Touching All the Bases

Without an Ace, Red Sox Starting Rotation Doesn't Have the Right Stuff

Jim Davis / Globe File

Considering that players are just beginning to trickle into Fort Myers to get a jump on preparation for the new season, it's probably foolhardy to even attempt to project what the 2015 Red Sox might be capable of achieving.

It's also impossible to avoid, in part because of the anticipation of getting a first look at this remodeled Red Sox roster -- but mostly because daydreams of sunnier days are pretty much the only thing keeping us sane in snow-globe hell of a winter.

When I look over the Olynyk-sized mound of snow in my driveway and squint in an attempt to see the far-off green Fenway in the great distance, here's what I see:

A roster that as currently constructed is designed to win in the same way the Baltimore Orioles did a season ago. Baltimore mashed, leading the majors with 211 homers, 25 more than MLB runner-up Colorado and 34 more than AL runner-up Toronto.

It is surprising to discover that the Orioles, seemingly committed to and benefiting from the old Earl Weaver formula of a three-run homer followed by two walks and another three-run homer, finished just sixth in the AL in runs scored (705).

They allowed just 593 runs, however, with a stout bullpen led by closer Zach Britton and a rotation that made up for the lack of a genuine ace by using five starters who by the measure of adjusted ERA rated between 5 and 19 percent above league average.

The 2015 Red Sox certainly have the lineup to surpass the '14 Orioles' run total. The Red Sox scored 634 runs last season, fewer than every AL team but the Astros, Rays and (snort) Yankees. Two years ago, however, they scored 853, 57 more than any other AL team.

Even with the unpredictability of talented but unproven hitters such as Xander Bogaerts, Rusney Castillo, Mookie Betts, and Christian Vazquez, the return of David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli and the additions of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval suggest an offense that will produce closer to a '13 rate than the '14 disappointment, and one that will almost certainly eclipse the Orioles' totals of a year ago.

I'm convinced they will score plenty of runs. But when it comes to run prevention, at least from the currently ace-free starting rotation, mark me down as a skeptic. Again, consider the '14 Orioles: There wasn't a perceived ace, per se, but Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris combined for 558.1 innings at an ERA of 3.50, with 44 wins in 64 decisions.

I would be pleasantly surprised -- actually, beyond surprised and bordering on shock -- if the '15 Red Sox got that kind of quality combined production from any three of its current projected starters. To put it another way: I don't particularly like Baltimore's rotation. But I might like it better than what the Red Sox end up running out there.

A lot voices I respect are relatively bullish on the state of the Red Sox rotation, which presumably includes newcomers Rick Porcello and Wade Miley, old friend Justin Masterson, and holdovers Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly. There is talent to be found there, sure, and some of that talent will manifest itself into high-quality performance and valuable production. But I do think there is a point where the metrics suggesting that Miley or Porcello could thrive with the Red Sox collides with wishful thinking. And that cannot be ignored.

There are reasons to believe in these guys, sure, individually and as a rotation. Porcello, a six-year veteran entering his age-26 season, does seem to be ascending into a top of the rotation starter. Miley is a workhorse whose K/9 rate rose to a career-high 8.2 last season. Buchholz has had prolonged stretches in which he has been one of the better pitchers in the league. Masterson is one season removed from an All-Star appearance. Kelly throws the hell of the ball.

Individually, they're all interesting. I just don't know how many of them we can count on to be, you know, good. Buchholz, the presumed opening day starter, is as unpredictable as any talented player in baseball. He could make the All-Star team, spend June rehabbing in Fort Myers, pitch a second no-hitter, or slip into a permanent trance in the clubhouse while slathered in Bullfrog sunscreen and none of it would come as a surprise.

I have no idea what to expect from Buchholz. We never do. All I know is that it's foolish to rely on him. He had a 5.34 ERA last year ... and that was a half-run better than lefty-phobe Masterson's ERA, and he's coming off knee problems. Kelly is proof that velocity is nothing but a fancy number without command. Miley had a 4.34 ERA in the NL West last season and is a groundball-reliant lefty who will have the range-challenged Xander Bogaerts behind him at shortstop.

I do believe in Porcello (despite his relatively low K-rate ... and again, why all the groundball pitchers with Bogaerts at short? I'm mystified). He may emerge as a quality No. 2 starter. But his history provides an example of why an ace is necessary for a true contender, which is what the worst-to-first-to-worst Red Sox are aiming to be this season.

During the 2013 postseason, Porcello pitched in two games without recording an out for the Tigers. Sure, he's a superior pitcher now. But Detroit had far better pitchers then, and yet the Red Sox managed to eliminate the Scherzer-Verlander-Sanchez Tigers en route to winning their third World Series title in a decade in large part because they could counter with an ace of their own in Jon Lester as well as a quasi-ace in John Lackey.

When the Red Sox won those championships, they had an ace leading the way, whether it was Curt Schilling in '04, Josh Beckett in '07, or Lester in '13. They do not have a pitcher capable of such feats on the roster at the moment, and if they are serious about contention this year, they are going to have to acquire one.

I respect Ben Cherington's patience. The Phillies price for Cole Hamels -- reportedly Blake Swihart and more -- is too steep, though it is a mild surprise that Ruben Amaro Jr. hasn't asked for Lars Anderson and Ryan Kalish in return given that he apparently last paid attention to anyone's farm system, including his own, five years ago. I want to watch Mookie Betts develop here rather than in, say, Washington.

There is time -- and will be opportunity -- to acquire that rotation front-man during the season. I don't mind the wait-and-see approach. But let's not pretend the solution is already here, either. It's an insult to the Schillings and Martinezes, the Becketts and Lesters, to tell ourselves one of the Red Sox' current starters can be a true ace. We're not even sure if there's a decent Chris Tillman replica in the lot of 'em.

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