The Boston Red Sox stayed atop the American League East this weekend, taking two of three from the New York Yankees. The Sox are 60-40, still the best record in the American League. But in the midst of last night’s 8-7 win in extra innings, the questions about Boston’s starting pitching continue to linger. Does this team really have the arms to survive the next two months?
Clay Bucholz was the team’s ace for much of the first half. He went out with a neck injury. First he was supposed to be back just before the All-Star break. Then he was supposed to be back just after. Now it’s pushed back to mid-August and the pitcher is going to see Dr. James Andrews.
Red Sox fans, of which I’m one, have seen this movie with Bucholz before. The same sort of lingering questions followed him throughout 2011, a year in which he never did make it back. The organization has a penchant for secrecy, which I don’t begrudge them, but I can also say that I’m not surprised by this.
Nor do I think anyone should make a mid-August return by Bucholz any kind of certainty. Frankly, I’ll call it a 50-50 on whether he pitches again in 2013. Bucholz has an injury history and since I’m also a Redskins fan, I think my fellow travelers in Red Sox Nation need to treat Bucholz like he’s RG3—we know he’s extremely good, we don’t question his toughness for an instant, but we also see reality in front of us and accept that getting a full year in good health is asking for everything to go right.
Where then, does that leave Boston’s rotation? They rank 3rd in the American League in starters’ ERA, but that’s with a couple months work from Bucholz factored in, and also when Jon Lester was pitching well. The lefty has fallen off the pace badly. Here’s a look at the current Sox rotation…
Jon Lester (4.58 ERA, 20 starts): In spite of the good start, Lester’s numbers are extremely mediocre and that’s being kind. Furthermore, they’re alarmingly similar to last year, when he had a 4.82 ERA. He’s only 29 years old, so it’s not an age issue, but we’re reaching a point where just counting on him to return to his 2008-11 form might be wishful thinking itself.
Ryan Dempster (4.28 ERA, 20 starts): Dempster hasn’t had a really good year since 2008, when he won 17 games for the Chicago Cubs with a sub-3.00 ERA. Otherwise his ERAs have been in the high 3s in what was then a mostly weak-hitting NL Central, and Dempster was tattooed after getting traded to Texas last year. It’s fine if he’s your back-end guy, but not if you’re counting on him for more.
John Lackey (2.95 ERA, 17 starts): The man who was despised by Red Sox fans, myself included for two years, has pretty much saved the rotation. It’s not enough to say he’s found the form that made him one of the American League’s better pitchers with the Los Angeles Angels. Lackey has been even better that. His ERA is a career-low, in spite of the fact AL East parks’ are mostly hitter-friendly, while the AL West is the reverse.
The only concern, and it’s not a small one is this—how long do you expect a 34-year-old to keep performing at a career-best pace?
Felix Doubront (3.76 ERA, 17 starts): It’s Felix’s second year in the rotation at age 25. Last year’s 4.86 ERA in 29 starts for a bad team in a hitters’ park was a respectable breaking-in period. Doubront is definitely a steadying force at the back end of the rotation and maybe could get even better.
That’s an optimistic view of things, but if we’re going to allow that Lackey might slow down because of his age, we have to allow that Doubront can get better as he becomes more experienced. Whether either of these things will happen in the next two-plus months is the bigger question.
Brandon Workman: This is the current replacement for Bucholz and the man on the mound to open a four-game series with second-place Tampa Bay tonight. Workman threw 6 1/3 of no-hit ball in his first outing, but last year in the minors was a mix of starting and relief work for him. And in 2011, he had a 3.71 ERA in 26 starts at the Class A level. If he turns into an effective starter in the majors in 2013, it will be a minor miracle.
It’s easy to lose perspective on a team without context, so let’s do a brief run-through what the starting pitching looks like through the rest of the AL East. Here’s how the other four teams rank in starters’ ERA, within the American League…
Tampa Bay: 5th
NY Yanks: 6th
Let’s throw out the Blue Jays, since they’re 45-52 and not in sniffing distance of the playoffs. The Orioles obviously cannot continue to win at their current rate, but their ace, Wei-Yin Chen is now healthy. The Birds also added a decent back-end starter in Scott Feldman and seen both Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez come on.
Tampa Bay has survived in spite of tough first halves, including injuries, to David Price and Jeremy Hellickson. In the updated playoff predictions I made in TheSportsNotebook’s All-Star week MLB coverage, I took the Rays to win this division on the grounds that both would get better. We should note though, that both were hit hard in Toronto over the weekend even though the Rays still won both games.
And the Yankees’ relative good fortune in the pitching department is overlooked amidst their rash of injuries in the everyday lineup. The trio of C.C. Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettite have been mostly healthy and while Sabathia pitched poorly last night in the Fens, they’ve mostly been pretty good.
THE STATE OF THE RACE
So where does that leave Boston? If things continue at their current rate—Lester looking a middle-to-back end pitcher and no new acquisitions, the Red Sox are going to miss the playoffs entirely. It’s highly likely though, that they will add someone new and I think we’ll see an improved Lester. Just how good the acquisition is, and how improved Lester is will decide if they win the AL East or take a wild-card. I’m projecting the Red Sox as the second wild-card.
It’s a big week ahead in the AL East. After Boston and Tampa finish their four-game set, the Red Sox go to Baltimore, who is 3 ½ games back and in third place. The Rays then go to Yankee Stadium for the weekend. As of today, this division sweeps the wild-card spots.
It’s must-win time for the Yanks, who play four in Texas to start the week. New York is currently seven back in the division race and 3 ½ out in the wild-card push as they wait for Jeter and A-Rod.