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Red Sox fixes, sleepers, and risks: Starters

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  November 7, 2012 10:28 AM

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Third in a four-part series looking at the Red Sox positional groups and possible solutions via free-agency. Part 1 on outfielders can be found here. Part 2 on the infield and catchers is here. Today, starting pitchers.

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Let's jump right in to the recurring Relevant Holdovers segment of this project since, save for perhaps Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury, the Red Sox don't have two players more relevant than Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz when determining how far the franchise will come in 2013 in its recovery from 2012.

It's quite simple: If new manager John Farrell, who during his four-year stint as the Red Sox pitching coach (2007-10) oversaw Lester and Buchholz's development into top-of-the-rotation starting pitchers, can coax production out of the stained duo in the vicinity of the 36 wins they totaled during his final season here, the Red Sox will win more than they lose and be in the hunt for that second wild card at the very least.

In fact, it wouldn't be silly to presume that a significant reason Farrell is now the Red Sox manager is that reasonable hope that he can remedy whatever it is -- indifference, conditioning, or a mere mechanical issue or two -- that is at the center of Lester's regression from one of the top starting pitchers in baseball to a surly, puzzling mediocrity who is too easily rattled by one bad call.

The task with Buchholz is easier -- keep him healthy and keep him focused, and he should be fine and finally consistent as a No. 2 starter. His admitted "fear" of Farrell bodes well, he had stretches of true dominance last summer, and he seems to have grown up. And let's not forget John Lackey, though some of you surely have tried. For as effortlessly annoying as he can be, he was pitching hurt in 2011, when he had a ridiculous 6.41 ERA in 160 innings, and probably for a good part of 2010. Healthy, he should finally be an asset.

But it's imperative that Lester, who in many ways embodies this team's decline on the field and in terms of perception since September 2011, finds his way out this weird malaise. Because if Lester, a remarkable 75-31 in his career before September 2011, doesn't get it together and rediscover all that he used to be, it's that much more difficult for the franchise to do the same.

Felix Doubront's breakthrough (11 wins, 167 strikeouts in 161 innings, 4.37 FIP compared to a 4.89 ERA) was one of few pleasant surprises last season, but as encouraging as that strikeout rate is, his accomplishments were exaggerated by the every-fifth-day slugs surrounding him in that rotation.

I do like Doubront, but I wouldn't be stunned if Franklin Morales is better this season. He'll be 27 in January, was so highly regarded not that long ago that Baseball America ranked him the eighth-best prospect in baseball before the 2008 season, struck out 76 batters in 76.1 innings, and has overcome the control issues that led to him falling out of favor in Colorado. From 2008-10, his best walk rate with the Rockies was 5.2 per nine innings. He was down to 3.5 last year. Recognizing his potential as a starter is one thing Bobby Valentine did right.

Pedro Beato has made 84 starts in the minors, none in 71 appearances in the majors. And that concludes our Irrelevant Facts About Pedro Beato segment of the program for today.

websterallenfinn107.JPGRATED ROOKIES
I strongly suspected, given their waiver claim of him during the Dodgers blockbuster, that the Blue Jays would demand Rubby de la Rosa as compensation for John Farrell. Baseball America projects him as the Red Sox' future closer, but I'm including him among starters because 10 of his 14 MLB appearances have been in that role. (He went 4-5 with a 3.71 ERA in 60.2 innings in 2011, which means he's not technically a rookie.) It probably goes without saying, but that's never stopped me before: He's a much more valuable piece given the Red Sox' current state than Mike Aviles.

UConn product Matt Barnes, their third-ranked prospect, hasn't thrown a pitch at the Double A level yet, while the other promising pitcher acquired from the Dodgers, Allen Webster, is yet to pitch in Triple A. For now, they're for future consideration.

Yeah, I know the Red Sox won't pursue Zack Greinke, their recent mistakes with massive contracts making them particularly gun-shy about laying out a nine-figure deal for anyone who isn't a perfect fit in every way. Greinke's battles with anxiety and depression are well-known, and his habitual bluntness would probably find him in the middle of too many silly controversies here. Though I have little doubt that with continued good physical health he will remain a very successful pitcher no matter where he goes -- and he has Allard Baird in the Red Sox front office to vouch for who he really is -- the atmosphere probably wouldn't be ideal. And that kind of stinks, because he is exactly what the Red Sox need, a durable, genuine, super-competitive No. 1 starter who would allow Lester and Buchholz to slot in rotation spots that they are probably more suited for.

I understand why the Red Sox won't pursue him. Their high-stakes gambling days are over for now. But even with whatever questions there are about how Greinke would respond to an overbearing media market and the huge sticker price, I have to admit I wish they would. Greinke is a hell of a pitcher and a fascinating person. The Red Sox are short on both.

Dan Haren's career numbers through age 31 are almost identical to those of Jake Peavy. Peavy, coming off his first season of more than 19 starts since 2008, just signed a two-year, $29 million deal to remain with the White Sox. Haren, who has a bad back but who has been remarkably durable for the most part over his nine-year career, could probably be had for much less. There is risk, but the potential reward is worth taking the chance.

sanchezanibalfinn107.JPGPERSONS OF INTEREST
One reason to believe the Red Sox will find a quality No. 3 starter in this year's free agent pool is that there are a lot of quality No. 3 starters (or better) in this year's free agent pool.

Haren, who is a borderline ace at his best, is my preference, though I understand the risk. In my ongoing plea for a big-league reunion of the stacked 2005 Portland Sea Dogs, I'd be fully on board with the signing of Anibal Sanchez, who has pitched between 195 and 196.1 innings each of the past three seasons, has legitimate strikeout stuff (he whiffed 9.3 per nine innings in 2011), and was sensational for the Tigers in September (2.43 ERA, 37 Ks in 40.2 innings) and in the postseason (1.77 ERA, 18 Ks in 20.1 innings). Of course, those are all reasons why he's likely to get bigger money or a longer deal elsewhere.

Maybe you'd prefer Ben Cherington pursue groundball-machine Hiroki Kuroda more aggressively this offseason than he did last year, when he ended up being a one-year bargain for the Yankees (16 wins, 3.32 ERA).

Another pitcher the Red Sox were lukewarm in pursuing last winter is back on the market, though Edwin Jackson, who had a 98 ERA+ in 189.2 innings with the Nationals, is probably more of a No. 4 starter. Brandon McCarthy, who has a 3.29 ERA in two seasons in Oakland, might have been the first choice here, but considering the life-threatening ordeal he went through after being hit in the head with a line drive late in the season, there has to be at least a small concern whether he will be the same pitcher.

Which one they ultimately sign -- and there will be one -- may come down to who is attainable for the most reasonable terms and length of contract. One they shouldn't pursue: 34-year-old Kyle Lohse, who went 16-3 with a 2.89 ERA in his second straight strong season. His top two career comps are Bronson Arroyo and Brad Penny, and he strikes me as one of those Cardinal redemption projects (apparently that knack carries over to the Mike Matheny era) who thrive only in that environment.

Ryan Dempster, Shaun Marcum, and to a lesser degree the talented, wildly inconsistent Francisco Liriano could be on their radar. Marcum, who has a 3.89 career ERA in nine games at Fenway, is already drawing interest from the Cubs, who seem to have developed a habit of being interested in the same players as the Red Sox.

petersonrickfinn106.jpgBEST-CASE SCENARIO WITHIN REASON:
The return of Farrell and the addition of a pitching coach who actually talks to the manager -- whether it's "Ricky" Peterson, Juan Nieves or someone else -- sparks Lester and Buchholz to become co-aces, John Lackey wins 14 games, neither Morales nor Doubront regresses, and Haren signs on and duplicates his 2010 season (16-10, 3.17 in 238.1 innings).

WORST-CASE SCENARIO Farrell can't prevent Lester and Lackey from taking Buchholz hostage and going on a midseason tri-state beer-and-chicken rampage, Doubront regresses, free agency yields little help, Aaron Cook gets signed out of desperation and makes 18 starts again, Daisuke Matsuzaka signs with the Yankees and finally unveils the gyroball.

Buchholz gives them 170 innings at a 3.70 ERA, Lester wins 15 games with an ERA in the neighborhood of 4.00, a healthy Lackey gives them roughly what he gave the Angels in 2009 (11 wins, 3.83 ERA), Doubront regresses slightly, and Haren battles back issues but gives them 30 starts at a slightly-better-than-league-average performance. It's the rotation of an 85-win team.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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