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Sox' success hinges on Bard, Buchholz

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  April 2, 2012 01:35 PM

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For the moment, let's put aside titles and numbers, identifying the starters in the Boston pitching rotation for what they truly are. Relatively speaking, little will be expected of Felix Doubront. More will be asked of Jon Lester and Josh Beckett.

But the success of the 2012 Red Sox may very well hinge on the performance of Clay Buchholz and Daniel Bard.

Surprising no one, the Red Sox formally announced their season-opening rotation yesterday, placing Doubront and Bard (in that order) behind the front three of Lester, Beckett and Buchholz. That arrangement prevents left-handers Doubront and Lester from making turns on consecutive days, so do not get caught up in No. 4 vs. No. 5, or who pitches when. What matters more than anything is how the starters pitch, particularly when it comes to Buchholz and Bard.

Last year, remember, the Red Sox finished ninth in the American League in ERA from their starting pitchers, a positively wretched development given that the Sox have more than $300 million in long-term deals tied up in Lester, Beckett, Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey. The last two of those men will miss a chunk (Matsuzaka) or all (Lackey) of this season, and there is little way to project how Matsuzaka will perform if and when he comes back.

Now consider this: as badly as the Red Sox tanked last year - and they tanked historically - Lester and Beckett were still a combined 28-16 with a 3.18 ERA. In tandem, Lester and Beckett averaged 8.4 strikeouts and 3.0 walks per nine innings pitchd, the kind of numbers that will produce a lot of victories when you hit the way the Red Sox do.

So what was the problem?

Lester and Beckett went belly-up in Serptember.

And when they did, nobody even came close to picking up the slack.

If you are among those who believe the Red Sox lack a true ace in vein of Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez or C.C. Sabathia, you are hardly off base. But that's not the point. Lester and Beckett caved when the Red Sox needed them most last season, but part of the reason the Red Sox needed them so badly was because their rotation was utterly inept once the club got past the first two pitchers.

Maybe that means Lackey, Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller and Kyle Weiland were to blame. Maybe it means the Sox were unlucky, Buchholz and Matsuzaka essentially going down to season-ending injuries. Maybe it is a combination of all the above, a shortage of depth exploited as the year went along.

Beyond Lester and Beckett, Red Sox starters made 101 starts last season, a number that translates into roughly 62 percent of the team's schedule. Combined, those starters went 36-34 despite a 5.40 ERA, their won-lost record an obvious testament to the potent Boston offense. Lest anyone forget, those numbers include a 6-3 record and 3.48 ERA from Buchholz, who made 14 starts before a back injury derailed his season.

Still, you get the idea. From April through August, with Lackey or Beckett on the mound the Red Sox were capable of beating anyone. But for pretty much the entire season, particularly after Buchholz went down, the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 spots were wildly erratic, posting a 5.40 ERA that would have ranked dead last among the 14 teams in the American League.

Generally speaking, for about 38 percent of their games, the Red Sox had a starting pitcher on the mound nearly as good as anyone. But for 62 percent of the time, they might as well have been the Baltimore Orioles (whose starters had a 5.39 ERA for the year).

All of this brings us back to Buchholz and Bard, both enormous variables for different reasons. Each has the stuff of a 15-game winner (or more). Each comes with huge question marks. In the case of Buchholz, the obvious concern is durability following a season-ending back injury to a body shaped like a breadstick.

Since the start of 2012, among all major league pitchers with at least 20 victories, only four rank ahead of Buchholz in ERA: Roy Halladay, Adam Wainwright, Clayton Kershaw and Weaver. Buchholz has the stuff and numbers of ace, assuming he can take the mound as scheduled.

Which is a big assumption.

Bard, meanwhile, similarly comes with questions of durability, largely because he has never pitched more than 74.2 innings in a professional career spent almost entirely as a reliever. Still, the upside is huge. If Bard can effectively make the transition from the bullpen to the rotation - and again, that is a big if - the Red Sox stand to have made one of the biggest pitching acquisitions.

Over the winter, the Red Sox' approach was obvious. Pitching was scarce on the free agent market, and the Sox were not inclined to go to four years and nearly $60 million for someone like the durable Mark Buehrle. Operating with self-imposed budget restrictions, the Sox opted to move Bard to the rotation and plug their bullpen through trades for inexpensive relievers (Mark Melancon, Andrew Bailey), all while bringing in a host of low-risk candidates (Vicente Padilla, Aaron Cook, Brandon Duckworth and the injured Carlos Silva) who might be needed if and when someone goes down.

If and when that happens, any of those last few pitchers could help the Red Sox in the short term.

But in the long, their best chance at success rests with Buchholz and Bard, two men who might very well be the most important members of the Opening Day roster.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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