Just a week ago, it would have been hard to envision the Red Sox rotation looking as strong as any in the American League. Yet right now, after a weekend in which Jake Peavy looked outstanding in his Red Sox debut and in which Felix Doubront furthered his case for status as at least a mid-rotation starter, it may be time to revisit skepticism about the Red Sox starting staff.
Peavy delivered seven sharp innings in which he permitted two runs in his first Red Sox start. Since returning from a stint on the DL that resulted from a rib fracture, he has a 3-0 record, 3.60 ERA, 17 strikeouts and just four walks in 20 innings in three starts. Aside from a pair of poor outings while trying to pitch through his injury (in which he permitted 12 runs in 6 1/3 innings), he has a 3.12 ERA this year, a performance that makes a compelling case for his status as a No. 2 or No. 3 starter dating back to the start of his 2012 All-Star campaign with the White Sox.
Peavy's performance is in keeping with his recent track record (rather than his early career stature as a Cy Young winner and one of the most dominant and overpowering pitchers in the game). Doubront, meanwhile, has left his rocky start as a distant speck in his rearview mirror.
Saddled with a 6.40 ERA through May 8 and with lingering concerns that resulted from showing up to spring training in suboptimal shape, Doubront forced questions about whether the clock was ticking on his time as a Sox starter. He was moved briefly to the bullpen and then had a start pushed back for extra bullpen worth in hopes of finding his form. He did.
Starting with an outing in Tampa Bay on May 16, Doubront -- after tossing seven shutout innings in the Sox' 4-0 win over the Diamondbacks on Sunday -- has now gone 15 straight starts without permitting more than three earned runs, the longest such run by a Red Sox stater since Tim Wakefield in 1995. He has a 2.55 ERA during that time while punching out 7.6 batters per nine and trimming his walks to 3.4 per nine, with improved pitch efficiency and control permitting a breakthrough that has seen the 25-year-old pitch into the seventh inning in six of his last seven and seven of his last nine starts. Indeed, over that nine-start span, he's averaging 6 1/3 innings per outing with a 2.02 ERA; opponents have just two homers in that 58-inning stretch.
His arsenal is legit. He generates enough deception and life on his fastball that he can beat opposing lineups primarily with that pitch (of note, 20 of his 25 pitches in his seventh and final inning were heaters), yet he complements it with a full arsenal -- a changeup, curve and cutter -- that has been the basis for excellence. Assuming that the tightness in his right side that promoted a brief visit from team trainer Rick Jaymeson in the seventh inning is a non-issue, there is reason to believe that he can be a rotation building block going forward.
"This guy was behind the eight-ball for a while. We knew it in spring training. It was a matter of his stuff getting sharper, him getting more comfortable in his delivery, and this is what you see," said pitching coach Juan Nieves. "It's not confidence [at the heart of the run]. It's the fact of him being back with his arm strength, being at full throttle like he should have been coming into camp, but unfortunately he was a little bit behind the eight-ball. We knew about it. It's just a matter of him getting physically ready, mentally ready to be at full throttle for the full season."
It's now become scoreboard-watching time in the pennant races, with the Sox having 49 games remaining on their schedule. The team owns a one-game lead in the AL East, while possessing a 5 1/2 game advantage on the top team currently on the outside looking in at the postseason (the Rangers, who are currently a half-game behind Cleveland for the second wild card spot).
That being the case, while there are no foregone conclusions regarding the Sox reaching the postseason -- anyone who suggests otherwise experienced some kind of amnesia that blocked out 2011 -- it is interesting to take stock of how the Sox rotation stacks up against its American League competitors should the team reach the postseason. Right now, if Clay Buchholz can return at anything approximating the top-of-the-rotation form he showed for the first two months of the season, the Sox rotation looks like one with the potential to hold its own and at least be competitive with any in the AL.
"Our pitching's been outstanding," said David Ortiz. "You see guys like Doubront tonight coming in and do what they've been doing. We have Peavy last night, you see how Lackey's been pitching. Lester had a rough night the other day, but he has thrown some good games, too. We're missing Buchholz. Hopefully he gets back soon. Pitching is the key to winning."
A team-by-team look at the contenders:
Red Sox -- first in AL East
Starters' ERA: 3.84 (third in AL)
Top four: 3.12 ERA -- Buchholz (1.71), John Lackey (3.23), Doubront (3.26 -- as a starter), Peavy (4.14 on the year)
Fifth starter: Jon Lester (4.52)
Notes: It is amazing to think that Lester might not be in position to lay claim to a spot in the postseason rotation. Yet in terms of consistency, he's clearly behind the aforementioned four starters, so long as the Sox get a healthy Buchholz back. Of course, it was noteworthy that during the just-completed homestand, Red Sox manager John Farrell dampened expectations about the pitcher, noting that the starter coming off the DL might not be the same one who carried a 9-0 record and 1.71 ERA onto it.
Then again, Doubront may be better than his season-long ERA (or at least he has been pitching better than even that impressive 3.26 mark), and Peavy, when healthy, has likewise been better than his 4.14 mark. Meanwhile, given that Lester showed the ability to dominate early this year, he still has a chance to reassert himself and reclaim a place as one of the Sox' top four starters.
While Ryan Dempster (6-8, 4.54 ERA) has been a steady provider of innings while keeping the Sox in the game in most of his outings, he lacks the ceiling to crack the front four.
Athletics -- first in AL West
Starters' ERA: 3.90 (sixth in AL)
Top four: 3.68 -- Bartolo Colon (2.50), A.J. Griffin (3.91), Jarrod Parker (4.02), Tommy Milone (4.39)
Fifth starter: Dan Straily (4.41)
Notes: Colon earned a spot as an All-Star and is pitching like a front-of-the-rotation workhorse who has even thrust himself into early (premature) Cy Young conversations eight years after he claimed the award. But the rest of the A's rotation is little better than league average. Indeed, each of the other A's starters has an ERA+ of less than 100, meaning that all are a tick below league-average.
That said, it is worth noting that Parker is on a run that is comparable to Doubront's. In his last 15 starts, he has a 2.86 ERA while holding opponents to a .188 average (a mark abetted by a .204 batting average on balls in play).
Tigers -- first in AL Central
Starters' ERA: 3.49 (first in AL)
Top four: 3.25 -- Max Scherzer (2.85), Justin Verlander (3.88), Doug Fister (3.52), Anibal Sanchez (2.59)
Fifth starter: Rick Porcello (4.28)
Notes: When Justin Verlander has the fourth-best ERA in a rotation, you're in pretty good shape. Moreover, the Tigers rotation stands to benefit from the acquisition of Jose Iglesias, who has a chance to make a considerable impact on Detroit's infield defense, particularly for a groundball pitcher like Fister.
Verlander does create a bit of an asterisk. In his last 15 starts, he has a 4.97 ERA with a solid but still diminished strikeout rate of 7.9 per nine innings. Still, the Tigers still have a group of dominant arms with swing-and-miss stuff that has allowed its rotation to rank as the best in the AL to date, even with brutal infield defense.
Rays -- first in Wild Card (one game behind Red Sox in AL East)
Starters' ERA: 3.78 (2nd in AL)
Top 4: 3.63 -- David Price (3.36), Matt Moore (3.41), Chris Archer (2.65), Jeremy Hellickson (4.60)
5th starter: Alex Cobb (3.01)
Notes: Price has been utterly dominant in his return from the DL, Hellickson has a 2.66 ERA during his last eight starts and Archer has been outstanding. Moore, of course, was an All-Star, though given that he's on the DL with elbow soreness, it remains to be seen what kind of stuff he brings in his return. The same is true of Cobb, who represents an impressive depth option if he can replicate the form that he showed prior to suffering a concussion. The rotation remains a strength for the Rays, as has been the case for the last six years.
Indians -- second in Wild Card
Starters' ERA: 4.06 (10th in AL)
Top 4: 3.67 -- Justin Masterson (3.33), Ubaldo Jimenez (4.18), Corey Kluber (3.77), Zach McAllister (3.47)
Fifth starter: Scott Kazmir (3.89)
Notes: This is a better and deeper group than one might expect based on name recognition. Still, aside from All-Star Masterson, it's also a group that has mostly been performing at a league average level.
Rangers -- third in Wild Card (0.5 games behind Indians)
Starters' ERA: 4.02 ERA (eighth in AL)
Top four: 3.16 -- Yu Darvish (2.66), Derek Holland (3.02), Matt Garza (3.09), Alexi Ogando (3.26)
Fifth starter: Martin Perez (3.93)
Notes: Ogando started well but has struggled badly since returning from the disabled list. But Darvish, Holland and Garza can stack up against any front three in the league, while Perez has been solid in limited exposure to the big leagues.
Orioles -- fourth in wild card (1.5 games behind Indians)
Starters' ERA: 4.73 (13th in AL)
Top four: 3.78 -- Chris Tillman (3.89), Bud Norris (3.89), Scott Feldman (4.10), Wei-Yin Chen (2.95 ERA)
Fifth starter: Miguel Gonzalez (3.88)
The Orioles' motivation to reinforce their rotation at the trade deadline with the acquisitions of Feldman and Norris becomes clearer in the context of the rest of the league. Still, they added back-end stability than top-of-the-rotation talent, and so it is difficult to say that they have a group that, on paper, can match the Tigers, Rays or Sox. This still looks like a team that is reliant on its lineup and bullpen.
Royals -- fifth in wild card (4.5 games behind Indians)
Starters' ERA: 3.89 ERA (5th in AL)
Top four: 3.30 -- James Shields (3.08), Ervin Santana (2.97), Jeremy Guthrie (4.22), Bruce Chen (1.50 in four starts)
Fifth starter: Wade Davis (5.42)
Notes: Who knew that the ageless Bruce Chen might hold the key to Kansas City's hopes of a playoff spot? It is, in a way, mind-blowing that 10 years after getting released by the Sox following a spot start or two in place of Pedro Martinez, his arm remains attached and he's given Kansas City a recent rotation boost.
More significant than Chen, however, have been the Royals' bold offseason moves for Shields and Santana, which have paid off in a big way, giving the team a pair of performers who have been performing as anchors for a rotation. Guthrie has been the Royals' version of Dempster: A steady source of competitive but not dominant innings.
Shields and Santana have been performing at a level that would allow them to compete with the front two of nearly other AL contender, but the rest of the rotation would struggle to stack up (at least over the longer haul -- all rules, of course, go out the window in short series) against the other top teams in the league.
Yankees -- sixth in wild card (4.5 games behind Indians)
Starters' ERA: 4.01 ERA (seventh in AL)
Top four: 3.74 -- CC Sabathia (4.78), Hiroki Kuroda (2.38), Andy Pettitte (4.28), Ivan Nova (3.23)
Fifth starter: Phil Hughes (4.87)
Notes: Kuroda is a marvel at 38, and Nova has been a surprise, but with Sabathia in a year-long struggle that has seen him more vulnerable than ever to home runs while on pace for the highest ERA of his career, it's tough to see the rotation as being strong enough to keep the Yankees in the hunt while their lineup continues to be wrecked by injuries. Still, the fact that New York has hung on this long makes little sense, so it would be a mistake to dismiss the Yankees, even as they face giant, hovering question marks about their direction.