Want to make a Red Sox fan cringe? Mention the last three-fifths of the 2011 rotation. Jon Lester and Josh Beckett were doing good work at the top, combining for a 3.32 ERA over nearly 400 innings, but the other three spots in the rotation just couldn't put together anything resembling competence.
Clay Buchholz was productive, but thanks to what was thought to be a muscle strain and turned out to be a stress fracture in his spine, the righty threw just 82 innings. His fastball never reached the heights it had in 2010, and he was both inconsistent and uncomfortable on the mound before finally landing on the disabled list. Despite this, he still put up a 3.48 ERA and had a better K/BB ratio than in 2010 -- there just wasn't enough of it to make up for what his replacements did.
John Lackey had one of the worst seasons in Red Sox history. He had his excuses -- Lackey underwent Tommy John surgery this off-season, and had a cortisone shot for his elbow back in May -- but those frames can't be erased from the box scores. Tim Wakefield was once again below replacement level for the Red Sox, and also fourth on the team in innings despite starting the year as a long reliever. Daisuke Matsuzaka also ended up going under the knife for Tommy John, but not before exploding in a way that would make supernovae jealous.
Andrew Miller went 6-3 in 2011, but that's a testament to the Red Sox' offense, not his 5.54 ERA and 41 walks in 65 innings. Kyle Weiland had stretches of effectiveness, but generally was a punching bag for his major league opponents after a strong season in Triple-A. Erik Bedard was solid after being acquired at the trade deadline, but took the mound just eight times comprising 38 innings.
This group combined for a 5.66 ERA and 6.38 Run Average over 480 innings pitched. That's basically half the frames the Red Sox got out of their starting pitching for the season, and while that might have cut it for the Rockies more than a decade ago, it's not helping anyone in today's game, where the average ERA is 3.94. The rotation's weaknesses were especially evident in September, when the Red Sox went 7-20 with a 7.08 ERA from starters.
That being said, the 2011 Red Sox missed the playoffs by one game. They were eliminated on the last day of the season, despite more than half of their rotation looking unworthy of their job for even the worst of teams. The shock of September has made it feel like Boston needed to go in to this winter paying whatever price necessary to shore up their rotation, but they haven't -- and probably don't need to.
Buchholz is returning, and was ready to return before the 2011 season ended. Baseball Prospectus's Corey Dawkins, an athletic trainer and sports injury analyst, tells us that, "True stress fractures of the back rarely recur because of an increased focus on mechanics and muscular balance." As Buchholz threw 191 and 177 innings in the two campaigns prior to the stress fracture, that's a potentially huge boost for Boston.
That leaves two rotation spots. One is likely to be filled by Daniel Bard, who was at first expected to take over for the departed Jonathan Papelbon as the closer. Boston's trades for Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon have given them the weapons they need for Bard to get the shot in the rotation he wants, though. Converting a reliever to start is a risk, but Bard was drafted as a starter, and his failures in that role were brief and likely due to the Red Sox changing his mechanics. The mechanics he uses so successfully in relief are the ones that got him drafted in the first place; for all intents and purposes, this is Bard's first professional trial as a starter.
He has the pitches -- a devastating fastball and slider combination, and his change-up, while rarely used, induces plenty of swings-and-misses -- but no one knows if he has the stamina yet. That's a question that will only be answered by throwing him in the role. It's likely, though not guaranteed, given what we know about converting relievers to starters, that Bard is going to be a success for Boston. It's certainly worth the risk of trying.
The last spot has been more of a question, with the Red Sox signing seemingly anyone they could to fill it. Aaron Cook, Carlos Silva, and Vicente Padilla were all brought on board, Andrew Miller was re-signed, and even Triple-A starter Alex Wilson is getting a crack at it this spring. Alfredo Aceves, so important out of the pen last year, might also have a shot.
Cook has dealt with injuries the past few years, but it's been something of a series of unfortunate events for him -- weight loss, a leg broken by a line drive that interrupted off-season workouts, broken fingers in the spring. The cycle just might have ended this winter, as he isn't recovering from anything for once. When healthy, Cook has been an above-average starter despite Coors Field, thanks to extreme groundball tendencies and above-average control.
Padilla missed almost all of 2011 thanks to neck surgery, but spent the winter throwing at his old low-to-mid 90s velocity. He's likely destined for a bullpen role, but should Cook be struck by lightning on a sunny day, or Bard not work out, Padilla is capable of starting; more capable, in fact, than the horseless cavalry Boston trotted out in 2011. Silva throws strikes, and while he would be something like replacement level depth, that's still likely better than what Wakefield and Co. were able to do in 2011. He's also further back on the depth chart than Wakefield was, as he's not guaranteed a job on Opening Day. Matsuzaka will be back as additional depth this summer, and with a brand new UCL in tow.
The Red Sox could use Roy Oswalt in the rotation. But not getting him doesn't signal the end of the 2012 season before it even begins, thanks to the depth they have built up to, at the least, avoid another 2011 situation. New general manager Ben Cherington believes a roster evolves, and if the need arises, Boston will evolve through trades. Until then, though, this iteration of the rotation might do it. Given how terrible the pitching was last year, simply signing competence is a huge upgrade, and they've done that.