At a time when the Red Sox are starting to align their team with October in mind, and when Baseball Prospectus gives the team a 100 percent likelihood of reaching the postseason, it's fair to start asking who is likely to be on the roster when October rolls around. Before engaging in the exercise, it's worth noting a few things:
-- Foremost, this is subject to change. Performances will fluctuate between now and the end of the month. Particularly given that the Red Sox bullpen remains imperfectly defined in its structure, there's going to be change in the outlook for who will and will not be on the roster between now and the postseason.
-- The first round of the postseason features two off-days -- after Games 2 and 4. That virtually ensures that the Red Sox -- who carried 10 pitchers rather than 11 in five of their six Division Series since 2003 -- will once again carry 10 pitchers, taking advantage of the extra rest afforded by the schedule.
-- The Red Sox always have carried a pinch-runner in the postseason. You remember Dave Roberts, of course. For that matter, the dual presence of Jacoby Ellsbury and Coco Crisp on the roster in 2008 gave the Sox obvious pinch-running options. But you might not recall as clearly the presence of Joey Gathright (2009), Alejandro Machado (2005) and Adrian Brown (2003) on the postseason roster. But there they were. And so, it seems fair to say: Welcome to October, Quintin Berry.
-- Twice in their last six ALDS appearances, the Red Sox carried three catchers, most notably in 2008, when they had David Ross on the roster in order to given them the flexibility to pinch-hit and pinch-run aggressively with the catching position. It remains fair to wonder whether the team might do the same this October, particularly depending on how Jarrod Saltalamacchia's back responds to playing over the duration of the season.
Let's dive in:
STARTING ROTATION (4)
Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Jake Peavy
This is probably the easiest area to predict. Conceivably, the Sox could go with a three-man rotation and have the Game 1 starter go on three days of rest. The team was prepared to do that in 2009 had it extended the series to a fourth game, turning back to Lester on three days of rest and then asking Josh Beckett to pitch Game 5 on normal (four days') rest. But that was a time when the rotation lacked depth. This year's Sox feature four starters with tremendous pedigree whose performances in 2013 (presuming that Buchholz comes back looking more or less like himself) suggest they belong in the postseason.
So, as of now, a best guess as to how the rotation might align in a best-of-five ALDS:
Game 1: Jon Lester
Game 2: Clay Buchholz
Game 3: John Lackey
Game 4: Jake Peavy
Game 5: Lester
Lester has reasserted himself as the leader of the staff with his tremendous performance since the All-Star break. He has the best ERA (2.53) of anyone on the starting staff by a full run, and he's tied for the team lead with Lackey in innings per start, averaging just over 6 2/3. As the team heads down the stretch, the Opening Day starter is once again the pitcher upon whom the Sox seem likely to rely in a winner-take-all circumstance.
Lester and Lackey are, right now, the rotation pillars. Both have reliably worked deep into games while limiting the opposition. The same has been true of Peavy since the Red Sox acquired him, though with just enough performance fluctuation that Lackey likely would slot ahead of him.
Meanwhile, Buchholz represents an upside bet. The Sox are confident that he can get back to form, but they have something less than certainty that such a thing will occur. He was a constant source of innings before landing on the DL, but whether he re-emerges as that remains to be seen. If there is unpredictability about what he will deliver, then it would make sense to slot him for either Game 2 or Game 4 -- given that the bullpen can be emptied behind him in either game without direct impact on the next day's game.
At the same time, should Buchholz rediscover the magic that characterized his 9-0 record and 1.71 ERA to start the year, he could end up being the Game 1 starter.
Koji Uehara, Craig Breslow, Brandon Workman, Junichi Tazawa, Felix Doubront, Franklin Morales/Allen Webster
Omissions: Ryan Dempster, Matt Thornton, Drake Britton, either Morales or Webster
Uehara, Breslow and Workman are obvious. So is Tazawa, even though his performance has been inconsistent down the stretch. The Sox still have relied on him for key outs with the game on the line, and they seem likely to continue to do so.
Doubront gives the Sox a pitcher capable of both multiple innings and, somewhat unexpectedly, a strike-throwing left-on-left presence. Lefties have hit .242/.305/.335 against him, with a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio that features 42 punchouts (24 percent rate) and 14 walks (8 percent).
Dempster's fit is less obvious. Had he been a shut-down option against righties, he would make a natural fit. But he hasn't been, with a .281/.344/.512 line against them (and a .242/.332/.378 line against lefties). Given that the Sox will have both Workman and likely Doubront for multi-innings duty, Dempster's role is less clear; he seems an imperfect option.
Really, at this point, the last bullpen spot is anyone's guess. Certainly, Matt Thornton was acquired to face key lefties, but lefties are 9-for-25 against him (.360 average, with six strikeouts and no walks) since the Sox landed him. Morales has been more dominant, holding fellow southpaws to a .179/.281/.179 line.
The last spot in the bullpen could depend upon the lineup of the team the Sox will face in the first round. If it's a team heavy on left-handed threats, then Morales or Thornton would seem the relevant choice. If it's heavy with right-handed options, then … well, the Sox don't exactly have a ton of options.
One darkhorse candidate: Webster. The Sox thought he had electrifying stuff in short stints in spring training. (Indeed, he did.) And in Triple-A, right-handed hitters had a line of .160/.266/.250 against him. He is an option with considerable upside if he can prove ready to perform with any consistency in his current call-up.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, David Ross, Ryan Lavarnway
A couple of things favor the possibility of three catchers. First, the questions about Saltalamacchia's health suggest value in further catching depth. Secondly, any of these three catchers might represent players for whom the Sox would want to pinch-run. Third, the splits of Saltalamacchia (despite considerable, noteworthy strides this year against lefties) and Ross suggest that pinch-hitting options might merit consideration. Lavarnway has been putting together consistent at-bats against righties and lefties in a part-time role, suggesting the possibility of asserting himself as a useful role player as a third catcher and pinch-hitter.
DESIGNATED HITTER (1)
Mike Napoli, Dustin Pedroia, Stephen Drew, Will Middlebrooks, Xander Bogaerts
Omissions: John McDonald
The starting four are known. The only real question is whether the team takes the phenom with upside (Bogaerts) or opts for a more conservative approach to protect itself at short, third and second. But given that McDonald has only been summoned into two games since the Sox acquired him, both blowouts, it's fair to ask whether he would have a potential role in the absence of injury. Bogaerts, on the other hand, has a chance to be an impact contributor against tough lefties, and he'd certainly represent a potential pinch-hitting option with a chance to give opposing managers pause about their bullpen moves. And since Bogaerts protects the Sox at short and third, the value of a backup second baseman is limited by a) the fact that Will Middlebrooks has received some exposure to the position and b) Dustin Pedroia might remain on the field even if every bone in his body was broken.
Jacoby Ellsbury, Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava, Mike Carp, Jonny Gomes, Quintin Berry
Omissions: Jackie Bradley Jr.
If, as expected, Ellsbury returns from his non-displaced foot fracture and looks comfortable in doing so, then the Red Sox face few dilemmas in terms of how to align their outfield. Nava, Carp and Gomes have allowed the team to mix and match all year, and both Carp and Gomes have embraced the responsibilities of being ultra-prepared, instant-impact pinch-hitters. Berry, meanwhile, is a virtual lock. The Sox always carry a pinch-runner in October, and who better than Berry, who is 22-for-22 in career stolen base attempts?
If there are questions about Ellsbury's health, then the Sox could consider carrying Bradley and taking a third catcher (Lavarnway) off the roster.