The need for better pitching was the primary reason Boston completed its blockbuster transaction with Los Angeles last weekend. Not only did the Red Sox trade away a failing Josh Beckett and receive high-caliber pitching prospects in return, they also freed up salary that can be used to improve the pitching staff in the future.
As a result, the Red Sox rotation will have a much different look next season. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz will undoubtedly be back as a one-two punch, but after those homegrown talents, the Sox will have some decisions to make regarding who will fill out the remaining spots.
The most likely candidate to be the No. 3 starter is Felix Doubront. After a stellar minor league career that included stints with Boston each of the past two seasons, the 24-year-old lefty was given the chance to start full-time in 2012.
He’s posted a 4.79 ERA and 1.47 WHIP this season, and while those figures aren’t great, his other numbers suggest he’s actually pitched better than his ERA indicates. He has a 3.89 xFIP this year, a statistic used to estimate ERA by only factoring in what the pitcher has full control over—home runs, walks and strikeouts—and adjusting the home run rate to league average.
Doubront’s HR/FB ratio is 15.6 percent, the fifth-worst mark among starters in the American League. That’s bound to come down next season. On the other hand, his K/9 rate is 8.9, the sixth best in the AL. Of the players above him—including CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander—only Francisco Liriano has a higher ERA.
If Doubront is a bit luckier next year and continues to improve, a 15-win season with a 4.00-4.20 ERA is not out of the question.
The next spot in the rotation may go to a pitcher the Red Sox will end up with in the Dodgers trade: Rubby De La Rosa.
Despite coming off of Tommy John surgery last season, De La Rosa still wields an upper-90s fastball. Before the injury, he posted a 3.71 ERA in 10 starts for L.A. in 2011, after starting the year in Double-A with an ERA of 2.93 and an 11.7 K/9.
If he can continue his upward trajectory, there’s no reason he can’t have success with the Red Sox.
Since he won’t officially join Boston until the offseason as he’s a “player to be named later” in the trade because he was previously claimed off waivers, the Sox will be looking closely at how he fares with the Dodgers in September.
Current Red Sox starter Franklin Morales also has a shot at the rotation next year. After pitching well out of the bullpen in the beginning of the season, Morales was summoned for a couple of spot starts and performed admirably. He’s since become a full-time rotation member, though he's had some poor outings as of late.
On the year, Morales has a 3.23 ERA as a reliever but 4.14 as a starter. The pressure is on for him to perform this month, as the Red Sox will evaluate whether or not he should be sent back to the pen.
Another Sox reliever, Andrew Miller, may have a chance at cracking the rotation next year. In 32 innings this season, he has a 2.76 ERA and 10.2 K/9. Miller was drafted sixth overall by Detroit in 2006, though he was rushed to the majors that same year and his development suffered.
Miller finally has his confidence back, and his pitching repertoire includes a high-90s fastball that blows by hitters. Although last year he started 12 games for Boston and put up a 5.54 ERA, the Red Sox may contemplate giving him another shot considering the success he’s had this year.
Another option is fan favorite John Lackey. He was horrendous in 2011, when he posted an MLB-high 6.41 ERA, and his 6.1 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9 were his worst marks in a full season.
Believe it or not, though, Lackey does have a track record of success. His career ERA is 4.10, and from 2005 to 2009, he went 69-38 with a 3.49 ERA. Sure, he hasn’t done well of late and will be 34 at the start of next season, but he’s the only other starting pitcher on the staff besides Buchholz and Lester who’s had a full season with an ERA under 4.00.
Some Sox fans may think Lackey’s contract is already a sunk cost, but the truth is he was once a good enough pitcher to get that contract. There’s certainly a chance he can have a productive season next year after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
There is another route the Red Sox could go. The club has plenty of money to spend this offseason after clearing nearly $60 million off the books for next year.
Zach Greinke is the biggest name on the market, though he’ll be asking for over $100 million. After clearing this much salary, it’s highly unlikely the Sox would make such an investment in a pitcher who has a 3.85 ERA over the past two seasons and may not be able to handle the Boston media.
Instead, the Red Sox could look for a middle-tier pitcher they can sign in the three-year/$30 million range. Potential free agents in that group include James Shields, Edwin Jackson and Brandon McCarthy.
Boston has a number of options regarding its 2013 starting rotation. After pulling off a trade that’s been lauded around baseball, Red Sox fans are eager for GM Ben Cherington’s next move as he tries to rebuild Boston into a playoff team.