-9, 3.25 ERA, 208.0 IP, 225 K, 83 BB): Lester’s hits-per-inning have dropped each year of his career, all the way to just .8 hits per inning in 2010. He’s pitched two complete games every year since 2008. In 2010, he struck out 225 batters for the second straight year. And both his earned run and home run totals dropped from 2009 to 2010. Lester has always had the power to be the ace of the rotation, but in the last two seasons (especially last year) he matched it with the necessary focus. A dominant pitcher has been born from the combination. Lester brings both power and knowledge to the mound and, in true Faustian fashion, you need both to be a true ace. The only red flag is his propensity for walks, which went up from 64 to 83 in the last two seasons. Lester already has the power and the concentration, now he just needs to match it with control. If he does that, expect 2011 to be Lester’s best season yet, one in which he once again finishes in the top five for Cy Young voting. Maybe even at the top.

2) Clay Buchholz (17-7, 2.33 ERA, 173.2 IP, 120 K, 67 BB): Every year, Buchholz has faced a new developmental challenge. In 2007, it was to find a way to meaningfully contribute to a championship-caliber team late in the season. He succeeded, and moved on to his next challenge: become a pitcher capable of contributing over an entire season. Due to injury, inexperience and pressure, he did not meet that challenge in 2008, then finished 2009 with a record that, while not bad, did not make anyone see success in his future. But in 2010, Buchholz put it all together, posting the best ERA of any Red Sox starter and a dominant record to match. He finished the season sixth in Cy Young voting. Having done it once, now he needs to show that he can do it again and again. A repeat performance from last season will cement in fans’ minds that he is for real, that last season was not a flash in the pan. Buchholz’s career is still building, so he will likely face several more challenges before he is crowned as a truly elite pitcher. Last year he proved he at least has the potential for major-league pitching glory. Now he must turn his potential into reality.

3) Josh Beckett (6-6, 5.78 ERA, 127.2 IP, 116 K, 45 BB): Even-numbered years have always marred Beckett’s time in Boston, but 2010 was especially bad. Injuries kept him to his lowest total innings, fewest starts, fewest wins and fewest strikeouts since 2002, but that didn’t stop him from giving up the third-most home runs of his career (20). His ERA was the highest of his career. Beckett lost his ace status last season, and he probably won’t say anything to the contrary before the season begins. But we know that Beckett is supremely self-confident, perhaps cocky even, and he will not take losing that title lightly. And that’s good news for the Red Sox, because they will need a healthy and hungry Beckett for the playoffs, when he takes his game to another level. Beckett wants to prove he’s worth the $17 million the Red Sox are paying him this season, and that should mean another bounce-back year for the 30-year-old. The only question is whether or not his myriad injuries will keep him on the disabled list again. Recurrent injuries like Beckett’s are impossible to predict. There’s no telling when a certain combination of stress, age and bad mechanics will cause one to flare up. Last season, injuries derailed him after just eight starts. His next start came 66 days later, and by then it was too late for him to regain a pitching rhythm. If it happens again this year, hopefully it comes later in the season, so Beckett will lose starts but not his timing.

4) John Lackey (14-11, 4.40 ERA, 215.0 IP, 156 K, 72 BB): Lackey didn’t deserve the $18.7 million he got last season. He was the best of a weak free agent list of pitchers, and the Red Sox needed an off-season deal to build interest in the team after getting swept by the Angels in the 2009 ALDS. Now the Red Sox are stuck with a pitcher whose ERA has gone up every year since 2007. Lackey’s primary strength is his durability. He’s started 32+ games six times in his career and pitched over 200 innings five times. For a #4 or #5 pitcher, this is great, because it means a fresher bullpen for the #1-3 starters, where low-scoring pitching duels are more likely. Lackey is also a far better pitcher at home than on the road, going 11-5 at Fenway Park. If the Red Sox have to start a playoff series on the road, his position as a #4 starter means he would likely make his start at home, making this slot even more ideal for him. Lackey brings less to the table than Lester, Buchholz or Beckett, but his pitching experience and predictability keep him from the bottom of the rotation.

5) Daisuke Matsuzaka (9-6, 4.69 ERA, 153.2 IP, 133 SO, 74 BB): Was 2010 a good year or a bad year for Matsuzaka? Who knows. In four years, Matsuzaka has pitched 204.2, 167.2, 59.1 and 153.2 innings pitched. Such fluctuation makes it hard to compare one season to another. And that’s what is so frustrating about Matsuzaka: you never know what you’ll get. Between his pitching inconsistency and his reserved demeanor, it’s impossible to tell whether or not Matsuzaka is ever bothered by his performance or learns from his mistakes. He doesn’t appear to, since he keeps making them… until suddenly he doesn’t…. until suddenly he starts again. Matsuzaka is not an entertaining pitcher to watch, and since sports is still an entertainment business at its core, this makes him one of the biggest busts in recent Red Sox history. His high price-tag only makes it worse. There’s no way to know what to expect this season, but putting him at the bottom of the rotation hopefully minimizes the damage he does to the team. Matsuzaka has won 15+ games twice in four years. If he can do it this season, he will be one of the most productive #5 pitchers in the league.

Lastly, keep an eye out for Tim Wakefield. The elder statesman of the bullpen, Wakefield will probably see most of his action as a long-reliever. But given Beckett’s and Matsuzaka’s injury issues, he’ll probably make a spot-start or two before his final season is over. Will he win 14 games and retire as the winningest pitcher in Red Sox history? Probably not. He hasn’t won that many games since winning 17 in 2007, and that was when he a) started all of his games, and b) had a catcher who could catch the knuckleball. Neither will be the case this year. Wakefield doesn’t want his final season to be as unsuccessful as 2010 (4-10, 5.32 ERA, 140.1 IP, 84 K, 36 BB), but it’s unclear whether he can do anything about it. Wakefield seemed to entirely lose his feel for the knuckleball after the All-Star Break, losing 13 of his final 14 decisions. Wakefield has always been streaky, but he’s never had as prolonged a losing streak as he did in the second half of the 2010 season. Will Wakefield return to form next season, winning decisions and putting together the long scoreless streaks of yesteryear? Or will his final season be marked by ineffectiveness as it was in 2010? No one will know until April.

The Red Sox rotation went 65-39 last season, which means a little over a third of their games were decided by their inconsistent-at-best bullpen. This resulted in an 89-73 record, their fewest wins since 2006. Experience should generate a few more wins for the starters, and the bullpen has been much improved. This should all translate to another season in which the Red Sox win over 95 games.

It all starts in 18 days.

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