Sports

Firn ’16: (No) ace in the hole: Red Sox without true No. 1 starter

By
Sports Columnist
Monday, April 13, 2015

Rooting for the Boston Red Sox has always been a labor of love. Because hopes are consistently high in March, the disappointments hurt as much as the payoffs elate. One minute you’re getting emotionally sucker-punched by Aaron Boone, and the next you’re busting curses. We celebrate with champagne and comfort ourselves with fried chicken and beer. It’s just the price of being a Red Sox fan.

That said, I’m (unsurprisingly) bullish about the prospects of this year’s team. While 2014 was another trough in Boston’s worst-to-first-to-worst cycle, there’s a lot to like about the 2015 squad. They’ve got stable veterans and ascending youngsters, star power and positional depth, championship leadership and goofy chemistry. They’ll certainly be fun to watch.

On paper, the Sox boast the league’s most potent lineup, a slick defensive unit and serviceable bullpen. This team ticks a lot of boxes.

The starting rotation, however, is not one of those boxes. Even if the bats carry the Red Sox to the postseason, pitching remains the glaring question mark on a team with immediate championship aspirations. Instead of splurging for a big-name pitcher to slot ahead of Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly, Boston reeled in Rick Porcello, Wade Miley and Justin Masterson off the sales rack. Compared to the top-caliber staffs of teams like the Nationals or the Dodgers, it’s an uninspiring crew. History reminds us that front-loaded rotations succeed in the playoffs. The Red Sox, on the other hand, have no definitive ace to hand the ball to in a must-win game seven.

Still, in typical fan fashion, I’m not worried. My confidence in this team stems more from a trust in management than in player personnel. After a disastrous cellar-dwelling 2014 and an offseason full of spending, I know that Boston’s front office is fully committed to winning now. Instead of overspending for a big-ticket starting pitcher, general manager Ben Cherington is taking a wait-and-see approach to roster construction. Boston’s bevy of B-list starters will be asked simply to keep games competitive and let the defense and offense do the heavy lifting. The current roster will at least keep Boston in contention until one of two scenarios materialize: Either someone on the current Red Sox staff emerges as a legitimate ace, or another team’s star pitcher becomes available at the trade deadline. In either case, the Sox fill their missing piece in preparation for the playoffs.

It’s true that aces are instrumental to championship success, but the label is often applied after the fact. Just because the Red Sox don’t currently have a marketable name doesn’t mean one won’t come out of hiding. With five starters between the ages of 26 and 30, it’s entirely possible that someone on the staff is primed for a leap. Mid-career reclamation projects a la Francisco Liriano do happen, and each of the Sox’s starters have demonstrated high ceilings in their careers — Buchholz, Miley and Masterson are all former All-Stars, Porcello is coming off a career year and just netted an $82.5 million extension and Kelly has the most electric arm of them all. Even if none of these five steps up, top pitching prospects Henry Owens and Eduardo Rodriguez are waiting in the minors for a chance to shine.

Yes, some of these arguments ignore important recent trends: Buchholz can’t stay healthy, Masterson has exhibited an ominous drop in velocity, Kelly struggles with his command and they’re all pitching in the hitter-friendly confines of Fenway Park. Even if the stars align, this staff won’t approach elite status. Still, all the Sox need to make a deep playoff push is for one or two pitchers to get hot at the right time. “The way I look at it, we will send a bona fide, established major league starter to the mound every night,” said manager John Farrell. “We feel there are candidates currently in our rotation that can turn into that type of performer.”

But even if midseason rolls around and it’s clear that no current Red Sox pitcher has the capacity for stardom, Cherington will have a contingency plan. The Sox have always been great at reassessing the roster during the season, adding key pieces such as Orlando Cabrera, Jake Peavy, Victor Martinez and Jason Bay at recent trade deadlines. With a wealth of talented, cost-controlled prospects and a glut of capable yet expendable outfielders, Boston will be in prime position to sublet an ace in what figures to be a buyer’s market this summer. Knowing that the bats can at least keep Boston competitive, Cherington is wisely waiting to see how the team comes out of the gate before deciding the deadline value of a Cole Hamels or Johnny Cueto.

At first glance, it’s perfectly reasonable to be concerned about Boston’s lack of pitching chops. At second glance, you realize that the team’s offensive and defensive prowess will limit the exposure of the rotation. At third glance, you remember that Boston’s ongoing and flexible process of roster construction will likely yield complementary pieces as the postseason approaches. Suddenly, these initial concerns seem less troublesome. Like every other team, the Red Sox would be better off with a dominant pitcher. But they can absolutely succeed without one on the Opening Day roster.

Mike Firn ’16 sees an MVP season from Rick Porcello. Mock his naivety at michael_firn@brown.edu.

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  • soxfan ’67

    Buchholz not Buccholz