Breaking Down Strengths and Weaknesses of the Red Sox Rotation

Bryan ShafferFeatured ColumnistFebruary 7, 2013

The Red Sox will need Jon Lester to step up if their rotation is going to be effective
The Red Sox will need Jon Lester to step up if their rotation is going to be effectiveAl Bello/Getty Images

The Red Sox starting rotation will be way better than it was last season.

That's not a bold prediction. It's pretty much true by default.

Boston's awful starters paved the way to a 48-72 combined record, complemented with a lofty 5.19 ERA. Only five rotations produced more losses, and only three posted a higher ERA.

Fortunately for the Red Sox, the reasons for optimism extend beyond just figuring "it can't get any worse".

It might seem strange to proclaim hope when the Red Sox did little to alter that horrible rotation from last year. Other than Josh Beckett—the team's former ace—the Red Sox are fielding many of the same players they had in 2012 in their starting rotation.

Four of the five projected starters for the Red Sox are returning players, including John Lackey, who missed the entirety of 2012 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. In some ways the Red Sox benefited from his absence, because they did not have to suffer from his pitiful performances. His 6.31 ERA in 2011 was the highest single season mark by a Red Sox pitcher who started more than 25 games. Ever.

That being said, in the fourth year of his five-year contract John Lackey has a shot to bounce back.

The statistics from Lackey's infamous 2011 campaign are a little deceptive. According to teammates and reporters, Lackey was pitching through tons of elbow pain down the stretch because he knew the Red Sox had nobody better behind him on the depth chart. The surgeon who operated on Lackey's elbow said that the bone spur in his right elbow was the largest he had ever seen.

With 16 months of rest since his injury, Lackey is expected to get right into the swing of things when pitchers and catchers report to spring training on February 10.

New manager John Farrell certainly has high hopes for the veteran. After visiting Lackey in Texas Farrell says "the freeness and the looseness he feels in his arm, this is the first time in a while that he’s been able to experience that. So, I’m expecting him to be a big part of our rotation this year.”

That being said, Lackey has shown so few positives during his time in Boston that it's hard to believe he will actually contribute that much. He has a lot of talent, but at this point fans should be happy with a .500 record and a sub-4.50 ERA.

The lone newcomer is former Chicago Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster. Though his signing didn't exactly make a splash in Boston, it was a great addition. Dempster—who will be 36 years old in May—might not be an ace, but he is anything but inconsistent.

From 2008-2012 with the Cubs, Dempster's impressive 58-46 record came along nicely with an impressive 3.36 ERA.

Even more importantly, Dempster is incredibly durable. His 173.0 innings pitched in 2012 snapped a four-season streak of 200 or more innings pitched. The three years before that, Dempster appeared in at least 63 games in his role as the Cubs' closer.

Dempster's durability will go a long way on a Red Sox team that always seems to be plagued by injuries. Of the seven Boston pitchers to start 10 or more games, a whopping five had a stint on the disabled list. Only Lester was able to pitch in each of his scheduled starts.

Having a guy who can be penciled in to start and go deep in the game every fifth day will allow Farrell to conserve the bullpen arms and use them on his terms. Dempster will also give the Red Sox a veteran leader in the clubhouse, which is something they have lacked the past couple of seasons.

One concern about Dempster is his age. After being traded to the Texas Rangers last season, Dempster went 7-3 but struggled with a 5.09 ERA. Maybe that was a sign that he was beginning to become fatigued later in the season. However, that was in Texas heat, so it might be different in the more mild Boston summer. It will be something to keep an eye on this season.

It was a tale of two halves for rookie Felix Doubront last season. The lefty showed promise early in the season, going 9-4 with a 4.41 ERA. He ran out of gas, though, and fizzled in the second half with a 2-6 record, a 5.54 ERA and a DL stint.

Many rookie starters will struggle as batters and coaches have seen enough of Doubront. This might continue into next season, as a sophomore slump usually occurs around this time. Farrell might be able to guide Doubront through some of those early-career woes and mitigate the rust, but only time will tell.

The success of the rotation ultimately will come down to the performances of top pitchers Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester. The pair of talented pitchers were a big part of the team's pitching woes last season, combining for a 4.74 ERA and 20-22 record.

The good news is that the new manager might be able to help them turn it around. Farrell was the pitching coach of the Red Sox from 2007-2010. Both Buchholz and Lester enjoyed a lot of success during Farrell's tenure. During Farrell's last season in Boston, Lester went 19-9 with a 3.25 ERA, and Buchholz bested that with a 17-7 record and a 3.25 ERA. If there is any man who can turn the team's two best pitchers around, it is Farrell.

If Buchholz and Lester can be part of what they used to be and the other three starters are solid, Boston could have a good rotation next season. That is not to say they will be fantastic, but with all the talent there, they certainly have that potential.