While the Boston Red Sox lost some notable free agents this offseason in Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Stephen Drew, they've largely retained the core of a team that won 97 games and a World Series championship a year ago. That being said, if the 2014 Red Sox are to repeat as World Series champions, they may have to rely on a different set of strengths than in 2013.
Last year, Boston finished as baseball's best offensive club, scoring the most runs, posting the highest OBP and using the league's best stolen base percentages to propel themselves to victory after victory. While still poised to be a good offensive team in 2014, this year's edition of the Red Sox may need to rely on pitching to make up for the loss of one-third of its everyday lineup.
And if the Red Sox are able to improve upon their pitching from a year ago, Jake Peavy could be a big part of the reason why.
Acquired from the White Sox for Jose Iglesias and three lesser-known prospects (Cleulius Rondon, Francelis Montas and Jeffrey Wendelken) last July, Peavy helped solidify a rotation that was dealing with an injury to Clay Buchholz and middling performances from Ryan Dempster. Peavy made 10 starts for the Red Sox, going 4-1 with a 4.04 ERA and striking out 45 batters in 64.2 innings. In the postseason, he stared three games and was quite good in two of his outings.
Many speculated that the Red Sox might try to trade Peavy in the offseason in order to free up some salary and create a clearer path to the majors for their many pitching prospects in the upper minors, but such a deal never came to fruition. Instead, the Red Sox begin the year with Peavy as their fourth starter, and it is Peavy who will take the ball for Boston's home opener on Friday.
Now entering his age-33 season, what can the Red Sox expect from Peavy in 2014, and can a full year of Peavy truly help Boston improve upon its pitching from a season ago?
Let's take a look at Peavy's ERA, Fielding Independent Pitching, strikeout and walk percentages and WAR, courtesy of FanGraphs, since his first full season in the AL in 2010:
The results show a pretty consistent performer who's still capable of putting up some dominating years, as he did in 2012, but who also spends a lot of time on the disabled list. According to Baseball Prospectus' Injury History, Peavy has missed significant time with shoulder injuries twice since 2010 and has been shelved with groin, back and wrist issues, too.
But when Peavy is on the field, he's been a reliable, above-average performer, even if his ERA doesn't jump out at you as it did in his younger days in San Diego. Peavy's fastball velocity has declined significantly since his peak, but it's largely stabilized as a pitch that sits right around 91 mph over the past three seasons, and according to FanGraphs' PITCHf/x stats, it's still a valuable offering.
Peavy recently has mostly ditched his slider in favor of throwing his cutter more often, but he still uses his changeup, curveball and occasionally the slider to keep hitters off balance. He's more of a "pitcher" than a "thrower" now, to overuse a popular phrase, as he no longer has the velocity to blow past the opposition. Peavy's declining ground-ball percentage is of some concern, but he doesn't need a major rebound in that category to remain an effective middle-of-the-rotation arm.
What all of the above tells us is that if Peavy is able to limit his walks and restore his ability to induce ground balls with the same frequency he did in 2011 and 2012, the Red Sox could end up owning one of the better fourth starters in the league. Peavy averages about 0.75 to 1.25 WAR every 50 innings, which means a 3.5-4-WAR season is not out of the question if he stays on the mound for 30 starts and 200 innings in 2014.
That's an optimistic take on what Peavy can bring this season, to be sure, but it's well within the realm of possibility. And consider, too, what Peavy is replacing: 171.1 innings of replacement-level pitching by Dempster, who netted just 1.3 WAR during his time in Boston. For comparison's sake, Peavy was almost twice as valuable last season despite throwing 30 fewer innings.
Injury will continue to be a concern with Peavy, but the Red Sox are better equipped to handle a blow to their pitching staff than most. With Chris Capuano and Brandon Workman in the majors and Allen Webster, Matt Barnes and perhaps even Henry Owens in the minors, Boston is far from bereft of acceptable replacement options should Peavy need to miss a handful of starts. Plus, Peavy did just throw nearly 200 innings one season ago, and it's not ludicrous to think he may be able to stay healthy during his age-33 season in 2014.
Peavy isn't the same legitimate top-of-the-rotation force as he was in San Diego five-plus years ago, but he's still poised to be an incredibly important part of the 2014 Red Sox, and he represents one of the most obvious areas in which the team can improve upon its performance from a year ago.
If Peavy can stay on the field and help one of baseball's deepest rotations set up one of its best bullpens, he might just have to make room for another duck boat in his collection this fall.