COMMENTARY | The Boston Red Sox need to have a good season. Badly. They don't need to win the World Series, or even necessarily make a deep playoff run. But for the die-hard fans who watched as Bobby Valentine made a mockery of their team and hit what they hope was rock bottom, this has got to be a rebound year.
And it all comes down to starting pitching. The 2012 Sox had a lot of problems. Among them: bad team chemistry, a divisive coach, and under-performing stars. But the most important problem was the awful starting pitching. Teams with an overall ERA of 4.70 and a starting pitcher ERA of 5.19 don't make the playoffs.
The Red Sox have attempted to address their other issues. They hired a better coach who will foster a positive clubhouse environment and signed several free agents to fill various needs. On paper, the Sox have an above-average offense and bullpen. The only potentially crippling weakness is the starting rotation. This group's performance will likely decide whether or not the Red Sox are serious contenders this season.
Let's go through the rotation person by person, looking at what they need from each pitcher, and in the case of the five-spot in the rotation, who should get the job.
1. Jon Lester: Lester is clearly Boston's No. 1 pitcher, and that's a bit unsettling. He was not good last year, and needs to regain confidence. The addition of John Farrell as manager, Lester's old pitching coach, is likely to be very helpful. Under Farrell, Lester had some of his best seasons and the two of them will work together closely. Also helpful is the addition of David Ross, a catcher with a reputation for working well with pitchers and a track record of throwing out a high percentage of base runners. Lester needs to be a reasonable top-of-the-rotation guy this year to anchor the staff. An ERA around 3.50 and 200 innings would be an important step in the right direction.
2. Ryan Dempster: I think he'll have more trouble in the American League than he had in the National League. He won't be as bad as he was with Texas at the end of last year, but I don't think we can expect the kind of numbers he had early last season. If he can be a workhorse with an ERA below 4.00, I'd be satisfied.
3. Clay Buchholz: Buch hasn't been consistent. He needs to stay healthy and start the season better. Again, we're not asking for miracles. A healthy year with an ERA below 4.00 would do just fine. The top three starters will all benefit from being managed by a former pitching coach.
4. Felix Doubront: Doubront hasn't given me reason to believe that he will be an above-average starter this season. One encouraging sign is that he started quite well last year and then seemed to wear down. If he can maintain his level further into this season, ending with an ERA between 4.00 and 4.50 is not out of the question.
5. John Lackey/Franklin Morales: As you can see, there are arguments to be made for and against good seasons from each of the first four guys. Most likely, there will be mixed results. The rest of the team is good enough that the rotation only needs to be middle of the pack, not incredible, for the Sox to have a realistic chance of contending. Having above average production out of the No. 5 spot may be enough to swing the starting rotation into that middle-of-the-pack range.
John Lackey, coming off Tommy John surgery, is projected to get this spot, and I don't think he's the right guy. In his two years of pitching for the Sox, he hasn't been good. While he is now healthy, he hasn't given any real indication that he'll produce drastically better results this season. The problem for the Sox is that there aren't a ton of great options to replace him.
That being said, Franklin Morales is the man. I know he has control problems and trouble keeping his pitch count down -- but hear me out. I, like many of you, watched quite a few Sox games last season, including several of Morales' starts. He's clearly talented. He's a hard thrower with relatively high upside and despite his control issues, he generally kept the team in the game. He did fade a bit during his last few starts of the year, but, to be fair, the team was pretty demoralized at that point. Farrell could work with him on pounding the strike zone and maximizing efficiency. He'll never be Cliff Lee, but if he can go a bit deeper in games the bullpen will pick up the slack.
The bottom line is that the Sox need to find pitchers who can keep the team in the game and allow the offense to create victories. John Lackey is an aging, overpaid player with declining production who's coming off a surgery that is notoriously tough on older pitchers. In the tough AL East, every game is going to be crucial and the best move for the team is to give Morales a chance. Either player could have a poor year. The difference is their upside. At best, Lackey avoids being the reason that the Sox don't make the playoffs. At best, Morales could be a high-end fifth starter and those extra few wins from the bottom of the rotation could be the difference in locking up a playoff spot.
In the absence of better options, the Sox should take a chance on a pitcher with real upside, and that's Franklin Morales.
Evan Senie is a lifelong resident of the Boston area.
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