When the 2009 season began, there was very little doubt in anyone's mind that the Red Sox had both the depth and talent in the starting rotation for it to be considered, not only the teams' primary strength, but what made them favorites to advance to the World Series from the American League.
With dueling aces at the top in Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, depth in the middle with Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield, and Brad Penny, and a plethora of options at the end ranging from top prospect Clay Buchholz to perennial All-Star and future Hall of Famer John Smoltz, the front office had covered the rotation in spades.
That doesn't even look more deeply into the farm system or bullpen, where the likes of Justin Masterson (since dealt away), Michael Bowden, and Junichi Tazawa lurked.
Even with slow starts from the top of the rotation, conventional wisdom viewed the rotation as one of the best in baseball.
While Beckett and Lester found themselves struggling out of the gate—the pair conmbined for a 3-4 record with a 6.33 ERA in April—a shut-down bullpen and an out-of-this-world Tim Wakefield kept the Red Sox heads above water, even with Brad Penny and Daisuke Matsuzaka posting a near double-digit collective ERA.
There was a sense at the time that the staff wouldn't continue to struggle so mightily, and that the team had stayed around .500 despite the pitching was a sign of good things to come.
And come around they did.
Wakefield continued to post win after win, leading to his first All-Star selection, and the two-headed monster of Beckett and Lester hit their strides in June, where they were more dominant than they were poor in May (7-2, 1.69 ERA).
The Red Sox top three pitchers posted an incredible 11-2 June record, as the team rolled into first place with an 18-8 month. Even Brad Penny, despite a 1-2 record, was caught up in the act, posting a respectable 3.18 ERA.
As June turned to July, we all wondered if the Red Sox rotation had hit a rhythm that would dance all the way to October.
Then, the record started skipping.
Lester's been as good as any pitcher in baseball since June 1, going 6-2 with a 2.12 ERA over 80 innings in his last 12 starts. In those 80 innings, he's struck out 96 and walked only 25. Opposing batters have only mustered an OPS against of .545. He's been dominant.
Beckett's been nothing to scoff at, either. Over the same period, he's gone 9-2 with a 2.24 ERA with 73 strikeouts and 11 walks in 80 innings, with an only slightly higher OPS against of .549.
With two aces clearly dealing, why then would Theo Epstein make such aggressive moves around the trade deadline to acquire the likes of Felix Hernandez or Roy Halladay?
Not to disparage the impact move that Epstein did make at the deadline in bringing along Victor Martinez without parting with one of the "untouchables" in the organization, but the moves he tried to make at the deadline are more telling about his perspective on the 2009 Red Sox than the moves that he did make.
Imagine, if you will, a press conference on Aug. 1, with Felix Hernandez or Roy Halladay wearing a Red Sox cap, and Epstein at the podium in front of him.
"I thought there was a flaw on the club that we couldn't allow to become a fatal flaw, that the rotation on this team is not championship caliber," Epstein might have said. "In my mind, we were not going to win a World Series with the depth in the top of the rotation the was it was."
If it sounds like Epstein, just harken back to 2004 and replace the notion of "rotation" with "defense," as Theo described his justification for the trade of Nomar Garciaparra.
The Red Sox still have depth in their rotation after Beckett and Lester, but it is suddenly laden with much more uncertainty than we all expected at the season's onset.
Tim Wakefield has spent nearly a month on the DL with a strained back, and even with his first half of the season, could he be counted on to be this team's No. 3 horse down the stretch and to pitch Game Three of a playoff series?
Penny, while not terrible, gives you what you would expect out of a No. 5 starter on this team, not a playoff-caliber pitcher.
Smoltz could take that mantle. I think he's thrown the ball better than his numbers would indicate, and remember that he's just now getting out of what could best be described as "extended rehab" after a year off. But that's a big gamble to take when the fate of the season may hang in the balance of that position.
Buchholz has proven he's anything but capable of handling Major League Baseball. As dominant as he was in Triple-A and as he could be in Boston, he's not more than an end of the rotation piece right now. Sure, there's potential, and he could catch fire at any time, but if there was a chance to move him for another No. 1 to complete the trifecta at the top of the rotation, 2009 would have been better served.
Matsuzaka is the forgotten one. He was, coming into the season, the No. 3 starter on this team. While he has posted a 15-10 record with a 4.25 ERA and is inconsistent in many ways, the expectation for "the enigma" was that he could be counted on to step on the mound in the third game of a playoff series.
Could Matsuzaka find his way back to the Fenway mound in time to help this team out? If he does, will he be more than the shell of himself we saw early in the year?
The questions were many in front of Epstein at the deadline, but I think he proved by his attempted actions that the rotation is still an unaddressed flaw that has the potential to be fatal to the Red Sox 2009 championship goals.
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