By my quick accounting, here is the list of young pitchers who have a reasonable chance of cracking the Red Sox starting rotation at some point in 2015:
Rubby De La Rosa, Matt Barnes, Henry Owens, Anthony Ranaudo, Brandon Workman, Allen Webster, and Brian Johnson. And if you want to include new acquisitions Eduardo Rodriguez and Edwin Escobar -- who rank 10th and 18th respectively on the Sox Prospects Top 20 -- I'm not going to argue, though both will need to do some serious leap-frogging up the list.
Now, we know that this list and their rankings will look entirely different just months from now, that for every promising arm that makes it, one (or two ... or ...) will burn out or fade away. We're all enamored with Owens after his first Triple A start, and justifiably -- he's a terrific prospect who is improving and sharpening his repertoire. But we have no clue what he'll be as a big leaguer, just as we have no clue whether Webster will ever learn to trust his talent, Johnson will continue his ascent, and so on.
All we know right now regarding the Red Sox' collection of young arms is this:
They are set up to make a trade. They almost have to make a trade.
There are opportunities obviously in the big league rotation, but the Red Sox will not go with four kids and the ghost of Clay Buchholz. Even with the certain attrition among supposed pitching prospects, there is organizational redundancy now. They can trade for a top-of-the-rotation starter without draining the farm system to the point that there isn't enough left to go get an elite slugger (if only if I could come up with a name) when one becomes available.
Admittedly, this is an act of pure guestimation at this point, but it's a fun one, and the logic behind it suggests that some of this will play out the way I predict. So here's my best guess at what the Red Sox rotation looks like on Opening Day 2015. I'm curious to hear yours.
1. Cole Hamels
Listen, Jon Lester is not coming back. Farewell notes aren't written by those planning a return, you know? He's recognized the reality: The Red Sox wouldn't pay him the going rate when they were the only team trying to sign him. Why in the world would they have a change of heart (and philosophy) in November when a half-dozen other teams are bidding on him and driving up the price? Instead, they'll pursue perhaps the most reasonable Lester facsimile in the majors in Hamels. He's a lefthander who has an impressive record of success during the regular season and postseason, is all of 11 days Lester's senior, and perhaps most relevantly, has a contract that is tenable at four years and $90 million with a team and vesting option for the fifth year. There's only one significant barrier to acquiring Hamels that I can recognize from here: Someone needs to convince Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. that is team is somewhere between lousy and hopeless. Good luck with that.
2. James Shields
I suppose if the Red Sox do sign him, we'd have to stop mocking him for that Big Game James nickname, right? He's a durable pitcher -- barring the unforeseen, this will be his eighth straight season of 200-plus innings -- and he has the reputation of being a good influence and a staff leader. That's a decent solution as your No. 2 starter, though it's tough to gauge from his stats this year what he will be going forward. He's allowing his most hits per nine innings since 2010, when he had a 5.18 ERA, and his WHIP has risen for the third straight season. Yet his K/BB rate (3.85/1) is his best since 2008. There's some risk here, given he'll be 33 in December, but on a three- or four-year deal, it's probably worth taking. If his agent is smart, though, Shields doesn't sign until Lester and Max Scherzer have accepted their nine-figure deals.
3. Joe Kelly
He's animated, competitive, and gets the most out of his ability, someone who is easy to root for from the first time you see him. But I'm not convinced, based on that career 4.00 FIP in the National League, that he's suited to be anything more than a back-end starter in the American League. I'm putting him here now because of his relative experience, but it wouldn't shock me if one of the young starters surpasses him or he's dealt in a bigger deal over the winter.
4. Anthony Ranaudo/Rubby De La Rosa/Brandon Workman
Whichever one isn't dealt in the winter. If they all remain, my hunch is De La Rosa, with Workman in the bullpen and Ranaudo opening the season in Pawtucket. I can tell you this much: It won't be Webster. He carries himself on the mound like a junior varsity Buchholz.
5. Clay Buchholz
What, you thought you were getting rid of him that easily? It's time to face the truth: He'll still be driving us crazy every fifth day when he's 37 years old, throws 37 miles per hour, and weighs 37 pounds. He began this season as the fifth starter, and he'll do the same next year in one last attempt to get some consistency from the annual enigma.