The problem for the Red Sox is that John Lackey has not been alone.
Yes, the big right-hander is having a year that is on the short list of the worst in franchise history. He was battered and bruised (quite literally) by the Rays for five runs in three innings, leaving the game after getting smoked in the shin by a line drive by John Jaso.
With the outing, Lackey has a 6.30 ERA that would rank as the worst ever by a Sox pitcher with at least 25 starts in a single season. Lackey’s ERA suggests that he has been the worst starter in the majors, despite his 12-12 record. He has more games in which he’s allowed five or more runs (10) than quality starts (8).
After suffering the defeat in Boston’s 7-2 loss to the Rays – a loss that allowed the Rays to inch within 5½ games in the wild card race – Lackey acknowledged that the year-long struggles weigh on him.
“It’s not fun. There’s definitely some frustration, banging your head against the wall,” Lackey told reporters. “I’ve done everything I can; it’s just not working out.”
Yet Lackey is merely the poster child for a group of pitchers throughout the organization with ERAs that suggest a string of disastrous results. And that, in turn, suggests that the issues the Sox face could reach far beyond the issue of the rest of the regular season and the composition of the postseason rotation (assuming that the Sox manage to avoid a historic collapse and reach October; despite their horrible 2-7 start to the month, the team is still described by coolstandings.org as having a 96.2 percent likelihood of reaching the playoffs).
Not only has Lackey struggled, but the depth of the rotation for this year and perhaps next has been crushed by injuries and poor performances. As an organization, the Sox appear increasingly to be a team with rotation flaws for 2012 (and possibly beyond), something that raises the possibility that the Sox will have to throw good money after bad this coming offseason.
STRENGTH AT THE TOP FOR 2012
Clearly, there are tremendous building blocks upon which the Sox can build their rotation going forward. Over a four-year span, Jon Lester has emerged as a legitimate ace, one of the most consistently reliable pitchers in the majors.
Josh Beckett – whose spectacular 2.49 ERA at least in part on an unsustainable .242 batting average on balls in play – is unlikely to repeat his career-best 2011 season, but he’s a rotation pillar. While Clay Buchholz has now missed almost three months, his back issue should not prevent him from being a rotation building block in 2012, either.
The problems set in after that.
LACKEY, MATSUZAKA AND THE UNSETTLED BACK END OF THE ROTATION
Lackey is now 57 starts into his Red Sox career. He has a 5.26 ERA (more precisely, a 5.257 ERA). That mark over the past two years is neck and neck with the pitcher whose free agent contract with the Yankees served as the model for Lackey’s deal with the Sox, A.J. Burnett (5.264 since the start of 2010).
For the Red Sox, the worst part of Lackey’s performance is that he should have been at his best over these two seasons. But he is nearing the end of his age 32 season, and the prospective view of his age 33-35 years isn’t terribly promising.
While Lackey had shown some promise during a solid mid-year stretch in July and early August, the improvements in the right-hander’s stuff during that period now appear to be fading. In his last four starts, Lackey is 1-3 with a 7.06 ERA, 13 walks and 11 strikeouts.
There hasn’t been much of a silver lining. The Sox will likely remain committed to him in 2012, just as they remained committed to Daisuke Matsuzaka through multiple years of disappointment until he blew out this year, because they have little choice.
But if Lackey were a pitcher without a pedigree (or, for that matter, a five-year, $82.5 million contract), it is hard to imagine that he would be given the opportunity to continue struggling in the Sox rotation. Put another way: If he were a free agent this offseason, the Sox would be unlikely to treat him as anything more than a buy-low candidate along the lines of the flyer they took in signing Brad Penny to a one-year deal for the 2009 season.
Lackey is anything but a sure thing at this point. That means that, while he will likely remain a member of the rotation to start 2012, it will be even more incumbent on the Sox to have alternatives available if he cannot become at least a solid, reliable back-of-the-rotation option.
Meanwhile, Matsuzaka will not be a part of the plans for the rotation in 2012 after undergoing Tommy John surgery earlier this year. With most of his next next season slated to be dedicated to the rehab process, there will be at least one vacancy in the Sox’ rotation next year.
PRESENT AND FUTURE QUESTION MARKS: WAKEFIELD, MILLER AND BEDARD
Tim Wakefield’s interminable quest for his 200th career victory notwithstanding, he’s been a solid but unspectacular depth option. He has a 6-6 record and 5.03 ERA, following a 2010 campaign in which he was 4-10 with a 5.34 ERA. Those numbers suggest a pitcher who is suited to be a solid insurance option for the rotation, but not one who should be slotted into a blueprint for a rotation.
Entering this season, the 45-year-old suggested that the 2011 season would likely be his last. Even if it is not, it is difficult to envision the Sox offering the free-agent-to-be any sort of role beyond the one in which he started this season.
The Sox appear to have no more answers about Andrew Miller’s future than they did when he was first called up in June. He is 6-3, but with a 5.48 ERA, and he’s walked nearly as many batters (38) as he’s struck out.
The considerable potential of the 26-year-old has been evident in dazzling flashes, but not in any sustained fashion at the major league level. Assuming that he remains with the Sox, he will once again be more a lottery ticket than a certainty – a less-than-ideal option to guarantee a rotation spot.
Bedard has been impressive when on the mound, featuring the sort of strikeout-an-inning stuff that can play in the AL East. But his current health issues (a sore left knee and a lat strain that resulted from his pitching through that injury) have underscored the fragility that has limited him to 52 starts in the last four years.
Like Wakefield, Bedard is a free agent. It remains to be seen whether there is mutual interest in bringing the left-hander back. If he were to re-sign with the Sox, however he, too, would represent a lottery ticket with an uncertain payoff.
A ROUGH YEAR FOR THE PROSPECTS
The Sox have some solid pitching prospects but no options that are clearly ready to step into a major league rotation.
Kyle Weiland made important, meaningful strides in 2011. He showed an arsenal that has convinced the Sox that he can be a major league starter. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen when he will be ready for such a roll on a permanent basis.
The 24-year-old (he turns 25 on Monday) was dominant for Pawtucket in the first half but something short of that in the second half. He finished the minor league season with an 8-10 record, 3.58 ERA, a solid 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings but a pause-inducing 3.9 walks per nine. The latter figure suggests a pitcher who is still learning how to use his full pitch mix, something best accomplished in the minors rather than the majors.
Weiland will start against Tampa Bay on Saturday, but his place in the rotation has been dictated the rash of injuries (initially to Bedard and Beckett, and now to Lackey) that has hit the Sox rotation. Absent those injuries, Weiland would likely be pitching right now for Triple-A Pawtucket in the International League playoffs. There is more grooming to be done before he would represent an ideal option for the Sox rotation.
Felix Doubront tossed 1 1/3 scoreless innings for the Sox on Friday night. But a pitcher who entered 2011 being viewed as either a potential left-handed relief weapon or a solid major league rotation depth option struggled with both injuries and performance this year. He had a 4.22 ERA in 18 games (16 starts) for the PawSox, and he’s logged just 75 innings this year.
When on – and Doubront did have some very impressive stretches for Pawtucket this year – the left-hander features three legitimate big league pitches that suggest a player capable of being a starter. But like Weiland, he might need more seasoning to reach that point.
Moreover, given that he has never thrown more than 129 innings in a season, Doubront’s innings will have to be managed. As a pitcher who is out of options, he might be best suited as a swing man who gets innings in the majors in 2012 as a member of both the rotation and bullpen. Again, he does not represent the sort of certainty that the Sox would seek when drawing up the blueprint of their rotation for next year.
Right-hander Alex Wilson had the most consistent season of any Sox minor league this year, showing steady, solid results in Double-A and Triple-A. But even with the significant strides made by the hard-throwing right-hander, he has made only four starts in Triple-A. His ability to get swings and misses with his fastball and slider – and the need to refine a third pitch – suggest a pitcher who will get more time in Triple-A to determine whether he can ultimately be a starter or if his big league future will be as an impact reliever.
Junichi Tazawa has impressed in his return from Tommy John surgery, moving up to Pawtucket and putting himself in the mix as a potential September call-up after the PawSox’ season ends. However, he has averaged fewer than three innings per appearance as the Sox slowly rebuild his arm strength. It would be nearly impossible to project him as a member of the Red Sox’ big league rotation come April.
Further down in the organization, Stolmy Pimentel entered the 2011 season looking like a pitcher with a chance to make a big league impact in early 2012. Instead, he went 0-9 with a 9.12 ERA in Double-A Portland before being demoted to High-A Salem, where he regained his footing while going 6-4 with a 4.53 ERA.
Also in Salem, Drake Britton sabotaged any visions of a potential fast track to the majors while going 1-9 with a 6.91 ERA. Anthony Ranaudo, viewed as the top pitching prospect in the Sox system, had a solid first year as a pro, but he spent only half the year in High-A, where he went 5-5 with a 4.33 ERA in 16 starts.
The Sox still regard Pimentel, Britton and Ranaudo highly, believing that all three feature tremendous stuff. Even so, for the purposes of the 2012 rotation, they won’t be realistic options.
While Chris Balcom-Miller turned in a better season than his 4.81 ERA in Portland might suggest (the Sea Dogs’ defense was horrific), the 22-year-old (who struck out 8.6 and walked 3.3 batters per nine innings at two levels this year) won’t be a big league option until he receives more minor league seasoning.
In short, the Red Sox system does not feature any starters who are obviously ready to slot into the big league rotation for 2012. It would take something of a leap of faith to go with any of those pitchers.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR 2012
The Red Sox will thus enter next year in an uncertain state similar to what currently prevails.
At the least, the identity of the No. 5 starter remains unsettled. The Sox certainly have candidates who would merit consideration – chiefly Miller, Doubront and Weiland, all of whom are under team control for next year. But while those three represent possible rotation options, none has demonstrated that he is clearly ready for such a role.
Of course, a roll of the dice on a fifth starter would represent a tolerable risk in a world in which Lackey, as a fourth starter, represented at least an approximation of what he was with the Angels. But right now, he doesn’t. Instead, he’s performed at the level of one of the worst pitchers in the majors for two years.
And so, the Sox will face some challenging options this winter. They may feel compelled to jump once again into the very free agent waters that they typically try to avoid, a place where pitchers like Lackey and Burnett (and soon, perhaps, someone like C.J. Wilson) get long-term deals in excess of $16 million per year. Perhaps a hard push for older pitchers who would seek fewer guaranteed years (Mark Buehrle, Roy Oswalt) would prove compelling.
The team could also plunge back into the market for Japanese pitchers, with Yu Darvish expected to be the biggest pitching prospect to be posted since the Sox brought Matsuzaka over following the 2006 season.
Alternately, the team could consider shifting a current member of the big league bullpen – Alfredo Aceves would seem the most likely candidate given his 2.57 ERA in 14 outings of three or more innings, though Daniel Bard has discussed his potential interest in starting – to the rotation.
That proposition, too, would carry risk, but the consequences of disappointment would be less crushing than a long-term deal for a free-agent.
Whatever direction the Sox choose to go in, it is becoming increasingly clear that the struggles of Lackey’s season will be difficult to compartmentalize. As much as his performance has created uncertainty for the Sox going forward in 2011, the impact on seasons to come could be just as far-reaching.