There is no doubt that the Boston Red Sox will put runs on the board. The question at this point is if they can prevent enough runs to go along with that offense. The defense will do their part of that equation with terrific fielding at first, second, center and catching. But can this pitching staff get enough outs? The rotation is unsettled at this point and the bullpen was seriously weakened by the loss of Jonathan Papelbon. Can the Red Sox pull all this together in 2012? Let's take a look.
How this Red Sox staff finished last September is hard to erase and equally hard to temper perceptions the terrible ending left in our minds. It hasn't helped that those pitchers who have returned this spring are struggling during Spring Training. Your two rocks at the top of this pitching rotation are supposed to be Jon Lester and Josh Beckett. The two were horrid down the final stretch and had to endure the unfortunate backlash and soap opera that followed.
But Josh Beckett is doing just fine this spring and despite a difficult finish, seems every bit the pitcher he was during his 2007 and 2008 seasons. His peripherals last season were very close to those seasons except for slightly elevated walk and home run rates. But the home run rates were so much better than 2009 and 2010, that they shouldn't be considered a problem. Beckett almost got back to 200 innings last season and there seems no hindrance to him reaching that plateau this season. Beckett seems to be the least of the worries here.
Jon Lester, on the other hand, not only had a terrible September but is struggling this spring. Last season showed his highest FIP of his young career, a slightly elevated home run rate and he struck out one less batter per nine innings than he had the two seasons prior. His fastball dipped one MPH last season below the two seasons before. Lester apparently throws less true fastballs these days and more cutters. Has that made a difference? Pitch/FX also shows that his curve and change were not nearly as effective as in previous seasons.
Those latter two pitches are "feel" pitches and could be improved upon in 2012. But perhaps if Lester has lost a little arm speed, then those pitches do not play as well off his fastball as they did before. Jon Lester is a terrific talent and there is no reason to believe he can't have a good season. But the trends are worrisome.
A large key for the Red Sox and their rotation is how well Clay Buchholz returns after an injury-filled season in 2011. The Red Sox have to hope that Buchholz can get back to where he was in 2010 and that the 1.5 MPH loss in velocity last season were the result of his back problems. His home run rate became more elevated last season and he's continued that trend into Spring Training. Buchholz at his best, is a ground ball pitcher. If he can return to the pitcher the Red Sox had in 2010, then that would go a long way into easing their minds this coming season.
At their best, that's a great top three. But what comes next? The Red Sox have to decide if the Daniel Bard experiment goes forward, or if Alfredo Aceves gets a rotation spot, and if they want to commit a fifth spot to young Felix Doubront who has been terrific this spring. Doubront has done nothing but earn one of those spots. But will he hold up once the season starts?
Daniel Bard isn't trending well. He collapsed in the bullpen in September. And that trend has continued this spring. To put it mildly, his starts have not gone well. He has walked thirteen batters in 18.2 innings this spring and his WHIP sits at 1.61. Apparently, his spot in the rotation is a bit of a disagreement between his manager, Bobby Valentine and the general manager. Bard has an amazing arm and you've gone this far with the experiment. But at some point, you have to decide which way it is going to go. From this perspective, you have to at least give him the beginning of the season to give it a go. It would not be fair to the pitcher to do otherwise.
The other side of the disagreement is Alfredo Aceves. After having watched Aceves most of his career, the observation here is that he is better off in the bullpen. Aceves is a "touch" pitcher who can be brilliant when he is on and extremely ugly when he is not. The ugly side has reared its head most of the spring. The best use of Aceves is for him to be the swing guy who can do it all, just like last season. Heck, Aceves might not be happy with that outcome, but hey, what can you do.
Aaron Cook is a wild card in these discussions. Cook is an experienced pitcher who has lost most of his fastball, but has looked good this spring. He's an extreme ground ball pitcher which plays well with this defense and at Fenway Park. Cook would have to be a real long shot at this point despite how well he's pitched this spring. But in the long run, it might not be bad for the Red Sox to put Bard and Aceves in the bullpen and give a spot to Cook. It won't happen, but it's a thought.
Say what you will about Jonathan Papelbon, but the guy was darned effective and probably the second best closer in baseball since 2007. Replacing him will not be easy and the observation here is that Andrew Bailey is not that guy. Bailey can be fragile and his stuff is not overpowering in the same way as Papelbon's was. Frankly, Papelbon put more fear into you than Bailey ever will. Mark Melancon was a nice addition, but he's not what Bard was when Bard was at the top of his game. The bullpen gets questionable after that.
Michael Bowden has all the tools but is unproven. Franklin Morales can be the best lefty the Red Sox have had in years if he stays healthy, but the track record for that is iffy. Matt Albers was a mirage for most of last season until luck caught up with him. Andrew Miller gives no long-term comfort. His health has always been a question as we have seen again this spring. Junichi Tazawa has opened a few eyes and might be useful as the season progresses.
So where are we here? Best case scenario is that the trio of Beckett, Lester and Buchholz pitch like they can all season. One of the next two rotation slots have to work out and at this point, that seems muddy at best. The bullpen is weakened without Papelbon at the back end and without either Bard and Aceves to get to Bailey. Pitching will be the difference between whether this is a playoff team or if they miss out like last year. Mr. Valentine will have to make the right decisions and they are the most important ones he makes all season.