BALTIMORE -- For the Red Sox rotation, the present is a question mark and an even more uncertain future looms.
Imagine what this wildly inconsistent Red Sox team might look like without Jon Lester ... or without John Lackey ... or without Jake Peavy. Come 2015, at least in theory, all could be gone. Indeed, even assuming favorable health, none of the five current members of the Red Sox rotation are certain to be starting for the team at this time a year from now.
Lester, Lackey and Peavy are now lined up in an exercise that represents the March of the Pending Free Agents (something that sounds like a Rimsky-Korsakov master work). While Lester and Peavy have a free market potentially looming on the other side of the 2014 season, Lackey remains subject to a 2015 Red Sox team option at the major league minimum -- yet there are still some questions about his future in Boston (more on that in a bit).
Meanwhile, at a time when Felix Doubront and Clay Buchholz are both on the disabled list, the rotation is rounded out by Tuesday night's start Brandon Workman and fellow starter-without-track record Rubby De La Rosa. While both are talented, they are part of a prospect open audition for one or potentially more spots in the Red Sox rotation for 2015 that doesn't have a clear favorite.
While it's easy to look at the Red Sox and identify a pressing short- and long-term need for a bat in the lineup, the team's unsettled pitching staff has considerable implications for how it approaches the trade market. Given the hellacious cost of acquiring pitching in the offseason (there is no "free" in free agency), the fact that the Sox could have multiple rotation vacancies to fill beyond this year suggests that they may be compelled to remain engaged in the trade market for pitchers in the coming months, regardless of where they are in the standings. Much as the team did in acquiring Peavy prior to last year's deadline, the Sox may look to stay ahead of long-term pitching needs between now and July 31.
Of course, that reality of future uncertainty comes at a time when the team's offensive inconsistencies suggest that its hopes for reasserting itself in 2014 are in many ways tethered to the rotation. Given that the Sox are averaging just 4.0 runs per game following Monday's 4-0 loss to the Orioles, the Sox' best bet for making any noise in the AL East may ride on the collective shoulders of Lester, Lackey, Peavy, Clay Buchholz and someone else (whether Felix Doubront or a prospect). Yet the team's rotation formula for future contention is somewhat less clear.
A brief look at the lay of the land for an area of the team that has performed to a 19-24 record and 4.39 ERA (23rd in the majors, 10th in the American League this year):
JON LESTER (6-7, 3.52 ERA, 10.1 K/9, 2.5 BB/9)
Lester's unresolved contract status beyond 2014 leaves the Red Sox in an unsettled position overall with regards to their rotation. If his return was a given, then the Sox would have a front-of-the-rotation foundation going forward -- giving greater leeway to explore less certain solutions at the back of the rotation.
But without a contract in hand, the team has to consider potential contingency plans. So, expect the Red Sox -- regardless of their record and standing in the playoff race -- to be connected to pitchers like Jeff Samardzija as potential insurance for the left-hander's departure.
JOHN LACKEY (7-4, 3.18, 7.8 K/9, 1.7 BB/9)
The other domino.
Technically, Lackey is a free agent after this year. Technically.
He's in the final guaranteed year of the five-year, $82.5 million contract he signed after the 2009 season. Has he spent any time thinking about what the future might hold, what recruiting pitches he might hear come the offseason?
"Probably not, actually. The way I'm pitching now, I'm probably not going to be a free agent," Lackey said recently, referencing the fact that the Sox hold a team option for his services at the major league minimum for 2015 as a result of the fact that he missed all of 2012 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. "It's not something I've really gone that far ahead and thought about. There's a lot of things I'm going to have to think about at the end of the season, the way [the contract is] structured and that sort of thing. So, we'll see."
While Lackey agreed to the contract structure that would potentially have him in line to make rookie money, the right-hander expressed some pause about the idea of actually doing so. He didn't draw lines in the sand, but he also stopped short of saying unequivocally that he would pitch for the Red Sox next year even if it meant doing so at a salary of roughly $500,000.
"I haven't thought that far ahead. Just thinking about pitching right now. It's definitely something I'll have to think about at the end of the season, whether I want to keep going, whether ..." Lackey trailed off. "There will be a lot of things to consider."
Of course, given the level at which Lackey's performed since his return from Tommy John, and his enjoyment of pitching while once again healthy and strong ("I'm having a blast," he said), it's hard to fathom the idea that he'd willingly walk way from pitching after this year.
"Yeah, but, there's things to think about," Lackey said with a laugh.
Given Lackey's performance since the start of 2013 (a 3.41 ERA and perhaps the most reliable performance over that time of any Sox starter), he represents a crucial foundation of Boston's rotation going forward given the uncertainties about Lester. And so while the Red Sox have contractual control over the pitcher for the 2015 season, the right-hander is not without leverage regarding his future.
JAKE PEAVY (1-4, 4.76, 6.9 K/9, 3.4 BB/9)
Peavy didn't pitch poorly on Monday night, making just a few mistakes in the Red Sox' 4-0 loss to the Orioles. But on a team without the ability to produce consistent offense, the right-hander has spent most of the year pitching behind in games thanks to his vulnerability to home runs.
"I've got to keep the ball in the ballpark," he noted matter-of-factly.
Peavy permitted three home runs as part of his four-run yield on Monday night. He's allowed 13 long balls for the year, tied for the most in the American League. That trait -- along with poor run support -- has contributed to the fact that Peavy has left a game with a lead just once all year. He's now 1-4 with a 4.76 ERA.
Does the fact that he has but one victory at this stage of the year trouble him?
"It really doesn't, I promise you. I don't care about my personal won-loss record. I don't care about any personal numbers at this point," said Peavy. "I could care less what my personal won-loss record is. What's grinding on me is the way we're going as a team. That's the hardest part."
While Peavy is willing to live with home runs -- particularly if they are of the solo variety, as they've been on nine of the 13 he's conceded this year -- he's in a division (and pitching most of his games in ballparks) that are unforgiving of mistakes over the plate with his current arsenal.
And so, with free agency looming, there's a growing sense that he is a solid mid-rotation option waiting to happen in the National League -- but not necessarily a candidate to hold off the rising tide of prospects in the Red Sox organization, or, perhaps, a replacement from outside of it.
THE DL GUYS: FELIX DOUBRONT (2-4, 5.12, 6.1 K/9, 3.7 BB/9) AND CLAY BUCHHOLZ (2-4, 7.02, 7.0 K/9, 4.3 BB/9)
In another world, Doubront and Buchholz would have offered the Red Sox a sense of stability regarding the future of their rotation. Instead, their seasons have been glaring question marks to the point where both have been gently demoted to the minor leagues in an attempt to bridge the gap between their abilities and their 2014 performances.
As long as Buchholz can show some semblance of forward movement, he seems all but assured of an ongoing spot in the rotation given his potential Cy Young-caliber upside when he's healthy -- with the caveat that the "when he's healthy" disclaimer suggests that the Red Sox will need a strong depth option behind him.
Doubront, on the other hand, is now in his third year of a fairly underwhelming tenure as a Red Sox starter. He's 24-20 with a 4.47 ERA in 65 starts. After giving the Red Sox roughly 160 innings in both 2012 and 2013, the losing battle his shoulder fought with a car door -- with a multi-start rehab assignment currently in progress that will have Doubront pitching in Pawtucket on Tuesday -- has him trending toward an even lesser workload for 2014.
As such, while Doubront's considerable ability suggests someone around whom the Red Sox would have loved to build for the long haul, the uneven performances he's delivered suggest that he's hardly a cornerstone for the rotation going forward. Any number of outcomes are possible with him: Red Sox rotation member going forward, Red Sox reliever going forward, trade candidate going forward.
THE PROSPECTS: BRANDON WORKMAN (0-0, 4.70, 5.9 K/9, 4.7 BB/9 IN 3 BIG LEAGUE STARTS), RUBBY DE LA ROSA (1-1, 2.84, 9.2 K/9, 1.4 BB/9 IN 2 BIG LEAGUE STARTS), ALLEN WEBSTER, ANTHONY RANAUDO, MATT BARNES, HENRY OWENS
This is a bit of a jumble -- albeit a talented one.
The Red Sox' prospect pool gives them a measure of stabilizing starting depth, but it remains to be seen who from this group of upper levels pitchers separates himself to jump to the front of the line as a potential rotation option as of the start of 2015. (Owens' dazzling performance over multiple years makes a case that it could be him, but given that he has yet to pitch above Double-A, it remains to be seen when he is ready to kick off his big league career.)
While this group is talented enough to address (potentially) multiple rotation vacancies, the Sox have received a fairly stark reminder this year in their lineup about the potential consequences of entrusting too much responsibility to players without track records. The team may have comfort entrusting one rotation spot to a relatively unproven pitcher by the start of 2015, but given the lack of performance certainty of even the most talented pitching prospects, the Sox may find it difficult to commit more than one spot to a player graduating from the minors into a big league rotation. And so, the preference to measure the pace of integrating prospects into the rotation may again push the Red Sox towards the starting pitching trade market.